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Executive Perspectives

EXECUTIVE PERSPECTIVE: Sustainable Innovation for the World, SteamaCo

This brief interview is part of Sustainable Innovation for the World, a series produced by Thomson Reuters Sustainability on innovation, either scientific or social, which could help make the world more sustainable.

Featured Innovation: SteamaCo, by Harrison Leaf, CEO of SteamaCo, 2015 Ashden Awards finalist.

How does your innovation help the world?

SteamaCo’s technology turns any solar installation into a utility service more advanced than you can find in most OECD cities. Our customers are off-grid project developers, and their customers can now pre-pay for abundant power and water by mobile phone in remotest Africa and Asia.

Our cloud-enabled smart meter, bitHarvester, switches any number of circuits and pipes on and off remotely, while the project developer watches and controls everything in real time through our cloud software, Steama.

Why did you do it?

If you want to feel alive, start a tech company in Africa. High-tech products don’t usually get along well with rural Africa and Asia. In the places where we operate, electricity is unreliable or unavailable, 3G doesn’t exist and our list of reasonable safety precautions include “protect solar array against kicking by zebra”. SteamaCo brings together a team of people who aren’t afraid of adding “zebra-proof” to their list of required features, if that’s what it takes to connect the world’s 1.6bn unconnected.

Of all the possible why’s behind our work, for us at SteamaCo the sense of purpose runs particularly strongly. 12 months since commercially launching our products, 1,000 homes and businesses depend on us for their power and water. When we get something right – in our strategy, in our code – it improves the delivery of these vital utilities to those who need them most. We watch in real time from SteamaCo HQ as these people tune in for the Sunday afternoon Premier League match or switch on their irrigation pumps. In terms of positive career affirmation, it doesn’t get much better than that.

How did you make an informed decision to invest so much of your time and life in this?

As a young company, our most important decisions are about knowing when to be the same and when to be different.

Be the same: reinventing the wheel costs time; swimming against the tide takes precious resource.
Be different: no industry matures without stratification and cooperation among specialists.

Fortunately, these facts apply to all companies in our space, which creates an opening. Companies that deliver expert engineering, procurement and construction (EPC’s) in the world’s toughest locations must focus on their important and difficult task. Meanwhile, the utility industry in emerging markets requires high technology and service development to evolve from single solar home systems to sophisticated off-grid infrastructure. This doesn’t happen quickly or efficiently if the EPC’s have to develop every wind turbine, water pump and smart meter while developing every project. In our industry, many are doing the steel and solar panels, few are doing intelligent automation. So we faked left and went right.

We knew we were on to something around the time of our strategic pivot in late 2013. We put our smart metering R&D front row centre and outsourced everything else. Within months we had switched on our first three microgrids and secured a deal to develop ten more with project finance from Vulcan Philanthropy. Now our technology runs 30 microgrids and water grids for blue chips across Kenya, Tanzania, Benin and Nepal.

During the continent’s “mobile decade” the mobile industry surprised everyone, taking Africa from 20m fixed line phones in 2000 to 650m mobile subscriptions by 2012. Many believe energy is next. Electricity is the “the backbone of many societies”, 1.3bn people live without electricity worldwide, 600m of those people are in Africa, and electrification is high on the agenda.

What is your next big step?

Without giving too much away, we’re working on building more intelligence into our products, driven by cross-platform data triggers. Something we’re particularly excited about is applying our technology to privatised grid extension – in Kenya for example, 70% of the population live within 1km of the national grid but do not connect.

To do all this, we’ve opened a $3m Series A round. Watch this space.

Get in touch through our website and follow us @Steamaco.

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