Investing in the Future

When in 1995 Nicholas Negroponte, founder of the MIT Media Lab, predicted that soon people would be buying books and newspapers straight over the Internet, Clifford Stoll wrote a critical article. Stoll—an accomplished astronomer with a PhD to his name!—discussed why the internet would fail stating in particular that ecommerce would not work. And oh boy work it did! But that is just one individual who, like many of us, probably does not wield the power to predict the future too well. Organizations can also go wrong: in 1876 Western Union believed that the telephone had too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication and they saw no value in it. KODAK, one of the biggest companies in the world that contributed a lot in the area of photography, went bankrupt in 2012. Their collapse may be partly attributed to their failure to pivot toward the new technologies in photography. As the world was moving to digital photography KODAK was hesitant to change.  These are a few examples of companies and an individual who were unable to see the future value of a technology or innovation. But while some failed to see the immense value that certain technologies would create, others failed to properly estimate the price mankind would have to pay in exchange for enjoying certain technologies.

One of the reasons the human race has advanced so much is that some few individuals imagined a future far different from their present. These individuals then invested in their vision, be it in terms of time, finances, or career. These great innovators could not have possibly thought about every aspect of their technologies. Perhaps to the inventors of just-in-time manufacturing their desire was to make affordable goods and do so with supreme economic efficiency. But this same invention then played a central role in allowing companies to also overproduce, an outcome unintended.

So, as we invest in the future we think both about what good a technology can do as well as what could go wrong with it. This assessment is continuous. We then at times realize that some technologies are generating more harm than good. One such key technology is that of energy generation from fossil fuels. It is a great invention, and we must candidly applaud people who created the requisite extraction and refining technologies as well as the business schemes to make electricity available to paupers and the rich alike. However, as we learn more about how nature works we change our habits to incorporate our latest knowledge. At present it is generally believed that there are better ways of generating electricity that do much less environmental destabilization. The alternatives include renewable energy solutions—technologies that generate electricity from sources that can be replenished and often do much less harm to the biosphere. There is agreement that renewable energy sources are better than non-renewable sources. However, there isn’t always as much agreement as to which renewable energy source is best.  For example, generating energy from solar power is wonderful but perhaps only to an extent. The more people adopt solar power on a large scale, the more materials we would need to make the solar panels and the larger the land needed for these solar farms. These issues could lead to more waste being generated in disposing of solar cells, or potentially land not being available for other uses. Nevertheless, it is through these debates and discussions that as humanity we’re able to devise clever and better solutions. It is when we cease debating the merits and demerits of our technologies that we must worry all the more.

KCHKNA Inc. is based in Africa and is focusing on bringing clean energy to African countries, starting with Malawi. Africa is one of the best places to deploy large scale renewable energy solutions. While is Africa one of the best? First, across most of sub-Saharan Africa there is practically no electricity infrastructure to support a modern industrial economy. The demand is far higher than the supply. So, it is not a question of whether there is demand; rather it is question of whether we can devise a business model that works here. Second, again, across most of sub-Saharan Africa there is practically no electricity infrastructure. This is good because there is then no need to tear down an old functioning system in order to build a newer, more environmental-friendly one—because there isn’t such a system at the moment!

We believe that we need to push more heavily on renewable technologies. We believe that in the long run deploying renewables on a large scale—rather than LED lamps to some forlorn villagers—is more cost-effective especially since across most of Africa the necessary renewable sources such as water, a good amount of sunshine, and waste are readily available. Germany, Japan and other economies that have been traditionally powered by non-renewable sources have taken steps—through policies as well as developing different innovations–to pivot toward clean technologies. Africa on other hand is lucky in that it will not need to pivot; it can start with renewables. KCHKNA aims to spearhead the development of such enabling technologies so that Africa and the world may thrive.