“A German guy who does something with energy”: How Torsten Schreiber created Africa GreenTec
ne of the first active members of the German Pirate Party and a cofounder of impact investment platform bettervest, Torsten Schreiber identifies as an activist first and describes himself as permanently in confrontation with the system. Through Africa GreenTec, one of the largest social impact organizations in Europe, he’s improving access to vital resources across Africa.
Africa Green Tec builds decentralized, sustainable microgrids to bring electricity, internet access and clean water to remote and rural communities across Africa. Its main product, the Solartainer, is a sustainable energy hub that can provide cheap, renewable electricity and internet access within hours anywhere in the world.
Torsten shares the story of how Africa GreenTec was created and the challenges he encountered along the way.
How did Africa GreenTec get started?
Africa GreenTec goes back to the birth of my daughter in 2009. Holding this little girl in my arms, I was infected with feelings about what her future will look like. I decided at this point to become a part of the climate change activism movement and today, I am still a strong activist.
In 2009, I was involved in the German Pirate Party as part of the core group here in Frankfurt. I was responsible mostly for the press team and I was also involved in writing the party’s environmental program. There was a lot of hype around us at the time and there was really this feeling that, politically, we could change something.
But in 2012 I became very frustrated and left the party, moving away from swarm politics and into swarm financing. I cofounded bettervest, a crowdfunding platform for renewable energy projects, which nobody had created before. I thought this was a really good solution. With lots of people, you can bring renewable energy to the forefront and really do something about climate change.
In 2014, I was invited to Mali, and this is where the story of Africa GreenTec really begins. The government approached my wife, who was born in Mali, and said, “I hear your husband is a German guy who does something with energy.” They invited me to advise them on how they could modernize their energy production. I was not an expert in international energy solutions, but I had bettervest, so in June 2014 I sat in front of Mali’s energy minister and I presented the crowdfunding platform to him.
The minister just thought I was joking. The idea of a crowdfunded energy platform was very new and I was the pioneer in this idea, so while it is now very successful all across Europe, at the time it was like trying to explain the iPhone to someone who has only ever seen an old Nokia. I asked him if I could see one of the country’s energy facilities, so he called the state energy company, who took me to a 20-MW diesel generator in the capital, Bamako.
It was essentially a huge ship generator that burned 140,000 L of diesel per day, and because Mali has no port, they were driving 20 trucks every day 2,000 km from Senegal. Hearing this was the magic moment for me. It was clear to me that doing something about this was my future, and what I really had to do.
How did you move from there?
After this presentation, we left the ministry. One day, I saw people throwing their waste on the street in protest at the lack of a waste management facility. I asked my wife why Mali didn’t use the waste to produce electricity as we do in Europe and she said that people weren’t aware of this technology. I thought we could stop all diesel transit and build a facility to solve the two problems of waste and energy.
I returned to Germany and began planning a waste-to-energy plant for Bamako. It was a €44 million project and I began approaching investors door-to-door. It was a great project – it was good for the environment, the numbers were sound and it was a solution for two problems, so I didn’t understand why people didn’t want to invest. But every meeting was the same: “Mali is very dangerous, there are terrorists, if we invest forty million and there’s a coup, our investment is gone.”
I visited 20 different investors and at the last meeting, they said the same thing again. After months and months of pitching, I was so upset that I said, “Look, if the government is overthrown, I will take the whole waste-to-energy facility, put it on a truck and bring it back to Senegal.”
This was possible because the logistics planning was based on moving all the generators and equipment in ten 40-ft containers from Senegal. The man I was pitching to was a lawyer and he said, “Oh, that’s very interesting. That’s a mobile asset. If it’s mobile, then it’s very different from a security perspective for investors.” I knew then that if I wanted to raise investment for Mali, I needed to make my asset mobile. So that’s how the Solartainer was born.
Our biggest secret is that we don’t treat people like victims.
How does the Solartainer work?
The idea was to build a containerized, renewable energy solution for Mali at first, just to see if it was possible to finance. It looks like a 40-ft shipping container but it’s like a Transformer. It’s built from scratch by us and can provide a village with clean energy and rapid electrification. It also has ion storage – the same as in a Tesla – so we can also add features like drinking water and wifi. It’s really a whole solution that can help a village to grow.
We put the prototype on the bettervest platform and financed it in 72 hours. It was a massive success because it was the first project we financed in Africa. The first village we deployed in was the birthplace of the president, so he became a patron of the project. Today, the product is really advanced compared to what we had in 2014; with the new Solartainer, we can now generate electricity for more than four thousand people.
What obstacles did you face to scaling the project?
It’s always been financing. We still face so many problems with people who think it could be stopped by terrorism or corruption. But we keep going. Our first funding round saw us look for €164,000 investment and it was difficult. Our actual round now is €82 million. So it’s scaled already and we are, I think, one of the biggest social impact businesses in Europe right now.
Scaling deployment is not a problem because our solution has many advantages. We’re very fast – if the container arrives in the morning, you’ll have electric light in the village by 8 o’clock in the evening because it’s plug-and-play, which is really important when you’re operating in a village that might be 500 km from the nearest big city.
We now have more than 1.2 million fans on Facebook so we have an outstanding reach in the communities, and it’s a great success story that brings people hope. Our biggest secret is that we don’t treat people like victims. For us, the villagers are our partners and our clients. It’s not development aid.
Other projects are 100% subsidized so nobody takes care, they just build their project, get their money and after six months the installation is in disrepair. We don’t donate our units, we operate them with full-time employees and sell electricity. With this money, we pay back the loans. If people pay a fair price for a fair service, they will engage more than if you give them something as a gift.
What advice would you give to people trying to make an impact with their startup to avoid the problems you’ve just described?
There is a whole generation of young people coming out of their master’s programs and looking for their first job. Most of these people are purpose driven – they don’t just want to earn money and buy a car, they want to know that what they do makes sense for the world. It’s a big revolution with this generation.
But it’s not so easy because they see that most of the companies that are hiring are damaging the environment. If you work for a big corporate company, they might pay a good salary but you know that with every hour you work for them, you’re making the problem worse.
So you have to decide: are you purpose-driven or money-driven? Make this decision early on because this will drive all your other decisions later. If you feel inside that you’re purpose-driven, follow this voice. If you are money-driven, it doesn’t mean that you don’t take care, but for us who are purpose-driven, money isn’t the driver. We need it for investing, but we don’t need it for consumption.
I’m extremely purpose-driven. I’m not looking for a new car. For me, my work is about making people secure, in peace, under light. When you switch on the lights in a village at night for the first time, you see children who have never seen electric light dancing like they’re in a trance until five o’clock in the morning. When you see this, you know your purpose.
You have to decide: are you purpose-driven or money-driven? Make this decision early on, because this will drive all your other decisions later.
Why is Africa GreenTec based in Frankfurt?
It’s more of a personal decision. We wanted a place where we could work a little bit like we do in Africa. We are based right now on an old organic farm I bought three years ago. It’s about 10 km outside of Frankfurt. We generate our own electricity, grow our own food and vegetables and produce our own water. It’s in the middle of nature so all of our employees come to work in electric cars from Frankfurt. It’s also great for our investors and stakeholders, who like to come here to visit the container test site.
A version of this article is included in Startup Guide Germany, alongside more founder stories and expert insights. Order your copy now!
Written by Ciaran Daly.
Repackaged by Hazel Boydell.