Innovation Lab

How CrossBoundary’s Mini-Grid Innovation Lab Works

How CrossBoundary’s Mini-Grid Innovation Lab Works

Written by Tombo Banda, with data analysis by Charles Sweetland and Miguel Rivera

Governments, development partners, and the private sector are all galvanized behind the global target to achieve universal electrification by 2030. However, the rate of change in energy access is insufficient to meet this goal.

Source: BNEF Mini-grid database, AMDA Benchmarking Report (2020)
Mini-grids are the least cost electrification solution for at least 100 million people across the continent — their rate of deployment needs to increase by ~50% per annum to reach these people in the next eight years.

Radical change is required to identify and scale the innovations required to increase the rate of energy access.

Traditional piloting approaches have not worked to put us on the path to achieving global targets. The Mini-grid Innovation Lab is working with both mini-grid developers and utilities to accelerate achievement of this objective, by trialing new business ideas that drive commercial viability in the field, sharing the results of these experiments with the sector, and scaling those that are high-impact. The Lab has three core pillars that help these big, bold ideas become real: (i) user-centered design, (ii) rapid iteration, and (iii) data-driven focus.

Three core pillars that help the Lab experiment and accelerate achievement of universal electrification by improving the mini-grid business model.
User-centered design saves significant amounts of time and money
User-centered design entails involving and consulting end-users throughout the innovation design process to understand the end-users needs and requirements. Understanding end-user requirements early can prevent both project abandonment and cost overruns. Additionally, getting specifications right the first time can prevent unnecessary corrections — in the software industry the price for recovering an error after implementation is 100 times higher than fixing it before the development is completed.

Companies and organizations ranging from NASA to IKEA have benefited from adopting user-centered design. At the Lab, we use user-centered design to relentlessly drive end-users interests — across customers, developers, utilities, and Governments.

2. Rapid iteration is needed because most innovations fail

A paper published in Nature found “It appears that there is in general an 80% rule. That is 80% of things don’t work”. For example, over 13,000 randomized controlled trials of new products/strategies conducted by Google and Microsoft reported no significant effects in over 80% of cases¹. A study by the European Commission found that 85% of projects financed under the Clean Development Mechanism were actually unlikely to provide additional reductions in carbon emissions.

Since 80% of things don’t work, we need to go through rapid prototyping until we find the 20% of things that do work. At the Lab, rapid iteration allows us to fail fast and learn quickly, tracking towards what will work in the real world.

3. Data allows us to make evidence-based decisions

The Lab collects data from three major sources: remote monitoring data (smart meters and inverters), customer surveys, and developer records (e.g., site economic data). The Lab aggregates this data and then uses exploratory data analysis (EDA) to drill down analyses. Interactive dashboards and visualizations are then created to aid insight generation and prototype decision-making. Finally, data-driven thought leadership publications with sector-wide insights are shared.

To date, the Lab holds Africa’s largest repository of mini-grid data and has a dedicated in-house data analytics team to evaluate the impact of innovations.

The Lab will continue to leverage these three core pillars as we work with developers and utilities to accelerate the rate of energy access provision, and build the grid of the future. Check back for regular updates from CrossBoundary’s Mini-Grid Innovation Lab, supported by The Rockefeller Foundation, UKAID, Shell Foundation, P4G, and DOEN Foundation.


[1] Jim Manzi, Uncontrolled: The Surprising Payoff of Trial-and-Error for Business, Politics, and Society, Perseus Books Group, New York, 2012