Alum of the Month - July 2019

Clara Villain

'I asbolutely love the many challenges of energy access and do not plan on leaving this space anytime soon. There are so many sides to the topic that I haven't explored yet'.
Clara Villain


  • Programme studied: Global Master's in Management
  • Year of Graduation: 2017
  • LinkedIn profile

Alum of the Month for July is Clara. She's currently tackling energy-access challenges in Sub-Saharan Africa.

What’s your current job?

I am currently working as a Business Developer at ENGIE, for the PowerCorner project.

Where have you worked previously?

Before joining ENGIE I had undertaken several internships at SolarAid, Allianz, Taskworld and Faurecia.

Tell us more about ENGIE’s PowerCorner project that you’re currently working on.

In 2016, more than two-thirds of the population of Sub-Saharan Africa (excluding South Africa) had no access to electrical power. In 2019, it’s slightly better – but not by much. About 600 million Africans do not have access to electricity. No lighting in their homes. No ability to refrigerate food or medication. No electricity for cooking, cooling or heating. That’s why, in 2015, ENGIE developed ‘PowerCorner’, a project that aims to provide affordable, reliable and sustainable energy services for rural populations. It does this by developing and installing smart minigrids. These are off-grid systems based on solar-energy in rural villages across Sub-Saharan African. We now have thirteen operating mini-grids in Tanzania and Zambia. Moving forwards we are planning on scaling-up in these two countries as well as opening up more grid systems in other countries.

How is ENGIE’S PowerCorner having an impact on the local communities?           
Providing affordable and reliable access to electricity is incredibly empowering for local communities (pun intended). As part of the team that develops these projects in rural villages, I have seen first-hand the impact that the project has in homes, schools, health centres and businesses.
Having access to energy at home can make a huge difference to a person’s standard of living. Imagine living without a fridge – you have no ability to conserve food so anything fresh would have to be consumed the day of purchase. With electricity all that changes. You also suddenly have reliable light at any time of the day or night (and this is Africa - it’s dark outside from as early as 6.30pm every single day of the year). You can watch TV (the residents of the villages I’ve worked with are big fans of the premier league!), listen to your music on speakers and charge you phone or computer directly from a plug in your living room.
But electricity at home also has health benefits. The impact of exposure to air pollution from fire wood, coal, charcoal or kerosene is massive. Globally, it is estimated that about four million people die annually from illnesses attributable to household air pollution. Cooking is therefore usually done outside, but even then is still extremely smoky and time consuming. With electrical power comes the potential to have a hot plate or electric cooker in the home: that’s a lot of time saved and health benefits provided.
Providing access to electricity also has a huge impact on schools. We install computers, with a specific OS which works without internet access, yet still provides a complete school curriculum and an encyclopaedia. Before that, kids had to look for information in the (scarce) books they could have access to or go to the nearest town, one hour away, to find a cybercafé. Moreover, the school is planning on giving night classes to adults once they master their new computers. Having electricity has meant education improvements for the entire local population.
Health centres are another group that benefit from access to energy. Access to refrigeration to store vaccines and drugs at all times makes centres less dependent on delivery logistics and means they never run out of essential medicines. Access to lighting at any time of night is an incredible amelioration for night emergencies, from a fever crisis to delivering a baby – previously dealt with their phone torches. Finally, connection to the grid also allows access to a whole range of new tools – this time electrical.
Finally, the minigrids have revolutionised life for businesses such as hair salons, bars, carpenters, mechanics, farmers and many more. The possibility of businesses expanding, developing and providing better services now that they have access to power has changed the lives of many business owners. It also means that there is now no need to travel several hours to the nearest town to access the national grid. All utilities are available on site – which slows down rural desertification and encourages working people to stay in the village.

Tell us about your time spent in Chile through CEMS.

I was blown away by Chile and do hope to go back for a couple of years in the near future. Beyond the incredible friendliness of Chileans, I discovered some of the most amazing and contrasting landscapes I have ever seen. You can go from the ice of Cajon del Maipo to the lava of the Villarica volcano; from the coast and its surf spots to Atacama, one of the driest place on Earth; from urban Santiago or Valparaiso to the desolated yet astonishingly beautiful Torres del Paine. I originally went because I wanted to learn Spanish. In the end I learnt Chilenos, which is even better.

What are your aspirations for the future?

I absolutely love the many challenges of energy access and do not plan on leaving this space anytime soon. There are so many sides to the topic that I haven’t explored yet, from financing new innovations, supporting the scale-up of projects, defining the potential application of new technologies, bringing assistance to project design and so many levels to do it from: state-level, MCNs, VC etc. For now, I’m going to continue in this field and try to explore as many different facets as possible. To be fair, there’ll be work to do until everyone has a light, plug and fridge at home, and I do hope to see this day.