Strengthening Networks–From the Ground Up

Have you ever searched far and wide for the solution to a serious problem, only to later discover that the answer was “right under your nose” the whole time? In the case of this Eneo innovation project, the surprising solution was found (literally) right under the team’s feet. And the impact of this resourceful solution is improving access to electricity while changing a segment of Cameroon’s entrepreneurial landscape.

This Eneo story of ingenuity begins back in 2017, with a routine field visit. A new regional director in the Northern region of Cameroon was making the rounds, visiting sites and observing infrastructure to gain a better understanding of the main challenges faced by his team and the regional communities they serve; he took stock of the precarious electrical network, the quality of service challenges, and the safety risks to the population due to fallen electrical poles. The wooden poles that carry the electrical lines were a serious concern, regularly ravaged by termites and felled by the violent savanna winds that sweep across the lands – disrupting power and exposing citizens to deadly electrical lines. … As he drove through the region, he noticed the rivers that cut through the dry lands. Leveraging his innate engineering curiosity and problem-solving mindset, the director got out of his vehicle and walked alongside the abundant sand and gravel lining the riverbed near the town of Gashiga. He wondered, “Would it be possible to use these raw materials to build quality concrete electrical poles locally?” The team collected sand and gravel samples, sent them to a testing lab more than a thousand kilometres away, and waited to hear the results. When the tests confirmed the feasibility of the project, the team began the next chapter of the story: they had to build a small concrete pole manufacturing plant in this isolated Northern region.

It wasn’t easy, but they did it. They gathered whatever local materials and expertise they could find to accomplish a myriad of challenging tasks: design and test prototypes, build molds, mix concrete, create steel reinforcements, transport materials and finished goods, install the new concrete poles, etc. From the pilot project undertaken by this small industrial unit, 150 concrete poles were manufactured and installed. The project team’s ingenuity was recognized by the Simply Smart Innovation 2017 competition panel. The team was again recognized in 2018, when they expanded upon the project, adding a few hundred additional concrete poles to support the building of a new power line for the city of Garoua, and to stabilize additional power lines.

This year, the third chapter of the story began. The prototypes were further refined by Eneo’s central Design Office for implementation throughout the entire company and country. However, while it was determined that sources of quality sand and gravel existed in all regions of Cameroon, a local entrepreneurial infrastructure was not yet in place to produce quality concrete poles in sufficient quantities for Eneo to use nationwide. In response, Eneo sourced and mobilized a national network of local partners from various industries including cement factories, steel mills, and production facilities. The Eneo Design Office sets norms and standards for the partners to achieve, provides training where needed, and ensures quality control. The collective of mobilized partners form a virtuous circle of local investment in the production of a value-added product that Eneo no longer needs to import. Local entrepreneurs gain expertise, access a sustainable revenue opportunity, and create jobs. Eneo strengthens its supply chain and electrical network. More citizens have access to safe, reliable power.

By the end of 2019, with the national roll-out of the project underway, some 1,000 new concrete poles will have been manufactured and installed. This number will rise to more than 15,000 in 2020. The Eneo Northern region team of seasoned engineers and young technicians are proud to have accomplished so much together, with such limited resources. They have significantly improved the electrical service quality for some of the communities they serve, they have been the catalyst for positive entrepreneurial economic impact, and they are a “Bright Spot” of inspiration for the transformation underway at Eneo.