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Seeking an ‘angel’: African startups face funding challenge

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Ethiopian startup Kubik takes discarded plastic and recycles it into construction blocks, generating less carbon than cement making
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Kubik is proud of its pioneering, climate-friendly technology that recycles one of the world’s environmental curses — plastic waste — into construction blocks.

But for the award-winning Ethiopian startup to achieve liftoff has been no easy task. It has had to fight tooth and nail to raise funds, says its youthful boss.

Kubik takes in bundles of discarded plastic and sorts them into piles. Selected plastics are mixed, melted and combined with additives, and then moulded into the desired shape.

The result: black beams and interlocking blocks which today are being assembled in a pilot project — the building of a daycare centre in the capital Addis Ababa.

The site has no cranes or cement mixer, just a concrete floor on which four workers make a wall by fitting the blocks together like Lego, tapping them with a mallet to ensure a good fit.

There’s no glue or cement.

The beams, bolted together on all four sides of the walls, hold the structure up.

“The idea’s for it to be super simple,” said overseer Hayat Hassen Bedane, a 34-year-old structural engineer.

“You have a manual, and the whole point is to get it done with inexperienced workers, obviously under supervision. 

“You can… build 50 square metres (540 square feet) of a building in just five days, so that’s super fast compared to other forms of construction,” she said.

“We’ve done tests, tension-stress tests and compressive tests, so it’s durable and very strong.”

Speed and the smart use of unwanted plastic aren’t the only benefits. 

The recycling generates just a fifth of the carbon from cement making. If Kubik’s plant processes 45 tonnes of ditched plastic each day, that’s 100,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) averted each year, the company says.

There’s a trickledown socially, too, boosting the country’s many informal waste pickers, many of whom are women.

– Funding challenge –

But Kubik’s CEO, Kidus Asfaw, 36, said he battled to get seed money for his company.

He received a lot of knock-backs from wary investors, he says, before catching a break. 

He has just completed a round of funding for several million dollars to scale up production — a success that coincided with the prestigious AfricaTech award for the company, which boosted visibility.

The Ethiopian previously worked for Google, the World Bank and Unicef after studying in the United States.

He then took the plunge to become an entrepreneur, he said.

“There’s a really large network that I already had within my professional sphere that I could tap into in the beginning,” he told AFP last month in Paris, where he went to pick up the award.

Even so, “having that did not make it any easier” to raise funds. 

“I’ve met over 600 people in two years. Out of those 600 people, about 20 of them have become investors.”

Startups in Africa face myriad hurdles, from laws and regulations and lack of infrastructure to a fragmented continental market.

But funding, in a continent that lacks intrepid individual investors to provide support, is a persistent and major headache.

“There are very few ‘business angels’ in Africa,” said Sergio Pimenta, vice president for Africa at the Societe Financiere Internationale (SFI), a private-sector unit of the World Bank that has just launched a $180-million fund to help provide a financing source.

Out of $415 billion in risk capital deployed around the world, just over one percent — $5.4 billion — goes to Africa, he said.

And of this sum, 80 percent goes to just four countries: South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria and Egypt.

– ‘Bias’ –

Henry Mascot, CEO and founder of Nigerian insurance startup Curacel, a fellow winner of the AfricaTech award, said he floundered when he first tried to raise capital a few years ago.

Africa’s problem, he said, was that Western investors had a “bias” against the unknown.

“They invest in familiarity. They invest with the guy who they play golf with, or the guy who they have a drink with every month. 

“So how do I become that guy? Unless a lot of these investors are starting to spend time on the continent, it will be difficult. It’s just about familiarity, Africa needs to be demystified, because right now it’s a mystery.”

Fabrice Aime Takoumbo, a Cameroonian entrepreneur who cofounded Cinaf, a streaming platform with only African content, said that non-African investors were often deterred by tales of fraud or corruption.

Without timely funding, many African startups withered, he warned.

“You start off with great ideas… (which) fall away as time passes and you realise that you don’t have the means,” he said. 

“Some people simply stop.”

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In Brazil, hopes to use AI to save wildlife from roadkill fate

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Some 475 million vertebrate animals die on Brazilian roads every year
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In Brazil, where about 16 wild animals become roadkill every second, a computer scientist has come up with a futuristic solution to this everyday problem: using AI to alert drivers to their presence.

Direct strikes on the vast South American country’s extensive road network are the top threat to numerous species, forced to live in ever-closer proximity with humans.

According to the Brazilian Center for Road Ecology (CBEE), some 475 million vertebrate animals die on the road every year — mostly smaller species such as capybaras, armadillos and possums.

“It is the biggest direct impact on wildlife today in Brazil,” CBEE coordinator Alex Bager told AFP.

Shocked by the carnage in the world’s most biodiverse country, computer science student Gabriel Souto Ferrante sprung into action.

The 25-year-old started by identifying the five medium- and large-sized species most likely to fall victim to traffic accidents: the puma, the giant anteater, the tapir, the maned wolf and the jaguarundi, a type of wild cat.

Souto, who is pursuing a master’s degree at the University of Sao Paulo (USP), then created a database with thousands of images of these animals, and trained an AI model to recognize them in real time.

Numerous tests followed, and were successful, according to the results of his efforts recently published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Souto collaborated with the USP Institute of Mathematical and Computer Sciences.

For the project to become a reality, Souto said scientists would need “support from the companies that manage the roads,” including access to traffic cameras and “edge computing” devices — hardware that can relay a real-time warning to drivers like some navigation apps do.

There would also need to be input from the road concession companies, “to remove the animal or capture it,” he told AFP.

It is hoped the technology, by reducing wildlife strikes, will also save human lives.

– ‘More roads, more vehicles’- 

Bager said a variety of other strategies to stop the bloodshed on Brazilian roads have failed.

Signage warning drivers to be on the lookout for crossing animals have little influence, he told AFP, leading to a mere three-percent reduction in speed on average.

There are also so-called fauna bridges and tunnels meant to get animals safely from one side of the road to the other, and fences to keep them in — all insufficient to deal with the scope of the problem, according to Bager.

In 2014, he created an app called Urubu with other ecologists, to which thousands of users contributed information, allowing for the identification of roadkill hotspots.

The project helped to create public awareness and even inspired a bill on safe animal crossing and circulation, which is awaiting a vote in Congress. 

A lack of money saw the app being shut down last year, but Bager is intent on having it reactivated.

“We have more and more roads, more vehicles and a number of roadkill animals that likely continues to grow,” he said.

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Honda to build major EV plant in Canada: govt source

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Honda hopes to sell only zero-emission vehicles by 2040, with a goal of going carbon-neutral in its own operations by 2050
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Japanese auto giant Honda will open an electric vehicle plant in eastern Canada, a Canadian government source familiar with the multibillion-dollar project told AFP on Monday.

The federal government as well as the province of Ontario, where the plant will be built, will both provide some financial incentives for the deal, according to the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The official announcement is due Thursday, though Ontario premier Doug Ford hinted at the deal on Monday.

“This week, we’ve landed a new deal. It will be the largest deal in Canadian history. It’ll be double the size of Volkswagen,” he said, referring to a battery plant announced last year, for which the German automaker pledged Can$7 billion (US$5 billion) in investment.

Canada in recent years has been positioning itself as an attractive destination for electric vehicle investment, touting tax incentives, renewable energy access and its rare mineral deposits.

The Honda plant, to be built an hour outside Toronto, in Alliston, will also produce electric-vehicle batteries, joining existing Volkswagen and Stellantis battery plants.

In January, when news of the deal first bubbled up in the Japanese press, the Nikkei newspaper estimated it would be worth Can$14 billion — numbers backed up by Canadian officials recently.

In the federal budget announced last week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government introduced a new business tax credit, granting companies a 10 percent rebate on construction costs for new buildings used in key segments of the electric vehicle supply chain.

Canada’s strategy follows that of the neighboring United States, whose Inflation Reduction Act has provided a host of incentives for green industry.

Honda hopes to sell only zero-emission vehicles by 2040, with a goal of going carbon-neutral in its own operations by 2050.

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Denmark launches its biggest offshore wind farm tender

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Denmark's offshore wind parks currently generate 2.7 gigawatts of electricity
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The Danish Energy Agency on Monday launched its biggest tender for the construction of offshore wind farms, aimed at producing six gigawatts by 2030 — more than double Denmark’s current capacity.

Offshore wind is one of the major sources of green energy that Europe is counting on to decarbonise electricity production and reach its 2050 target of net zero carbon production, but it remains far off the pace needed to hit its targets.

Denmark’s offshore wind parks currently generate 2.7 gigawatts of electricity, with another one GW due in 2027.

The tender covers six sites in four zones in Danish waters: North Sea I, Kattegat, Kriegers Flak II and Hesselo.

“We are pleased that we can now offer the largest offshore wind tender in Denmark to date. This is a massive investment in the green transition,”  Kristoffer Bottzauw, head of the Danish Energy Agency, said in a statement.

Investment in offshore wind plummeted in Europe in 2022 due to supply chain problems, high interest rates and a jump in prices of raw materials, before bouncing back in 2023.

A record 4.2 gigawatts was installed in Europe last year, when a record 30 billion euros in new projects were approved, the trade association WindEurope said in January.

It said it was optimistic about the future of offshore wind in Europe, expecting new offshore wind capacity of around five gigawatts per year for the next three years.

However, it noted that that was still far short of what is needed if Europe wants to hit its 2030 target of 111 gigawatts of offshore wind installed capacity, with less than 20 gigawatts installed at the end of 2023.

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