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Jewish Entrepreneur Known as 'Captain Sunshine' Has Surprising Solution to Power Africa

Josh Shepherd : Jan 31, 2018 : Stream.org

"This notion that solar is expensive, that's old thinking. The Holy Grail of energy is in our hands. We are at grid parity today between renewables and conventional power. And the cost of renewables is only going down." -Josef Abramowitz

[Stream.org] On Monday, the Trump Administration announced the U.S. would impose a 30 percent tariff on imported solar panels and washing machines. While some praised the move, many objected. "Tariffs are taxes on families," said Senator Ben Sasse (R-NE). "You don't fix eight years of bad energy policy with bad trade policy." (Photo: A group of children-many orphaned after the Rwandan genocide-surround Josef Abramowitz at the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village near Kigali, Rwanda. His energy firm Gigawatt Global has installed a solar field that benefits the village/Courtesy of Gigawatt Global/via Stream.org)

One longtime Jewish entrepreneur sees this moment as an opportunity. Josef Abramowitz has spent over a decade seeking to develop clean energy solutions that make sense economically. Helping local communities has driven the father of five to give emerging technologies a closer look.

In recent years, his energy firm Gigawatt Global has built solar fields in the U.S. and Africa, with many more in development. A public-private partnership called Power Africa helped pioneer these efforts, which started in the war-torn nation of Rwanda. The Jewish family man began to be called "Captain Sunshine."

Abramowitz contends the cost of solar energy is now comparable to other forms. Willing to answer tough questions, the Boston native who now lives in Israel spoke with The Stream while visiting Washington, DC.

Powering Beyond Poverty

The Stream: What is the mission of the Power Africa initiative?

Josef Abramowitz: There has been a debate for decades: What is the best way to lift nations out of poverty? It used to center on foreign aid intervention, both charity and government aid. Those funds saved a lot of lives and helped a lot of people.

But foreign aid hasn't really been transformative since the Marshall Plan in Europe. The U.S. government, the World Bank and others realized there is actually an unlimited amount of private equity in the world. That's capital looking to make more money. And there's only a limited amount of charity and foreign aid that can be given.

Maybe there's a different way to help nations lift themselves out of poverty by using whatever limited resources we have to de-risk certain markets. Then the private sector can come in with unlimited funding. That's the notion behind Power Africa. It's a leverage play, with a little bit of government dollars to bring in billions in private sector money.

We have to start by looking at jobs, education and health care. Those are the key factors in alleviating poverty. The central element that tends to be missing to advance all of them is electricity. Can you really have good health care without electricity? Can you refrigerate vaccines? Can you really have good education without access to electricity and the internet? And why would you invest in industry when, half the time, there's not any power coming on to the grid?
We need a new way of thinking about lifting nations out of poverty. Access to energy has a transformative effect on African economies. So that's what Power Africa is.

The Stream: How has this initiative changed under the Trump Administration?

Abramowitz: We've seen bipartisan concern around poverty alleviation. Both Bush presidents were very involved with Africa, such as the trade deal that passed and addressing the AIDS epidemic. President Obama sustained and even increased humanitarian efforts. Under the Trump Administration, it's evolved.

The word out of the White House is that President Trump has three priorities for Africa. I'll give you a bit of a scoop from a well-placed source. First, their policies will focus on empowerment of women. That's very interesting and the right thing to do from a development perspective. Second, it is U.S. jobs. They want to prioritize the inclusion of U.S. hardware, consultants and services.

Third, they want to blunt the spread of Islamic jihadism on the continent. Terrorists are trying to relocate from other places where the U.S. has a strong military footprint. They're trying to recruit others to do harm. The Africa policy is centered on those three policy directives.

Changing Lives at Home and Abroad

The Stream: This summer will mark the fifth anniversary of Power Africa. Could you share about your first project in Rwanda and the progress since then?...

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