The guy who turned his failure of electrifying Chad into a social entrepreneurship "success story"

Welcome to 2023 and one of the first “proper” blog posts in a while-I hope more will follow this year!

A few years ago there was a little bit of a hype in #globaldev and #ICT4D circles around the concept of fail festivals” and the notion of openly acknowledging and critically engaging with failed projects.
A German entrepreneur and sustainability influencer on LinkedIn also shared a story of failure, this time from Chad, but it was more in the spirit of praising persistence, not giving up and better-failing-than-not-trying that you often find with viral posts on LinkedIn.
Well, it seems that Torsten Schreiber, the founder & CEO of Africa GreenTec AG and #LinkedInTopVoices #Nachhaltigkeit 2022 influencer blocked me after leaving a critical comment under his recent post on why he had to give up on his dream of electrifying Chad.
Both his post and my reply were in German, so you have to trust my translation.
How it started:

Failure. Retreat. For a social entrepreneur like me it is a tough decision. But reality is not a pony farm and I cannot save the world by myself.

Two years ago, the President of Chad, Idriss Deby, invited me to his country. I was asked to present a sustainable concept to the government of how we could supply the people in Chad with energy and water. Chad has the lowest rate of electrification in the world. Only 4% of rural population have access to sustainable energy supplies.

No sooner said than done. We created an ambitious plan to switch 12 cities from diesel to solar energy and build 300 ImpactSites all over Chad in parallel to establish Chad as a leading country in Africa in the area of renewable energy. A dream came true for me.

No sooner said than done. Together with our team we travelled to Chad in February 2021 and very quickly established our base. We travelled to 20 locations, including the center of Boko Haram and the camps of the United Nations that urgently needed sustainable sources of energy, access to clean water and cooling chains.

People were so thankful and happy about our plans. Even the soldiers in the army were hopeful and open for change. Africa GreenTec created enthusiasm across the country.

The president won his reelection with a big majority in the middle of April 2021 and at the same time a rebel group from Libya marched towards the capital Ndjamena. The president was involved in the fighting and was killed on 20 April 2021. This was a shock that neither we nor the country was able to recover until today.

We had to leave the country within a few hours. But after a few weeks we tried to continue our projects with the military regime and returned to the country under huge dangers. But the country with its clan structures is one of Africa’s biggest challenges. In the end, we did not get the support from the government back, agreed payments did not arrive.

We also failed to secure finance for the projects in Chad because of the political instability. Investors are too afraid of terrorism, corruption and political instability. Despite the fact that we could have saved millions of tones of CO2. We could have enabled hundreds of thousands of people in Chad to a future self-determination and dignity.

It is painful for me to see broken promises to the people in villages, in cities and the supporters of our projects.

The Chad chapter has failed for the time being. We are focussing on other countries. 700 million people in sub-Sahara Africa are waiting for electricity.

I am telling the whole story in my Keynote (in German):




Since there is a character limit on LinkedIn my reply had to be shortened for length and at the same time conveying a certain tone of frustration about these kinds of endeavors:

Well, that’s what happens when you need to turn a “how not to do development cooperation” story into some kind of “success story”. From the white saviour inspired “no sooner said than done” to the lack of knowledge about the political situation and a certain blind sidedness towards an authoritarian regime as well as ignorance of complex political-economic connections you tend to build a “now more than ever” facade to legitimize your engagement. In the end, you leave the country with inflated goals and risky promises to local partners and people-but, sure, this is not defeat, it’s a “learning experience” for the next entrepreneur summit! What’s missing is a short rant about traditional development approaches that have failed over 70 years. In the meantime, you can deliver keynotes on a project that many donors and experts would have criticized right from the start (but they don’t know anything, spend their days chained to a desk or are vacationing on a beach in Kenya…).
My hope is that the next project will be smaller, more participatory, more critical, and self-reflective and I wish as well for a future where many people will have access to sustainable energy.

My non-rant-y addition to my initial reply is:
In all fairness, his 30-minute keynote paints a more nuanced picture with more details about the company's engagement and challenges across several countries in Africa, what he calls “The Dark Side being a Social Entrepreneur”. But as it often happens with such projects other than the company's website and informercials very little information is available on the details of how the funding and operation of mini-grids work across Mali, Niger, Senegal, Chad and Madagascar. 

This is not the first time that I criticise the strategy, approach, and communication of what used to be called DIY aid: There have been crochetingshoes, bras, clean water...and Nick Kristof and Kony, of course...today's Northern- and project-led social entrepreneurship often follows in those footsteps. 

Please don’t promise the people of any country clean water or electricity when this is difficult to set up and maintain.
Talk to recognized #globaldev experts in and outside the country-a
nd don’t turn the failure of your project into some kind of social entrepreneurship hero story where grit and persistence will ultimately lead to success.

Wayan Vota sent in the following comment on 12 January:

As the instigator of ICT4D Fail Festivals, I can tell you that this guy would never present at one of our events. Fail Festivals are about owning the failure and learning from it. His framing is all wrong. He is talking about his success in start up and then others' failure to continue.  He doesn't admit his failure - the first step in learning from it. Then he obviously doesn't learn what he did wrong nor how to do it differently in the future. 

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