SunSaluter

Ep 002: Tracking the Sun – SunSaluter – Eden Full

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This interview is part of a podcast series called “Entrepreneurs & Economic Development” talking to entrepreneurs using business and technology to solve problems at the Bottom of the Pyramid. Listen to the interview by clicking play above or read the dialogue below. 

You will learn:

  • How a High School Science fair turned into a lifelong passion
  • Information about the Thiel Fellowship
  • A History of SunSaluter
  • SunSaluter’s Global Expansion into 15+ countries

Mentioned in this interview:

Where to find Eden:

LinkedIn

Twitter: @edenfull

Twitter: @TheSunSaluter

Feel Free to Comment or Connect

Start of Interview

Ryan: Okay, Welcome to the “Entrepreneurs and Economic Development” Podcast Eden and if you could tell us a bit more about SunSaluter that would be fantastic.

Eden: Ya, Thanks for having me on the podcast Ryan. My name is Eden Full and I developed a technology called SunSaluter. SunSaluter is a technology that rotates solar panels without using any electric so that they can optimize their energy collection by up to 30 per cent. Pretty much every single day reliably so that you can get as much juice out of your solar panels as possible and our solar trackers are specifically designed for the developing world because we’ve experienced in our conversations with end users and partners and other customers that they really need to be able to get as much electricity out of those panels as they can. In some of these areas solar panels are still so expensive that it’s actually more cost effective to be implementing a solar tracker or solar rotator on your solar panel rather than buying another solar panel to get the 30% more electricity that you need. We are currently deployed in 15 different countries and counting and we’ve impacted over 6-7000 people all around the world with our technology. Our manufacturing headquarters is based in Bangalore, India where we are doing a lot of prototyping and continued revisions of our designs. I’m really excited that we’ve had an opportunity to build out a team. We’ve had a chance to start collaborating with a lot of really great organizations. We’re actually doing a crowdfunding campaign right now to light up a village in India called Khoiri and basically it’s been great to have the support of a lot of awesome people around the world and if you guys would like to check that out please do. Check out our social media or website at SunSaluter.com.

Ryan: That’s fantastic. My first question is “How does a Canadian from a northern country get involved with a solar project? Where did you get your first interest in solar?

Eden: I started working on solar when I was pretty young. I remember is started out as a science experiment I did when I was nine or 10 years old, and I built a little desktop solar car. For experimentation, just curiosity and I remember after building that I was hooked. You know I though it was really magical, it seemed like magic at the time that you could get electricity all just from the sun. And so over the next few years of my life I’ve had a chance to work on some research projects to develop technologies that I thought would add value to the solar industry.

I was actually at a science fair in high school when I exhibited a very early prototype of the SunSaluter at the time and someone walked up to me and commented, you should totally implement this technology in the developing world. It might actually be a better fit because it’s so simple and the intention was to build a solar rotator that was really cost effective, really easy to maintain. So that anyone no matter if you a five-year-old or a villager in Kenya or a high school student that doesn’t have any formal technical training or you’re an engineer. Any of these people and more should be able to maintain and build and continue to spread the word about the SunSaluter technology.

So I had a chance to travel to Kenya in my freshman summer, so the summer after my first year of university and actually deploy the SunSaluter technology and after that when I realized that there’s was so much work to be done. So much to be done to improve the technology and the implementation. I really felt like I needed to make this a priority so that I could focus my time, full-time on it and really make sure that it went somewhere, because its very easy to do something and then be tempted by the rest of the burdens of your everyday life and not have the project go anywhere. I received a Fellowship called “the Thiel Fellowship”, which gave me the financial support and the mentorship to be able to focus on SunSaluter full time for 2 years away from University. And I had a chance to build out our team and I had a chance to refine our technology during that time. Then after that point I decided I wanted to return to university to continue to build out some of my technical skills. I studied mechanical engineering in University and you know I’ve gone back for what I’ve really been looking for, and now I’m ready to continue my work on SunSaluter and I’m ready to continue to build other interesting projects in a related space.

Ryan: Okay, so I’d like to go back to that high school science fair. I’m curious if you still know that person that mentioned solar tracking in the developing world.

Eden: It was just a bystander so it was someone who was walking by my project at the time but I don’t think they fully recognized or are aware that they’ve probably changed my life in a very profound way. But if I ever see that person again I’ll be sure to let them know.

Ryan: Okay, that’s exactly why I asked, just these random serendipitous moments that can the course of history for thousands of people.

Eden: Ya, I hope so. SunSaluter is still a work in progress so we want to have more and more impact. And I see the potential of this technology has in some of the places that are harder to reach. So I think we still have a lot of work to do, because some of the areas we’ve reached so far have been easier to access.

We have a lot of connections in India and East Africa that have made it possible for us to be there first. But the countries that really need us the most are the countries that are hardest to ship to, where solar panels are really expensive. You know there are fewer partners working there because they are not one of the popular countries to be doing development work in. So, you know we are still actively expanding our operations and we are hopeful we can continue to build this out.

Ryan: I’m curious how the Thiel Fellowship affected SunSaluter? Was it a matter of putting you together with amazing people that that propelled your growth or how did it accelerate your operations?

Eden: The Thiel fellowship definitely provided a platform for me to spread the word about what I was working on. The Thiel Fellowship was also great because it connected me to a lot of interesting mentors and people who have had experience executing on projects before, even though they are not directly relevant.

Another thing is that the Thiel Fellowship did provide financial support to fund some of the early parts of SunSaluter and to also make it possible for a starving college student to work on her life’s passion for two years conscientiously. I’m very grateful to the Thiel Fellowship for everything that they’ve given me. It definitely changed my life, a number of these things changed my life in a very fundamental and very profound way so I’m very grateful.

Ryan: So I’m going to provide links in the show notes but if you could just give a quick snippet of what the Thiel Fellowship is for readers at home. I think it’s a very interesting project that Peter Thiel started.

Eden: Sure, so Peter Thiel is the first investor in Facebook and was one of the founders of PayPal. He’s a very respected member of the Silicon Valley entrepreneurship community. And he had this idea that college is over rated these days, people are just kind of going through the motions and it’s not providing the value that they need, and it’s over priced.

So he developed a fellowship programs to encourage students under the age of 20 whether their current college students or even High school graduates, or even students still in high school. Most of the fellows are within the 16 -19 age range. He gives them a $100,000 stipend. No strings attached, spread out over two years to work on an interesting project that they’re passionate about that has the potential to change the world. The only condition is that you cannot be formally enrolled in educational institution during the time of fellowship. I think it’s a wonderful opportunity because it gives students who might otherwise be stuck in an academic environment or not in an environment that’s conducive to their learning and research and execution abilities. It gives these students a chance to actually try their hand at doing something real. And so in my personal opinion college is what you make of it. For some people they need to go through all of college or some people they don’t need to finish college. For some people they need to get what they want and then leave. And for some people they don’t even need to go to college at all.

So from my perspective I got what I needed out of college, that’s pretty much everything that I needed was the mechanical engineering background. So I’m very grateful for having had the chance to go to college before the Fellowship and I went back to college for a little bit after the fellowship and I think I’m very grateful for this opportunity to see what it’s like inside and outside of academia. I think it’s added to my experience as an inventor, as an engineer in a very substantial way. So I wouldn’t say there’s a one-size-fits-all kind of answer to whether or not college is valuable.

Ryan: Okay, so how does the SunSaluter build their business. You are a solar tracking mechanism but is it a for-profit model? Is it a nonprofit? Is it open source?

Eden: So SunSaluter is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit formally registered in the United States. Our goal as a governing non-profit is to provide a platform and resources for entrepreneurs in some of our local partner areas to build for-profit enterprises locally around our technology so we, as a larger organization are a non-profit but the whole goal is to encourage the development of for-profits. For one of our product lines we do have a goal of open sourcing it’s design. So that even the most remote areas or anyone has a goal or dream of building a SunSaluter would be able to do so.

We do have different iterations of the SunSaluter. So were going to open source the simplest version of it. And the other versions of the SunSaluter for example are designed for larger solar installations were talking KiloWatts here, that design is going to be proprietary and will be primarily reserved for our partners who are interested in developing for-profit enterprises around the technology.

Ryan: Have you guys thought of … I listened to one last week about Embrace and how they have a for-profit and nonprofit. Have you looked at that model as well?

Eden: Ya, that’s pretty much what were doing but the non-profit is based in the US and the for profit is based in our partner countries.

Ryan: Okay, so why Bangalore?

Eden: Basically we had a connection there. We were featured in the “New York Times” a couple year ago and this awesome Indian guy e-mailed me and said “Let’s work on something together” and so we did!

And it turned into pretty much the greatest partnership I have ever experienced. I’m very grateful to both Krishnan and Guru our partners in India, in Bangalore. Who have been so supportive and they’ve really put in a lot of their own time and resources into getting SunSaluter off the ground and this entire project would not be possible without them.

Ryan: And so are you in Karnataka state primarily? Or are you expanding all across India?

Eden: We have deployments all across India and were hoping to develop a manufacturing base in Northern India as well. But I would say at this time our manufacturing operations and some of our local deployments because simply due to logistics it’s a lot easier to just deploy in and around Karnataka.

Ryan: So you where are you currently based?

Eden: Myself personally?

Ryan: Yes

Eden: I live in New York City.

Ryan: So how often do you travel versus what’s the daily life of Eden Full like?

Eden: So I’ve gotten SunSaluter to a point where I am still involved on a daily basis but it’s more of I oversee the vision and the general operations of SunSaluter but I’m not the one involved in the nitty gritty. I definitely realized early on that I’m not always the best at being detail oriented so this is where the amazing talented COO, our COO Jake Schual-Berke he’s fantastic at executing on ideas and really implementing and he’s a very detail oriented guy. Jake is the one that we’ll be in contact every day we’ll be talking strategy everyday but you know he’s the one actually ensures that it gets done. He’s the one connecting with new partners and learning to leverage those partnerships. So that I can focus more on strategy behind the scenes. Thinking about the technology and also thinking about other opportunities inside and outside of SunSaluter that you know we might be able to make a difference. I’m focusing on SunSaluter but I’m also beginning to branch out into other ideas, other technologies that I’d like to develop. That might also have the potential to impact the world. So still a work in progress but having a very supportive team makes all of this possible. Jake and I will usually travel cumulatively to India four or five times a year to ensure that everything is going according to plan but it’s definitely gotten to a point where because we have Guru and Krishnan our Indian partners who are there in India. We definitely don’t need to be making too many frequent trips and also it allows us to devote our time to some of the other partner countries that we want to start working in. We have a couple of partners that want to engage with us. For example in Malawi and we want to slowly be able to devote more time to that project as well.

Ryan: Okay, so going back to the crowdfunding camping that you mentioned at the beginning sort of, what’s the goal coming out of that CrowdFunding campaign and what are you guys… what’s your status right now? How’s it going?

Eden: So we are partnering with an organization called “The Skilled Samaritan Foundation” and so far we’ve already developed five solar microgrids and they charge devices lights, fans and phones for 12 homes in this village Khoiri. And basically this actually saves them four dollars a month because they no longer have to use Kerosene. Four dollars a month doesn’t sound like a big deal for us but for them it makes a huge difference. They’ve been really excited of all of the partners we’ve ever had, they’ve been the most engaged and really see the value of adding more electricity and having the 30% more electricity. So I think we’re really excited to be able to get more systems implemented in Khoiri. And so we are fundraising right now to get that done. Our fundraising goal is $5000 and so far we’ve raised about $1100 and the campaign’s only been going for a couple days so far. So we’re quite excited and definitely, this is our… it has the potential to be our biggest partner. I remember one of the team members that we’d been in contact with at Skilled Samaritan. They wrote us an e-mail and said “We really love SunSaluter, for all of our future deployments we are only going to exclusively put SunSaluter on our solar panels. We want a SunSaluter on every single panel in the future”. The Skilled Samaritan foundation they’ve been a social enterprise in India and they currently work in some villages near Delhi.

So they have the potential to have a lot of impact locally in India and they are run by a local team. This is exactly the kind of partnership that we’ve been wanting to build. We can focus on providing them support to implement the technology but their the one’s that are so excited by what we do, that they can go out there and implement it with us and alongside us while we provide support.

For every $150 that is raised will provide one more system to give light, the ability to charge phones and fans for a home of on average 7 people in a family. Every little bit counts. 150 dollars goes a long way for anyone that’s interested in contributing it would make a world of difference to people who used to use Kerosene but now have the potential to save a lot of money and help their children go to school and study better and have a better quality of life, so that they aren’t inhaling these toxic kerosene fumes.

Ryan: So also, I think I read that it’s a long term initiative. It’s setting up the basics so that they can continue after this crowdfunding campaign ends. Can you comment on that? 

Eden: Exactly. Ya, so like I mentioned 100% of our donations are going towards of the purchase of these 100 Watt solar systems and these solar systems will last for many many years. And more than that it allows us to really prove out that we have this really established partnership with the Skilled Samaritan Foundation.

And they are going to continue to deploy SunSaluters in the villages that they work in near Delhi. What we want to do right now is get enough SunSaluters out there so that we really do reach a tipping point where people realize “Oh, SunSaluters definitely make a difference.” This 30% to 40% more electricity that people can get every single day, at every moment counts for a lot. Imagine being able to charge 30% more of your phone, of your fan, of your light than you could before. I think having a chance to use some of the funds from this fundraiser to prove out how SunSaluter and Skilled Samaritan can work together will allow us to really develop that partnership in the long term so that end users are excited by what we do.

Both of our organizations feel like we have confidence in this relationship, we have confidence in our ability to electrify this village. These donations will go a long way. You chipping in a few dollars  here can have a lasting impact for up to 30 years, which is the anticipated lifespan or expected lifespan of a solar panel. So it can count for alot.

Ryan: Okay, So what what is keeping you busy? You mentioned other projects. What is keeping you busy these days?

Eden: I do spend a part of my time on SunSaluter. The other part is focused on skill development and you know I’m really excited about being able to build technologies that are increasingly complicated technically to solve some of the bigger problems. So, my goal is to get better at three key things that I feel like would make  me a really good engineer. You know there’s mechanical engineering, electrical engineering and being able to program computer systems. So as you know I studied mechanical engineering in University and I’m a decent programmer and I’m becoming a decent electrical engineer. So it’s still a work in progress. But I think giving myself the time and the freedom to develop more skills is going to be very important as I want to develop other technologies that are really making a difference.

Ryan: So social entrepreneurship is very popular right now in universities and with Millennial’s. Is there any advice on skill development you could give 16-year-old Eden Full?

Eden:  I think I would have told myself to even develop more technical skills earlier on. I think for a couple years I got very… I wouldn’t say distracted because it was very necessary but I got side tracked by business partnerships, operations, strategy in deploying and executing on SunSaluter, which took away from my ultimate goal which is to become a better maker, to become a better engineer. And I think it was necessary to get the SunSaluter out there but at the same time it meant that I was focusing less on technical skill development which means I have a lot of catching up to do now.

Ryan: Okay, so if any partners or other solar companies are out there. What does SunSaluter look for … are you guys doing micro-grids above a certain wattage? What is your bread-and-butter?

Eden: SunSaluter’s are most effective on and most economical when their deployed on solar panels that are at least 30 watts. So the bigger your solar panel the better because a SunSaluter will only provide more value and help you generate more electricity.  So we are looking for partners, whether they are businesses or non-profits, social enterprises, individuals, whoever is using a solar panel larger than 30 watts and they are hoping to generate more electricity. The big important thing to emphasize though is that that 30% is going to make a real difference, its a very noticeable increase when it comes to energy generation. So we want to partner with individuals and organizations that really need that extra juice. So they can really appreciate what the SunSaluter provides. Certainly if any of your listeners are interested in collaborating with us on solar home system’s, micro-grids, small deployments, larger deployments. We’d love to talk and feel free to reach out to us.

Ryan: That’s fantastic, and so you also mentioned Malawi as being an expansion country where can we potentially see the SunSaluter coming in the next few years?

Eden: So SunSaluters have been deployed in 15 countries so far. I will list some of them, I’m not sure if I can recall all of them off the top of my head. India, Malawi, the Philippines, Indonesia, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Mexico, Morocco. These are all places that have had SunSaluters deployed. Oh Jamaica and so you know we’re very excited that partners in all of these different places have expressed an interest in our technology. And I think were at a point where we want to continue to build out partnerships with the right people who are seriously committed. So you know expect to see SunSaluters in any of the countries that I just mentioned and possibly… hopefully other countries that I haven’t mentioned.

Ryan: Okay, so you’re fairly young in your achieving lots of success was SunSaluter. What’s your life goal?

Eden: I want to build things that help solve society’s biggest problems. So whether that’s SunSaluter or another project that I’ll be working on in the future. Or even hopefully 20 or 30 projects that I’ll work on in my  entire lifetime, making things and inventing things is kind of my passion and I want to continue developing skills that allow me to do that.

Ryan: So where did you meet your partner’s most of the time, is that through the Clinton Foundation, Skoll any other avenues?

Eden:  I would say that the majority of our partners are people who reached out to us. After  they heard about us through some sort of media. But we do definitely engage with a number of conferences and events that are around social enterprise. Sometimes we meet people via those avenues as well.

Ryan: Okay, so I have one more question and it’s kind of an oddball question. If Bill Clinton came over to dinner, what would you cook him? 

Eden:  Hmm, that’s a good question. It depends where he comes over for dinner. Is he coming over to one of our partners houses in India or he coming to my house in New York?

Ryan: Your house in New York…

Eden: Oh man, I don’t know. I personally do not cook but I really like Indian food so maybe we’ll get Indian food.

Ryan: Okay, so I think that about wraps up the episode and I like to thank you Eden Full and you can find more information on Fetterly.ca. 

Eden: Thanks so much for you time Ryan.

End of Interview 

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Ep 001: Internet & Electricity to Off Grid Communities – BuffaloGrid

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This interview is the first of a new podcast series called “Entrepreneurs & Economic Development” talking to entrepreneurs using business and technology to solve problems at the Bottom of the Pyramid. Listen to the interview by clicking play above or read the dialogue below. 

The following interview was conducted with Daniel Becerra, Managing Director with BuffaloGrid. BuffaloGrid is a UK based company bringing Internet access and electricity to off grid rural communities at the bottom of the pyramid. The company operates in multiple countries and recently released its Internet hotspot feature on new devices. Most companies in the BOP Solar industry are focusing on home systems or mini grids and BuffaloGrid’s approach is truly unique focusing at the shopkeeper level while incorporating Internet services.

You will learn:

  • The history of BuffaloGrid and how they entered the solar energy business.
  • Information about their product, which provides Internet and electricity to rural communities.
  • The difficulties of product development in the Bottom of the Pyramid solar industry.

Mentioned in this interview:

Where to find Daniel:

LinkedIn
Twitter: @BuffaloGrid

Feel Free to Comment or Connect

Start of the interview

 

Ryan: You can kind of start by explaining a little bit more about BuffaloGrid.

Daniel: Right, so Buffalo Grid brings electricity and internet connectivity as a service to the third world. Today’s BuffaloGrid is the result of 3 years of researching in Off-grid communities. I mean, we started the project with a bicycle generator addressing the need of charging mobile phones in rural villages.

One of the first insights we had from the bicycle generator, was that people need access to power and not ownership of inefficient, polluting, or expensive power solutions. When you look at the energy hungry problem you will find lots of companies trying to tackle it but most of them if not all of them, are trying to sell a product to a really low income and of course a price sensitive market. They are facing lots of challenges. To address those challenges: One, they compromise on the quality to make it more affordable, a direct consequence of that is a lack of faith that people have in solar panels so many years they have been buying solar panels that were just downgraded from their original operations and they just break within 6 months and nobody has faith in solar panels in these regions.

The other approach which is gaining more momentum is similar to ours where they buy these products in little instalments with their mobile phones. The locking mechanisms that they put in these products make them more expensive. So they end up paying say 40 dollars for a solar panel that would cost 10. We saw all those issues and we said “Lets just drop the cost barrier to zero, so what we do is provide our equipment for free and provide a service with small charges with mobile phones and lights.

As a consequence when we saw the success of this approach we said we might as well integrate some internet connectivity. One of the very good insight that we got as well was that smartphones are ready to immigrate to this market. But they haven’t done so because two main problems, One lack of power they are power hungry so you still need to charge them everyday and two no one in these markets has a 3G or 4G plan. Without internet and power those smartphones are just very inefficient 2G phones, but if you bring those two things power and connectivity you can enable all those smart phones that are sitting in drawers in the developed world ready to immigrate to these markets. And that’s why mobile phone in the beginning were so successful, in the developed world we have a culture of always getting a new phone, then a new phone, then a new phone. So all these phones end up in these markets and become very affordable.

Smartphones have so many generations now that there are many phones ready to migrate. So what we are really looking forward to is allowing the smartphones to reach these places. Mobile phones are already one of the greatest contributors to economic growth in these regions, the future phone imagine what smartphones will do. That’s what gets us excited it’s the new ecosystem that we can bring to this place.

Ryan: You guys are the first company that I’ve talked to that is incorporating internet into your platform for consumers. I know other companies are using smartphones to essentially sell credits to customers for their locked systems. How is that system set up, are you throwing up a hotspot near your device?

Daniel: Exactly, Exactly. It’s just a hotspot, here’s an easy way to imagine it, in our units there’s an iPhone when you turn the hotspot on. It’s as simple as that, of course it’s quite complex hardware around it, yet its the basic principle.

Within that there are limitations of Hotspotting, at the early stages it’s not about having dozens of users streaming YouTube next to a unit it’s more about enabling other services to reach these remote communities. For instance we are collaborating with a company doing remote medical diagnosis, an unqualified person can take a picture of the patient and then a specialist can see it and come back with a diagnosis. For that we provide the internet, so that the user can send an image to a specialist in a different part of the world or we are collaborating with a company doing remote interactive educational content so a remote school in Rwanda and use our connectivity to download the content that these people are generating. We are using out internet capability to enable other services at this stage but we hope that with more and more usage we can make it stronger and provide better services to the end user.

Ryan: That’s very interesting. So, I’m curious as to what hacks you’ve seen them do, I know a lot of villagers were sharing cell phones in the early mobile days. Are you seeing one merchant set up a smartphone with internet as a part of his business? What are you seeing in the early stages of the internet business in East Africa? 

Daniel: What we’ve seen, we are trying to evangelizing the smartphone, we provide our agent with a unit and a smartphone. That smart phone can connect into the hub and he or she can can show her peers what is possible with the internet. So the person that sees it the next day can go to the market and buy a smartphone and starts to engage. One of the things we want to do is start tracking the data so we are the provider so we can see what’s websites are being used. At the early stages we are putting on limitations on the internet itself, it’s now about steaming Youtube, it’s about enabling Wikipedia, enabling more useful types of services.

Ryan: So have you guys talked to …. they are the only other person or company that I know covering the off-grid internet space is BRCK out of Nairobi.

Daniel: Ya, They have a different approach. We actually met the guys from BRCK a while ago. These guys are entrepreneurs in the cities of Africa, that are working on their laptops with constant power cuts, they were losing the internet every time. With BRCK you bypass this problem and you have constant internet, but it’s a completely different market sector. We are trying to bring the internet to the Bottom of the Pyramid markets. We deploy units where there is no power, where our average end user is earning on average 1-2 dollars a day. Most of these people are just sustainable farmers, it’s a total different market. But we are really keen to enable the internet. The whole inspiration, we started with power as I was telling you and the bicycle and then we’ve entered the service model. I had the opportunity to present at the UN alongside the guys from Google. They were representing their initiative, all about bringing internet connectivity to the Bottom of the Pyramid markets. As the UN already identifies the mobile phone as the biggest contributor to economic growth. The bottom line of that conference is that with internet and power you can pretty much eradicate poverty in the next couple of decades, and that got us really excited and that’s what inspired us to look into how can we enable that internet connectivity.

Ryan: That’s fantastic, I’m curious if the hot spot is always on or if you’ve somehow managed to set it up as a service by buying a chunk of data.

Daniel: I mean, to be honest, we are totally in development. The first units with this internet capability were deployed in India a week ago, we are still doing trial and error kind of approach. At the moment they are always on, but they are communicating with us the performance of the units, we haven’t yet enabled any of the services which we have planned to enable … yet.

Ryan: I did some work in Bihar with Orb Energy a few years ago, I found that there were internet connections in quite a lot of Indian villages. Why did you pick to deploy first in India versus East Africa?

Daniel: Well in India because we got the support of the government. The government invited us, and facilitated a lot of things, and as well the government is our client. Our business model relies on the amount of units we can deploy. So, we will be a very successful company if we are able to deploy 2000 units. And the government said we need you to deploy 5000 units. So all of a sudden, the government has enabled us to scale much quicker. So that’s why India, as well one of the things that we’ve discovered in our process is that setting up things are challenging. When you set up the payment integration system, setting your revenue channels, if you are making a profit in Rwanda getting it to the UK. All those little bits and pieces are challenging.

When you see the off grid market, you see that in essence half of the market is in Sub-Saharan in Africa, and the other half is in India. So you can tackle half of the market in one country with one set up rather than 20 different countries, with 20 different set ups in Sub Saharan Africa. So it was a logistics approach in the early stages, simplifying all the logistics issues.

Ryan: That makes total sense, so has your team pulled out of your Ugandan and Rwandan operations?

Daniel: No, No we are still going and we have really exciting projects in Ethiopia and Malawi that we want to start in Q1/Q2 of next year. And then at the beginning of this year we were in Brazil exploring the Amazon regions, what we believe is that we have a global solution. One of our approaches is that to deploy in many different contexts and environments as possible and prove that our approach is a universal answer to the power needs of the small villages. The basic power needs.

Ryan: Understandable, I’ve seen a lot of companies working with Mobile Carriers. Have you worked with any carriers? You mentioned the government being a main partner. 

Daniel : Ya, it’s always been one of our main goals to engage with a Mobile network, our services would be very beneficial for them. It would increase their revenue potential in these markets but we haven’t managed to engage with any of them yet. Traditionally they are slower movers so they require much more traction than we currently have. As I mentioned before we are still in development, so we don’t have the thousands and thousands of users that other companies have. Until we get some scale we are probably just too small for them to pay much attention. Having said that we are getting so much traction now we have really interesting conversations going with VodaPhone in India and SafariCom in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Ryan: One of the questions I had, When I was working with Off.Grid one of the founders came from a charitable background prior to doing an MBA. That’s how they knew the pain point of the industry. How did your team decide on entering the solar off-grid market?

Daniel: I mean the whole project started with Phil, Phil is a coffee trader. So rather than having an energy approach, it was more of a village approach in Sub-Saharan Africa. He’s the head of a company that has been trading coffee in more than 13 nations across Africa for 150 years. So they have built a massive network of coffee co-operatives who they buy coffee from, and he first hand witnessed the struggles of the farmers to charge their mobile phones. So the initial thought was like “lets build a solution, so we started with a bicycle”. That’s how the project started. At that stage he hired me, my background is in design and engineering. So when I took the bicycles I realized that the need was certainly there but build wasn’t quite right. And we’ve been following the design process for the last 3 years, towards getting the product we have today.

Ryan: So how is the design process unique when operating in markets. You can’t exactly walk out into your backyard and test in the conditions that would replicate say rural Rwanda and talk to customers because you’ll need a translator. It’s all very distant from where you manufacture your prototypes most likely, how do you find you’ve adapted? To that manufacturing cycle. 

Daniel: Well, you need to be in the field, the first time that we had those bicycles we went to Uganda and tested them and identified all the possible problems. Then you go back to the whiteboard and address all the issues that you found, create a new prototype and go back. We’ve been doing that back and forth for the last 3 years. I guess, that’s why it’s been slow. If you were targeting the market that you live in you can iterate much faster. But for us you need to test things in the field.

Ryan: So how have you been getting feedback on your products remotely? Do you use a local team to do focus groups or customer interaction, or do you simply scrape data from your devices to see the usage patterns?

Daniel: Yes, we scrape data from our units and we speak to our local team, so for instance we see a peak in charges. Okay, we charged 50 phones a day in this village… what happened? It was a consequence of a power cut. When a power cut commons along you have too many charges. Then we found another village where we only had 10 charges a day. So what’s happening here, it’s a village that has a population of around 100 families. While in the other villages we have three times the charges because we have three times the size of the village. So we are starting to create our recipe for deployment. It’s a balance of the data we can scape from the unit and the data we can extract from our agents.

For instance, the agents weren’t totally straightforward with us, they were thinking that …telling us …  it was funny because what they thought was better for us… we are doing lots of charges but saw that the data wasn’t quite right. We questioned their input and then you get more accurate responses. It’s a mater of making things more accountable and transparent with your local team and us.

Ryan: That’s interesting. Do you have any stories about your best experience with solar? Is there one moment that stands out in the last three years that you can say “This is why I like to work in this industry”.

Daniel: Well ya, when it comes to that type of anecdote. One of the early insights that helped us develop what we have today is the locking mechanism. And the locking mechanism when you see it now, it’s a response to the lack of trust that you have with the agent but it’s totally the other way around. When we had the bicycles one of the problems we saw was that the bicyles were given to a local entrepreneur and the community is all his friends and family. So when the aunt came along and wanted a mobile phone charge well he knew that she didn’t have much money so he didn’t charge her then her friend wanted one and it’s his friend so he wouldn’t charge her much … So he ended up giving away half the charges for free because they were friends and family and that wasn’t obviously giving him enough money to make a business out of it. So our response is that if you lock those ports and only enable them with a text message, no matter how good intention you are you can’t give away power for free.

Ryan: A lot of businesses are either doing individual units or micro-grids. You guys are in the middle with a unit that services the community. Is there any special needs for that kind of business model?

Daniel: Well, yes, you need networks of trust. You are giving the unit away for free and you want to deploy it in a place where it’s going to be used by the community. Thanks to the coffee connection we are deploying them within coffee cooperatives for instance. Where there’s a captive audience, they know each other and it’s a more close environment. A community.

Ryan: The coffee plantations have a density that’s high enough for deployment. But will that mean you’ll have to expand into more countries, rather than hit saturation in small areas. You’ll need to enter more areas because you aren’t deploying a thousand units in a village, you are deploying maybe 50. 

Daniel: Yes, exactly. There are 20,000 villages that we have access to through our coffee network but those are in 13 countries. So instead of doing 20,000 villages in 1 country, we had to go into 13 countries to deploy this amount of units.

Ryan : My last question is around what do you think are barriers to entry for individuals in the solar business, is it a fairly inclusive community and helpful or is capital limiting, what is the limiting factor to growth?

Daniel: It’s a difficult question, one of the things we’ve discovered in  our experience in the field is that the micro levels. The micro socio economic levels, we found there are so many markets. So I mean we found that the solar industry for rural communities is a very big community of companies. It’s a very collaborative industry, there are one billion people without access to power so there are enough clients for everybody. You will find that they are all targeting a different market. Within the poor people in the bottom billion you will find a socio economical sector where they can afford a 50 dollar micro generator for their houses, and there are companies tackling that market. There’s another micro socio economic level above that, that will be able to afford, a bigger solar panel, that will enable tools/refrigerator and that kind of stuff. There are so many types of markets, that could be addressed and we are addressing the very bottom of the pyramid. Its one that has been neglected because there is not much money to extract from it. We see an opportunity to create an ecosystem, and actually rather than taking the money out of these communities you make profitable by bringing services to these communities. Rather than charging the internet to the local farmer, you charge the internet to the NGO or the company that wants to bring a service to these communities.

Ryan: That makes complete sense. That’s about all the questions I have…

 End of Interview

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If you have any questions for Daniel, BuffaloGrid or for future interviews please place them in the comments section. 

Why innovation in emerging markets trumps a social media dashboards and marketing automation…

Last August I returned to clear blue skies, warm weather and fresh air in Vancouver after 16 months of travel. Our city is consistently ranked on of the most livable in the world and provides amazing food from distant cultures. My goal was to find a technology company that tackles ‘real’ problems in emerging markets, international in scope but locally based.

A year later I now realize that our ‘international’ city is a tourist hub and most businesses with the exception of mining are domestic. Other than two early stage start-ups Arbutus Medical and TwoThirds Water most companies are tackling “1st World problems”, saving seconds on invoicing or integrating with another technology. I love amazing SAAS products, my MAC computer and Nexus 5 phone but after seeing how small technological shifts in East Africa change lives many western start-ups seem trivial. I religiously read about Heads Up Display (HUD) technology, self-driving cars and drone tech but feel my life’s work should be to help the billions of people that don’t have clean water, health care, food and a roof over their heads. It’s hard to develop products for sub-Saharan Africa when your biggest problem is deciding on which sushi restaurant.

Over the last year while working in Vancouver I’ve been trying to stay abreast on new BOP (Bottom of the Pyramid) innovations. One of the major expanding streams is Digital Finance Plus, essentially building cashless businesses around mobile money. In order to find emerging companies and stay up to speed I’ve relied on my network I developed while working and traveling in Africa and South Asia. Unfortunately there is no central media source for the growing BOP industry. Most of the companies listed below I’ve found through Skype calls, e-mails and researching impact investment portfolios. Personally I find a few industries particularly appealing as they are the building blocks for economic growth in the coming decades: Education, Energy, Health and Product Design.

I compiled this post to provide friends within Acumen+Vancouver, attendees of our UBC Start Up Weekend Social Ventures Edition and other individuals an idea of the amazing transformation going on in developing countries with regards to tech and economic development. I’ve provided links to all companies and if you have any questions or comments please post them below.

 

Education:

Bridge International Academies: Affordable education to Kenyan primary students ($7/month), expanding in 2015 to other emerging markets.

Spire: Filling the gap between University education and employer needs with skills upgrades and employee training for corporations. Providing market ready talent.

Awethu Project: A South Africa VC/Business Education program determining top talent by a series of testing, providing them with training funding, mentorship and investing in their new venture.

Energy: ( Solar)

Off.Grid:Electric: Founded in 2012, they are growing aggressively in Tanzania using a Solar-as-a-Service model, renting out equipment at a rate cheaper than Kerosene. I interned with OGE in 2012 and their management team is fantastic.

Fenix International: Fenix uses the solar lease model and is based in Uganda with technology development in San Francisco.

M-Kopa: Kenya’s largest player, they pioneered small home solar systems and recently began selling system to other ‘digital utilities’ growing the industry in new markets.

Angaza Designs: They are focusing on building the payment systems technology to be plugged into other devices and companies. Angaza is a platform that interacts with the mobile networks and is integrated into leased products.

There are several other companies including Persistent Energy Ghana, BBoxx, D.Light, Simpa Networks, and Azuri Technologies.

Health

Medic Mobile: They utilize cell phones to improve health both collecting and pushing information out to save lives.

Riders for Health: Helping manage fleets of vehicles or motorbikes for Health Departments or Large NGOs allowing the doctors or nurses to focus on their job rather than vehicle maintenance. Access to rural communities saves lives.

Living Goods: Education and Micro sales of health products in East Africa.

 

Design

D-Rev: A product design company focusing on the BOP market, their first main project was a affordable knee for amputees.

iDE : An American based organization that works in multiple countries consulting and designing for the BOP market.

Proximity Designs: A Myanmar based organization sells affordable income generating products focused primarily on Myanmar.

CrowdFunding Updates – Early May

During the last two weeks the first “CrowdFunded” investment from a non-accredited investor took place on SeedUps Canada. The brief Globe and Mail article (Click Here) interviews the investor, a mother looking to learn more about her portfolio than the banks were providing. This opens the gates for many opportunities in the industry.

If you are looking to follow the space as it evolves make sure to attend an event. There are a few upcoming Equity CrowdFunding events in Vancouver during the next two to three weeks. View below.
NCFA Event – May 21st

Welcome!!!

Welcome to our consulting blog!

I will be writing about Crowdfunding, Strategy, Emerging markets, and Robotics. My main goal will be to keep clients informed and expand my knowledge in areas of interest. While traveling I write about my adventures on 1yearentrepreneur.com. If you have any recommendations for content please send me a message via the contact us page. Thanks