Off-Grid Power in Africa
Jodie Wu, the CEO of OffGridBox, shared her insights on the challenges and opportunities involved in providing power and clean water to underserved communities. She emphasized the importance of building relationships to achieve scalability. However, there are some challenges that need to be addressed, such as limited road access, alignment of business models, and capacity building. On the other hand, there are opportunities to explore, like desalination in Kenya and Rwanda’s push for innovation.
OffGridBox is a container that measures 2m x 2m x 2m and uses solar power to provide clean energy and water. By using a solar roof, we can purify water and address the problem of insufficient energy and clean water in underserved areas. The OffGridBox was designed to be quickly deployed anywhere in the world. We can have a box ready for use within four hours, making it an ideal solution for emergencies. This means that in Rwanda, we can take the box to any location and help push the boundaries for the country.
Our company, OffGridBox, has deployed boxes in more than 16 countries, mainly in Rwanda and Tanzania. When I first worked with OffGridBox, I was a consultant, and we deployed 12 boxes in two weeks in Tanzania. The impact was immense because we could provide water to villages that previously didn’t have access. Another contractor dug a borehole, and we used solar pumping to provide the entire village with fresh water. Before, villagers had to travel five kilometres during the dry season to fetch water, which was often unclean. Our services significantly improved the quality of life for these communities.
We cater to two types of customers: institutions and villagers. Institutions rely on us as their technology provider, where we deploy boxes and conduct training. This makes the process speedy and easy, allowing projects to be completed in weeks rather than months or years.
As for our direct service to villagers in Rwanda, we work with women, whom we call our Boxkeepers, to sell services such as welding or powering a health center. Sometimes, we provide lighting kits for the village or ice machines for the fishing industry.
Our services pay for themselves if they generate a $300 monthly gross profit within ten years. While it may require a long-term investment, it also allows us to provide much more affordable technology to many people using one solution. For example, we serve about 4000 people a month from the health center alone.
There’s enough information to determine how much solar radiation is in an area which enables us to take actions like adjusting the angles of our box’s panels so that it’s always facing the sun and also adjusting the battery storage to buffer against conditions like cloudy days in locations such as health centers that need 24/7 power. Ultimately, we can deliver reliable power while saving people in the community as much as $200 in monthly electricity tariffs.
Our Box design addresses a range of sustainable development goals, including pro-poor initiatives, better health through clean water, and education. We’re proud to be running a digital literacy program in one of our partnered schools, giving students access to their computer center. Our partnership with Rwanda’s digital literacy ambassadors has been fantastic. Our boxes are managed by women, whom we call our Boxkeepers. We hire and train women to maintain and operate the boxes, providing them employment opportunities. In some areas, we even offer Wi-Fi services, with the hope that our work will lead to increased income and a positive impact on climate change for the next 20 years. We also have a battery recycling plan in place for when the boxes reach the end of their lifespan.
Focus on Women
We highly recommend prioritizing the funding of women-led projects. When engaging with funders, we often emphasize this preference. While the market may vary depending on the location, we have observed the most success in Tanzania. In a particular village, the women worked together as a team, which allowed them to operate with part-time employees instead of one full-time employee. This approach provided them with scheduling flexibility, enabling them to balance their other responsibilities such as maternity leave, earning extra income, supporting their families, and even taking on leadership positions.
We are currently working on aligning our partners’ funding and identifying villages with sufficient trade and economy to afford our services. However, many communities interested in deploying our Boxes may require more financial activities and often have seasonal incomes, such as during harvests. It can be challenging to make our business model work in these situations.
Unlike in other parts of the world, where wealthy households can purchase and self-manage the Boxes without needing to focus on making a business work, we must exercise patience and concentrate on small amounts of money with significant volumes. We invest time in training and building capacity because even though many of the women we work with are brilliant people, they may still need help finishing high school and using smartphones.
With the right exposure and training, these women become our link to the villages. They are the ones who know the market best and can advise us on how to operate effectively.
Starting a business is never a smooth ride, regardless of the location. However, logistics can pose a significant challenge. Rwanda has an advantage as a small country, allowing you to reach any part within five hours. With our Box, the main logistics challenge is finding a crane truck, especially in areas where they are scarce. Nonetheless, if we know the Box’s destination ahead of time, delivery becomes much easier. Unfortunately, some places do not have roads, making it impossible for OffGridBox to access them. However, most centers have a road leading to them, although during rainy seasons, the journey could take longer, and breakdowns could take days to fix.
There seems to be a significant demand for renewable energy, particularly in Africa. More than half of the continent remains without access to electricity, and people are now moving towards using solar-powered systems to meet their energy needs. This new field is known as productive use leveraging solar energy (PULSE), and it involves using modular solar energy to power high-energy machines like computer labs, maize grinders and welding machines. By replacing diesel generators with solar energy, we can eliminate inefficiencies such as unavailability and inconvenience while also protecting the environment. It’s truly fascinating to see the power of the sun being harnessed in this way.
OffGridBox presents a valuable opportunity as a temporary solution for people who have been waiting for years to be connected to the power grid. We can continue to expand our reach and serve more villages without access to electricity. Many individuals have expressed satisfaction with our affordable and reliable solar energy and are hesitant to switch to traditional power sources. Power overloads are a common issue in many African countries, particularly in urban areas. As a result, even Rwanda is exploring the possibility of energy and solar companies selling excess power back to the grid due to high demand. This raises the question of where the additional power will come from, especially if we strive to minimize our reliance on fossil fuels.
Securing funding can be a hurdle to achieving extensive growth. To scale effectively, it’s essential to establish partnerships with operators in various countries. Each African country and even districts within them are unique, so building trustworthy relationships is crucial for successful scaling. The African business landscape operates based on relationships and trust-building.
In addition, there is a significant opportunity for growth in clinics, and we must explore ways to increase funding for healthcare and education. Establishing sustainable business models in these sectors is also a priority.
One way to increase our impact is by collaborating with government institutions and international organizations. These entities often have budgets that align with our programs, such as our recent project that was funded by USAID under their Power Africa program. We’ve also had success with corporate sponsors who are interested in supporting our Corporate Social Responsibility projects.
If you’re interested in investing, sponsoring a box is a great way to get involved. We can deploy these boxes to communities in need, even if you can’t physically travel to the country. Our technology has been used for agriculture projects in Somalia, and we’ve even facilitated the development of large farms and hotels on islands. With OffGridBox, the possibilities are endless. We work with a variety of clients and offer many different opportunities.
There are many opportunities for delivering modular power to islands. While we have discussed investing in Africa for social impact, there are also many opportunities in tourism and partnerships. Rwanda is a great example of a country pushing innovation and wanting to showcase it to the world. Our health centers there offer the same services as urban hospitals, even though they are located in the middle of villages. This is what OffGridBox aims to achieve.
We are also enthusiastic about our work in Kenya, where we are focusing on desalination. In coastal areas, obtaining drinking water can be a challenge, despite the abundance of water. However, with desalination, we can now extract drinking water from the sea. This is a significant development that will benefit many people.
Investing in Africa requires patience and a long-term commitment. Despite the challenges, the impact of doing business in Africa is enormous and rewarding. Providing services and products often meets a significant need, and it’s gratifying to see people grateful for our offerings. Africa is not behind in technology but rather leapfrogging, with mobile money and electric motorcycles delivering items instantly to homes. Africa is a place of adventure and fantastic opportunity, and embracing it with optimism is essential.