Powering Africa's remote communities with renewable, modular energy

Jodie Wu, CEO of OffGridBox speaks about the opportunities and challenges of delivering power and clean water to underserved communities

Image showing Lilongwe river in Malawi, provided by Globhe

  • Building relationships are key to scaling
  • Challenges: Road access, business model alignment, capacity building
  • Opportunities: Desalination in Kenya. Rwanda is pushing innovation

 

OffGridBox

OffGridBox is basically a 2m x 2m x 2m solarized container that provides clean energy as well as clean water. With a solar roof, we purify water and address the issues of lack of energy and clean water in underserved areas. OffGridBox was designed to be deployed as quickly as possible all over the world. We can deploy a box within four hours, and this is especially great for emergency relief. In Rwanda, specifically, it means we can take the box anywhere, and sort of pushing the frontiers for the country.

Operations

We’ve deployed boxes in over 16 countries, with the majority of our boxes in Rwanda and Tanzania. My first experience with OffGridBox was as a consultant, deploying 12 boxes in two weeks in Tanzania. The impact was enormous because we were going to villages that didn’t have water. So, another contractor dug the borehole, and we were solar pumping, to provide the entire village with water. They used to travel five kilometres in the dry season, just to get water and oftentimes, it wasn’t clean. So, this was offering new and improved services in those areas, having a big impact on local communities

 

Affordability

We have two types of customers, one is institutions, where we basically are the technology providers, deploying boxes and doing all the training. So that’s one customer buying our product and deploying it to meet their needs. This is a very fast and easy solution because we can do projects in a matter of weeks, instead of months or years.

The other customer is the villager. In Rwanda we actually directly serve the villagers, with women, whom we call our Boxkeepers, selling services. Those services might be welding or powering a health center, in other cases, we provide lighting kits for the village or ice machines for the fishing industry.
As long as they’re generating $300 a month of gross profit, in 10 years they pay for themselves, so it’s a long-term game, and a long term investment but that also enables us to bring much more affordable technology, because we’re serving many people with one solution, for example in the health centers, were we are serving about 4000 people a month from the health center.

Capacity

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 are able to deliver reliable power while saving people in the community as much as $200 in monthly electricity tariffs.

Impact

There are actually many layers of impact. When we designed the Box, it was really around addressing the sustainable development goals. SDG 1 is about pro-poor, SDG 3 is about better health through clean water, SDG 4 is about education.

We’re actually running a digital literacy program at one of the schools, so we provide the classroom with power, to then have their own computer center. We’re working with the digital literacy ambassadors that Rwanda has which is really amazing. And all of our boxes are actually run by women, whom we call our Boxkeepers. We only hire women for those boxes, and we actually train them to have technical skills so that they can maintain those boxes and run them as their own. So, we provide them with employment, and in some areas where we can get a connection, we also provide Wi-Fi. We do all this in the hope that all of our services lead to increased income, and with climate change, leads to zero footprints from the running of the Box itself for the next 20 years. And of course, we have a battery recycling plan at the end of their lifespan.

 

Focus on Women

We strongly recommend it, oftentimes when we engage with funders, we tell them that we would like women. The market differs everywhere, but where we’ve seen it most successful is in Tanzania. In one of the villages there, they actually had the women operating as a team, so instead of having one full-time employee, they had part-time employees which allowed them the flexibility of scheduling. This method of rotation allowed them to work around their other responsibilities, take maternity leaves, earn extra incomes, support their families and be bosses.

 

Unique challenges

Finding the right alignment for the partners who are funding the Boxes and determining the villages where there’s enough trade and economy to afford the services. A lot of communities where people want to deploy the Box may not have sufficient financial activities and oftentimes, income is very seasonal, like during harvests. So, making the business model work can be quite challenging. Unlike in some other parts of the world where a wealthy household may outrightly acquire and self-manage the Box, and so not have to make a business work.

So, a lot of patience is required in the instances where we work with the communities, and the focus is more on small amounts of money with big volumes than on big amounts of money with small volumes. We spend time in training and building capacity because even though many of the women we work with are brilliant people, they most times have not finished high school and are unable to use smartphones. With the right exposure, they basically become our link to the villages, and they are the people who know the market best and can advise us on how to run things.

Challenges: Aligning partners, optimizing the deployment of the Boxes and building capacity 

Logistics 

Nothing is ever smooth sailing, no matter where you start a business in the world. But in terms of logistics, definitely a challenge. Rwanda is a little bit easier because it is a small country so you can get to every part of the country in five hours. But with our Box, the challenge of logistics is often that we need a crane truck, and that’s not always easy to find in some areas, but if we know where the box is going when we receive it, it’s much easier to deliver at the location.

The other aspect is some of these locations don’t even have roads. So, the OffGridBox, unfortunately, cannot go where there are no roads, but usually, most of the centers have a road going in there. But when it rains, you might get stuck, and what is a 20-minute journey in a place like Canada, could take hours or even days if the vehicle breaks down.

The Challenge of logistics is often that we need a crane truck… some of these locations don’t even have roads.

Scalability

I would say there’s definitely tremendous demand, especially in Africa. Over half of the continent of Africa is unelectrified and you are seeing this huge movement towards renewable energy home systems. There’s this new field called productive-use leveraging solar energy (PULSE), where solar-powered modular energy is used to power the high energy needs of productive units like computer labs, machines that grind maize, and welding machines. So, we are basically replacing the diesel generator and the inefficiencies associated with it including, unavailability, inconvenience and bad for the environment. We are leveraging the power of the sun to move everything and I think it’s also very exciting.

 

Growth

Where I see the biggest opportunity for OffGridBox is that it can act as a stopgap for people waiting years to be connected to the grid. And we can keep pushing this frontier of “Okay, they don’t have power now but when the power comes, we go to the next village that has no power.” Many have said that, when the power comes, they won’t want to switch from solar. They love that it’s affordable and reliable. What happens often in Africa is overloads are very frequent especially in urban areas. So, even Rwanda is now exploring the opportunity for energy companies or solar companies to sell back to the grid, because there’s a big demand for power, which begs the question of where this power will come from, especially if you don’t want to be relying on fossil fuels.

There’s definitely tremendous demand, especially in Africa. Over half of the continent of Africa is unelectrified. And you know what you see is this huge movement towards renewable energies… Africa is developing and it’s developing very quickly

Funding

Funding is always something that holds everyone back, and if we’re going to reach the biggest scale, it’s so important that we find the partners to operate in different countries. When you grow and scale a business, no two African countries are alike, even no two districts within a country are alike. So, building those relationships is the key to scaling. Africa very much operates on relationships and the trust to build on them.

Building those relationships is the key to scaling.

Additionally, we see a huge opportunity especially in clinics, how can we get more money flowing towards health, towards education, and how can we set up sustainable business models with them?

Investments

I think we could work more effectively with government institutions and international organizations, which have budgets for programs that we would fit into. For example, our last project was actually funded by USAID under their Power Africa program. So, that was something that was extremely powerful to bring in. But also, we have boxes being sponsored by companies that are interested in doing Corporate Social Responsibility projects.

So, in terms of investing, sponsoring a box is one way to get involved. If you have a community that you’ve met and that you’re passionate about helping, you don’t even have to go to the country, we’ll go to the country and deploy it, and we go everywhere, we’ve done boxes in Somalia, and we’ve worked with teams who will be using our technology for agriculture, so you can also invest in a big farm, you can invest in a hotel on an island, you can invest in all these different things because OffGridBox enables that. So, there’s so many different clients and so many different opportunities

 

Opportunities

Opportunities also exist in delivering modular power to islands.
We’ve talked a lot about investing in Africa in terms of the social impact side, but I think there are also so many opportunities, such as tourism. There are also so many opportunities for partnership. What’s been beautiful about Rwanda is they want to be the showcase to the world, and they are really, truly pushing innovation. At our health centers, one testimonial was: “We’re in the middle of the village, but you can get every single service that you would get in an urban hospital, right here in the village,” and that’s what OffGridBox is all about.

I’m also very excited about Kenya, actually, we are working on desalination. So now we can get drinking water from the sea. And that’s often quite a challenge in coastal areas, you have all this water, but you have no drinking water.

I’m also very excited about Kenya, actually, we are working on desalination.

Market

I think if you’re going to invest in Africa, you should be in there for the long run. Be patient, expect things to be crazy, but know that the impact of doing business in Africa is huge and that’s what got me into this industry. Selling our products is, yes, sales, but on the other side, people thank you when you provide your services and products, and I think that’s something. A lot of times there’s a huge need in Africa, and it’s a matter of taking that leap and providing for that need, and that’s what I find is so rewarding about this.

Africa is leapfrogging things so don’t think of it as it’s behind. It’s actually ahead. We pay for things with mobile money. We have electric motorcycles delivering things instantly to your home. And so that’s the incredible opportunity. So don’t ever feel sorry for Africa. Look at it as this place of adventure and a place of amazing opportunity.

 

This piece is based on our conversation with Jodie Wu, the COO of OffGridBox. It was edited and summarized for brevity and clarity by Anthony Atigari, Executive Director of Canada Africa Business Forum

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