04 October 2012 ~ 1 Comment

My Summer With Solar in Tanzania

Over course of the last year, I’d met with dozens of start-up founders and examined a range of business models looking for something that struck me as “paradigm-shifting” or “game-changing” or whatever other exaggerated and over-used term you’d like to put forth. None struck me as much as a team I met that was committed to designing a solution to one of the world’s most pressing problems while growing to be a billion dollar company. That was something I was intrigued to learn more about!

From having lived in Cambodia for six years I understood a bit about the reality of the problem they were trying to solve in off-grid communities: lack of access to electricity often led people to use kerosene for light, which was bad for the eyes, for the lungs, and for the safety of those living in highly flammable homes. Wealthier people could afford generators, which was often the most polluting, wasteful, and expensive way to produce electricity. Grid power was not arriving fast enough or was to expensive to connect to when it arrived and solar was a liability few wanted to take on after seeing systems break or get stolen in their community. The choices in an off-grid community seem quite bleak.

Enter Off.Grid:Electric, determined to figure out a business model that makes the constantly improving offerings of solar power accessible to those who need it most, thereby preventing further environmental harm, providing brighter and cleaner light, and ideally saving people money while making some of their own. Seems like quite a tall task! Match that with a CEO who has already formed two mult-million dollar companies and a founding team’s determination to create a business that can “Light Africa”, and I was sold. Sign me up please!

I spent six weeks in Arusha, Tanzania, with the Off.Grid:Electric founding team, conducting a user insights consulting project: interviewing and sitting in the homes of more than 35 of their current customers and drawing out ideas for product, service, marketing, and operations improvements based on member feedback and observations. What I learned was incredibly interesting for me, and hopefully valuable for the Off.Grid:Electric team and their customers.

An Off.Grid:Electric member. Photo by estherhavens.com

If you have jumped ahead and already checked their website, you might be confused. It’s a little behind the times in terms of what Off.Grid:Electric is up to these days, and that’s ok: most of their customers have never been on the internet. The team didn’t even have a twitter account before I arrived and that’s ok too: less that 5% of their current customers own a smart phone, and only a few have ever heard of a Facebook status, let alone a tweet.

The Off.Grid:Electric team won a business plan competition in Oxford last year for their original idea: producing and selling solar power off of remote cell phone towers that were currently being powered by inefficient generators. The idea was a solid one, and with many supporters, they headed to Tanzania to try out their idea. Fortunately, they didn’t get married to their original model, and were open to the realization that their might be other, more efficient and scalable ways to “light Africa”.

Coming soon: a piece on the Lessons I Learned from working with Off.Grid:Electric

  • Anonymous

    A follow up piece I wrote about Off.Grid:Electric is now up on the Huffington Post: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/daniela-papi/5-tips-for-how-to-solve-t_b_1940980.html