Time to read: 7 min

Saving the world is great. In theory. But when it comes to the nitty gritty of making your ideals a business reality, you need to swap those rose-colored glasses for some eyes-wide-open realism.  Yet even in this complicated world we live in where multiple realities vie for attention, you can still do a lot of good.

Solar energy startup Off Grid Electric (aka OGE) knows a thing or two about that. In operation for 4.5 years and spread out over three continents, this small operation is already making a tangible impact in the lives of tens of thousands of African households, including Tanzania’s off-the-grid rural poor. One solar home system at a time.

In this spotlight, we talk to Jos Cocquyt, OGE’s San Francisco-based director of product development, about the joys and challenges of introducing solar technology to the African continent.

A vertically integrated business model

OGE is not the only startup—or company in general—working on renewable energy projects in Africa. But it does bill itself as the first “massively scalable distributed solar energy company.” When we ask what’s so different about them, Jos gives us two words.

Vertically integrated.

He expands that into four. “We do it all,” he says. “We conceptualize, design and prototype the systems, contract the manufacturing to our vendors in China, and in Tanzania and Rwanda we manage the logistics, distribution, and installation, plus a call center and repair shop”

Vertical integration is the core of OGE’s solar-as-a-service business model, a model that the company aims to scale up to serve 1 one of out of 3 people in the world whose local grid electricity is unreliable, unaffordable or unavailable.

A little-talked about aspect of the company’s culture is homestays—in addition to the local cottages the company rents instead of fancy air-conditioned hotels, visiting ex-pat OGE engineers are encouraged to stay with local families who are also customers, typically for a one-night home stay. As Jos stresses, it’s primarily about building customer empathy and user-centric design: “Embedding our engineers and employees in people’s homes enables us to see how they’re using our systems. Not to mention how warm and welcoming they are, so it’s really fun, these visits, because you’re the guest of honor.”

The other aspect of the home stays is that management can spend valuable one-on-one time with their local service agents, who also come along for the home stay, and gain valuable insights into the struggles and challenges on the ground.

Teaching people to fish

But what gets Jos truly beaming is the direct impact the technology is having on people’s lives. “What’s emerging here is incredible because we’re empowering the world’s off-grid poor, giving them the opportunity to progress and access to the services people in the Western world have.”

“The benefit of having electric light is that your day gets longer. You can be more active in your community. You’re safer at night—women, for example, feel a lot safer walking at night with their electric torches. You have more light—500 more hours per year per household—to study or to keep your store open. That is especially valuable if you want to get ahead and generate more income.”

Jos tells us about dukas, Swahili for “store.” With light, they can stay open longer and generate more sales. But that’s not all the locals do with their solar electricity. “The people are incredibly resourceful,” says Jos. “They have multiple streams of income. They’re farmers but they’re paying for their solar system in different ways. Aside from their shops, they also sell the power itself, directly—they charge their customers’ cell phones for them. It’s about ten cents per charge. You can make $0.50 a day so the solar system pays for itself.”  Jos adds that a mother in one of the local villages was charging $0.10 per adult to watch movies on her family’s television set.

Then there’s the peer-to-peer mobile banking, spearheaded by M-Pesa, that’s taking off in countries like Tanzania, some of whose residents, especially the rural poor, have no access to traditional banks. In essence, M-Pesa makes electronic payments available to anyone with a mobile phone.

“Almost everyone in Africa has a cell phone,” says Jos. Not a smartphone—fewer than 10% of the rural population have one—but a regular flip phone. “With a flip phone [and a mobile money account], you can pay 50,000 shillings digitally to OGE for your solar power. Each device has a unique ID on it, the box number. When the customer pays, we text them back a code to punch into the box, and their lights go back on.  That’s the concept of pay-as-you-go power.”

But customers are not the only ones who win here. OGE is also empowering the local people it hires. One technician, shares Jos, was able to buy an onion farm with his salary.

The perennial question of quality

OGE has one hardware platform configurable to different solar/battery sizes. The solar systems run on lithium batteries because, as is well known in numerous industries, they last much longer than lead acid batteries. As in, five years longer.

“Our customers have had some bad experiences with solar systems that fail after just six months because they use lead acid batteries,” says Jos. “With the little money these people earn, they really cannot afford to buy a new solar system, potentially twice a year. We’re about quality and longevity—our systems are durable and they last. And we’re Lighting Global certified,” he adds, referring to the organization that’s working on global standards for solar power.

In addition, OGE manages their supply chain directly in Asia with an on-the-ground quality control team that visits the factories every week and addresses issues and challenges.

Some numbers for the environment—and safety

Solar energy is clean, yes, but that clean factor is perhaps nowhere more striking than in places like rural Africa, where villagers traditionally use kerosene, candles, disposable batteries, or diesel generators for their energy needs. Thanks to OGE’s presence in Tanzania, the numbers are trending cleaner now:

  • 10,000 additional households per month now have access to clean energy
  • Kerosene displacement: 55 L/year/household
  • 140 kg/year/household of CO2 emissions avoided
  • 1.45 kg/year/household of black carbon emissions avoided

And those are just the obvious numbers. Then there is the hidden positive impact of better health resulting from lower kerosene emissions (read: fumes and fires, which can lead to death) and a stronger economy. According to OGE, the renewable energy sector is on track to be one of the biggest new sources of employment in Africa over the next decade.

Prototyping across time zones

Unlike other hardware startups in Silicon Valley, OGE has the added challenge of coordinating among teams on three continents: the United States (San Francisco), Africa (Tanzania), and Asia (China). “The field engineering office is in Africa, so that’s where we are closest to our customer,” says Jos.

The company takes plenty of advantage of its San Francisco location, with its ecosystem of off-grid know-how and expertise. “We do the hardware design here, including the battery box with the interface for entering payments, which has NFC (near field communication) built-in so that a technician can capture data during a home visit or at the shop, with the quick swipe of a smart phone. That makes it easier to troubleshoot issues in the field, via our custom app.” Jos adds that Apple Pay uses the same technology. “We can get a prototype done here [in San Francisco] pretty quickly, but not in Africa. In Africa, there’s Gearbox, the TechShop of Nairobi, so the maker culture is just nascent. Things like 3D printing and CNC machining services are starting to happen there, but we still have some way to go.”

Jos shares with us the design cycles his team runs through. 

“As a first step, the field engineering team works with the product management team to run pilots on new products and system configurations in-market and capture valuable data,” he says. 

Field engineering also supports the company’s field quality and field repair to enable staff to discover any issues immediately. Part of the product management team’s job is to assess the market, which typically involves putting their solar panel system in front of the locals along with a few competing products, and taking in the people’s feedback. They then write up a market requirement document that is then turned into product requirements.  

The San Francisco team then incorporates that feedback into a next-generation prototype or a revised version of an existing product. Jos explains it’s here that the “more rigorous, comprehensive design cycles [are done], with CAD models and 3D printing. Then we send the prototypes over to Africa, often hand-carrying a lot of the more delicate parts, and install the updated solar home systems in people’s homes.” Complete, of course, with test firmware and hardware.

“Then we conduct broader beta testing to iron out bugs and poor UX,” continues Jos. “We also instrument test units to capture more user and hardware data, so we can learn quickly. We want to start doing dev sprints [these are quick-turn hardware dev experiments], but have been pretty short staffed to do many of those.” For those looking to move into this space, Off Grid Electric is hiring.

At the same time, explains Jos, “we train personnel at our call center on the details of the new system, and give the customers a special phone number that connects with that personnel. This way we capture anything that goes wrong with the new system, or that customers discover or have questions about.”

Lots of bright smiles all around

In a media environment soaked with political coverage and near-constant violence, it’s refreshing to talk to a company so dedicated to making the world a better place, and developing the solutions to make renewable energy a reality for thousands of people. And it’s still more refreshing to see the real-world impacts on the livelihoods of communities who until recently have had to contend with the dangers of kerosene and the practical inconvenience of a very short day.

OGE is certainly going about its mission to “massively scale” with all the right intentions, tools, and skill sets. With no pun intended, all power to them!