Traditional electricity grids, the sort that are ubiquitous in developed countries, have struggled to meet the challenges posed by attempting to electrify rural communities across the developing world. In many parts of Africa, which have economic growth rates as high as 8 percent per year, electricity demand is growing and large-scale infrastructure investments needed to build out electrical grids is not feasible. Rather than continuing to depend on kerosene and other liquid fuels for their basic energy needs, many such communities look to off-grid solar power.

Until recently, the high cost of solar panels made customer-owned solar panels prohibitively expensive. One way to reduce upfront costs to individuals is the “solar energy kiosk,” in which a solar panel charges a battery pack used by an entire community.

It was difficult to design and provide systems in mass volume that were tailored to the unique needs of individuals

My first experience in developing solar power for Africa was through the building of these energy kiosks. Together with Mansoor Hamayun and Laurent Van Houcke, who were also electrical and electronic engineering students from Imperial College London, in 2009 we started the charity e.quinox, through which we began to develop and distribute solar-powered battery packs to off-grid locations in Africa.

We initially went to Rwanda, and while there connected with their ministry of energy and other energy-minded organizations. Armed with knowledge gleaned from firsthand observations of what we saw on the ground, we went back to the U.K. and developed our energy kiosk, which supplies small power systems charged from a central location in a community. We built the first kiosk in Rwanda in 2009 which gave power to over 60 local households in one village.

The kiosks were popular—we received requests from 200 more households in the initial village—but they were soon outdated. When we started the project, solar panels cost about US$6 or $7 per watt, making it cheaper to centralize the generation of electricity. However, the price of solar panels manufactured in China soon fell dramatically, to about $0.80 per watt, which makes the panels much more affordable for individuals.

BB17 solar kit accessories

While the solar kiosk “rental” model works well in certain communities and provides a platform to carry out maintenance and administrations, kiosks are a large investment and are difficult to scale quickly across many markets. Since it’s cheaper to simply install solar panels on customer’s roofs than to build a separate building to house the panels, we developed the idea of a “solar kit” that comes with its own portable solar panel, a control unit/battery, lights, phone-charging equipment, a USB charger, and the like. Some kits come with low-power TVs and radios and, in hotter climates, fans.

The donor-focused and donor-led nature of e.quinox meant that the enterprise was ultimately limited, as there was no business incentive for us to grow. In order to achieve scale, we created a for-profit enterprise, BBOXX, with the ability to partner with other global players and use investor capital where necessary to achieve greater impact. Within four years of founding the company, the team had built a global supply chain for its solar kits that have now electrified over 100,000 people in the developing world. We manufacture parts in China, which means we can manufacture at scale. We ship to 40 different countries, with a main focus on East Africa.

Achieving Scale

Despite an initially rapid growth rate in our first years of operation, several barriers remained for us to reach true scale. Three barriers in particular were constraining product demand across the developing world.

First, end-customers have a limited access to capital. While many customers in the developing world can, over the course of a few months, scrape together the cash needed to pay for small solar-based LED lights typically used for reading, cooking and other household activities, off-grid solar kits of any useful size remain out of reach for most consumers. And it is these more expensive kits that can power a much wider range of devices, and thus can generate additional income for their owners and allow them to be engaged in their own businesses.

BB17 unit monitoring hardware

The traditional solution to this issue of constrained capital has been to work with local financial providers to offer loans to customers. Despite several attempts to partner with organizations across the continent, we have struggled to find committed players in this sector who have the market reach, the willingness to lend to a relatively new market, and the in-depth knowledge and contact with its customers to offer a competitive solution to the problem of end-customer financing. Our solution here was to do it ourselves and to only partner where necessary.

In providing customers with the ability to use a wide variety of solar-powered appliances, we quickly realized that another problem had emerged: It was increasingly difficult to design and provide systems in mass volume that were tailored to the unique needs of individuals. For example, a small shop owner who operates our product during daylight hours has a completely different load profile from a large household that tends to use most of its electricity in the evening so as to run entertainment and lighting systems. Our early models were “dumb” in as much as they couldn’t connect to the Internet and send information from the customers back to us. They just took power from the panels and converted it to electricity that was stored in a battery for use by the customer.

Such differences in load profiles are very difficult to accurately capture with traditional paper and pen surveys or customer interviews, and yet they are crucial to assisting in the design and development of the next generation of products. Hence, capturing in detail what our customers really want to do with our products is an important step in developing the right products for this vast consumer market.

Finally, we see battery storage as a main barrier to achieving mass electrification. The majority of new deployments in Africa, including microgrid systems but mainly off- grid systems, depend on battery packs. This is often the major life-limiting component of a product and the one that ultimately deter- mines the lifespan of a system.

This is a complex area, intensely researched in universities and business sectors, and driven by Western demands for improved performance and reduced cost in electric vehicles and off-grid energy storage applications. Such research has helped us to understand the battery market trends and technologies for the foreseeable future. However, there are gaps in this knowledge base when it comes to their use in developing world conditions and usage profiles, which all have a direct effect on the performance of a battery over its lifetime.

Remote Data Capture

To overcome those barriers and to provide a commercial platform upon which BBOXX could increase the number of units produced, in 2013 we developed a remote monitoring and control system. This system was designed to enable our products to remotely connect to a central server over the local general packet radio service (GPRS), or 2G, network that has achieved widespread coverage in many African countries, due to the explosion in popularity of mobile phones.

The system can detect even small user pattern changes. As the dataset expands, the system will be able to pinpoint root causes for changes in battery capacity, which could eventually lead to a solution for extending battery life.

The remote monitoring and control system works by continuously measuring the battery voltage, charging/discharging current, and the battery temperature, then logging and compressing that data to a small on-board memory chip and periodically uploading the compressed data to a server.

The data can be analyzed to better understand how the product is being used by the customer. The system also includes the ability to send alarm signals to the server when, for example, the unit experiences unusual electrical signals or is tampered with or misused in any way.

During the development phase of the remote monitoring and control system, BBOXX partnered with Oxford University and London-based energy storage specialists Synergy Energy to better understand the real life effects of batteries in the field and how our customers use them. Charging and discharging profiles were analyzed, as were how environmental conditions such as increased temperatures affect the lifespan and performance of a battery unit.

Thanks to the ability to capture data at a higher resolution than previous attempts to monitor similar products, we obtained a more detailed understanding of how, when and why the customer has been using certain devices. We also had the ability to trace when a certain device such as an LED or a TV is switched on. That level of detail has, for the first time and with a high level of confidence, enabled us to understand how a wide range of customers use the products and also to distinguish usage differences between businesses, small, and large households. That understanding will allow future product offerings to be more tailored to the need of the users without increasing the burden of a greater product range on our supply chain.

Remote monitoring and customer relationship scheme

The data gathered from these units is also analyzed by our partners at Synergy Energy and Oxford University to determine the expected end of life of the battery based on its current performance. The dataset gathered will be one of the largest and most complete to date and allow for highly accurate models to be validated even further. Machine learning techniques are being used to constantly improve this model as the data-set increases, allowing accurate predictions to be made based on the temperature of the battery and use of the kit by the customer.

Beyond monitoring, the system also has a commercial application to BBOXX. The system enables BBOXX to remotely deactivate units, which allows us to distribute the system on a payment plan. Instead of selling a product that requires a 100 percent upfront payment, we can offer something that can be paid for over six to 24 months.

This case study was written by Christopher Baker-Brian. Christopher co-founded “e.quinox” in 2008 and BBOXX in 2010, providing affordable energy products and services in developing countries. He is responsible for product development, supply chain and BBOXX’s manufacturing and technology partnerships. He earned an M.Eng degree in Electronic and Electrical Engineering from Imperial College London.