Rwanda could be the country to lead the region’s green energy push

article-img

Over the last decade, Rwanda has established itself as a key innovator in the East Africa region. It’s a grand transformation from a country famous for the most memorable genocide in recent times, among other challenges typical for African nations in recent decades.

Modern Rwanda is one of extremes in terms of wealth. Less than 20% of the population live in homes that have electricity – a common benchmark of development across African nations.

However, Rwanda’s apparent energy disadvantage also comes with a strength that’s catching the eyes of international investors. A country with less than 20% of its populations plugged into the mains presents a huge market for growth in a nation rapidly on the rise.

Rwanda also happens to be one of numerous African nations proving its flair for innovation – an increasingly attractive characteristic for investors. So it’s little surprise London-based BBOXX is looking at Rwanda as a market for expansion and innovation in green energy for the entire region.

Solar innovators choose Rwanda as their home

In 2009, BBOXX co-founders Van Houcke, Christopher Baker-Brian and Mansoor Hamayun flew into Kigali with eyes on making Rwanda the home of their innovative solar energy plans.

At the time, the trio were still students at Imperial College London. But while their peers were fine-tuning their CVs for careers in banking or consultancy, these guys had much bigger plans for the green energy sector. BBOXX believes Rwanda isn’t just the market to lead East Africa’s push towards energy efficiency but the potential home of a global leader.

The BBOXX founders started by establishing Equinox: a charity dedicated to electrifying a small number of communities in Rwanda. However, it quickly became apparent how much of the country lacks electricity. They realised Rwanda isn’t the only African nation in this kind of predicament, where impressive capital cities can overshadow the wider implications of nationwide development.

More importantly, they realised that Africa’s biggest weakness is also its major strength. Africa won’t follow the archaic Western pattern of development via unrenewable energies. It can’t. Instead, it will bypass the grid and leapfrog over Europe and North America straight into solar.

It has to; there’s no other choice.

This led to the birth of BBOXX, which turned its co-founders attentions from non-profit organisations into something more commercial.

“If you go to a customer and tell them, ‘You’re spending $5-$20 per month on kerosene and batteries, but for the same amount, you can have electricity’ – well, it’s a pretty easy sell,” says Mansoor Hamayun, BBOXX’s chief executive officer. “Governments and development agencies also understand that solar is the long-term solution for those customers.”

Empowering lives, not just powering homes

The transition from no-profit organisation to commercial entity wasn’t a light decision for the BBOXX founders. It wasn’t an easy transition either. However, the fact remains, that commercially viable brands attract more investment and make more of an impact in the long term – two key drivers in the decision to go commercial.

“Ultimately, our motivation was to scale the business, which meant making money and charging customers rather than seeing them as beneficiaries,” says Baker-Brian, BBOXX’s chief technology officer.

Attracting investment as a commercial business in Rwanda wasn’t without its challenges, though. The first round of fundraising was particularly difficult in a country where few investors were interested in Africa’s technology landscape – at least at the time.

Once again, the void of supply ultimately worked in BBOXX’s favour. “These are customers who have been underserved in every possible way,” Baker-Brian continues.

Despite the challenges, BBOXX secured the first round of investment – at a crucial time, too. Competitors were emerging and the tech opportunities in Africa were becoming more apparent. Failing to secure those crucial funds any longer could have resulted in a much shorter, less thrilling story for the company.

However, with this funding on side, things developed quickly – not only for BBOXX itself but also the solar innovation taking place in Rwanda.

Solar supply for Rwandan demands

Crucial to solving Africa’s energy troubles is creating solutions tailored to its unique requirements. International companies trying to implement their existing systems and business models into African nations are setting themselves up for failure.

Africa comes with its own unique energy challenges and these can vary from one country to another.

BBOXX started out with solar panels connected via 2G networks that provides geolocation and performance data. This allows teams to repair fading batteries before they die, predict other potential issues and fix unprecedented issues more rapidly.

To address the economic challenges of bringing power to a wider population, BBOXX provides pay-as-you-go plans for people who can’t afford a unit outright. While the company also designs a number of accessories for shavers, smartphones and other devices that aim to reduce energy consumption and the overall cost.

The company is also “100% mobile money”, as a reflection of the cash-free environment present in many African nations – another area the continent outpaced its Western counterparts.

A model for East Africa and beyond

With the innovative approach to solar energy seen from BBOXX and Rwanda, a model is emerging that could help bring power to people beyond the county’s borders. It’s a model BBOXX is ready to take to the rest of the region and most likely the wider continent. But it’s also a model that will continue to develop and show regions outside of Africa how green energy innovation should be done.

 

Featured image: Public domain

About Aaron Brooks

Aaron Brooks is a UK journalist who wants to cut out the international agendas in news. Spending his early years in both England and Northern Ireland he saw the difference between reality and media coverage at an early age. After graduating from the University of Chester with a BA in journalism, his travels revealed just how large the gap between news and the real world can be. As Editor-in-Chief at East Africa Monitor, it’s his job to provide a balanced view of what’s going on in the region for English-speaking audiences.