Portable electricity for developing world

In her book on the future of work – Shift – Professor Lynda Gratton of the London Business School writes that, ‘the core of any revolution in the way work gets done is inevitably changes in energy.’ So when the International Energy estimate that 1.3 billion people on the planet do not have access to electricity, it’s a humanitarian issue that also inhibits the possibility of local people changing their own circumstances. It’s why three former graduates of Imperial College London, Christopher Baker-Brian, Mansoor Hamayun and Laurent Van Houcke, set up BBOXX, a company providing off-grid solar powered electricity. 

Mass Electrification

As Executive Partner Global Strategy Mansoor Hamayun explains, the idea began as an undergraduate electrical engineering student, as he reflected on the fact that so much of the world had no access to electricity. ‘That sparked an interest,’ says Hamayun, ‘it’s an engineering problem, a political problem, a technology problem.’ At Imperial College he believed there were the intellectual resources to begin to tackle this, to take classroom learning and apply it. ‘I started up a charity called e.quinox which started to raise money to develop initial concepts and we were very successful. By the time we graduated we had electrified something like 600 households in Rwanda. We were spending our summer Easter breaks raising money, travelling to Rwanda and living in the village, developing the program and training up local people.’ 

Developing and distributing solar-powered battery packs proved a hugely successful idea. The last two years at Imperial College were exciting, as the charity began to attract a lot of interest and awards from organisations such as JP Morgan and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. But, says Hamayun, “I realised I was spending 90% of my time fund-raising and doing 10% of what I actually wanted to do.” In order to shift that around they set up a for-profit business, BBOXX, that has the social aim of mass electrification. 

User-Based Design

They developed a range of different solar-powered systems. There are small portable battery boxes with USB ports for phones, that can be charged from the grid, storing energy or can be powered by a flexible panel. Then there are large systems that can be deployed in hospitals and schools. Most importantly, they continued to approach the development of their work with the same they had used as students – go and stay with local communities. ‘We took a very user-based design approach. We spent a lot of time talking to people, living in the village to be able to understand what the people wanted. At the lower end of the scale, people wanted phone chargers and ability to move the product around as they moved around. At the higher end, people wanted another set of specifications.’

At the heart of this is the understanding that the technical skills in these areas aren’t the same as the UK. It’s why the ‘plug-and-play’ design has proved so popular. ‘Everything comes from one box. In the $7,000-$8000 range everything is one box. That makes installation really easy and that has propelled our growth quite a lot.’ Not only is it clean energy but it also offers an alternative to kerosene. The company monitors the impact and the data shows the real difference this has made to people’s lives and economic opportunity. The learning curve of these electronic engineering graduates is steep. ‘We spent the first year designing the product, the second year started launching in the market and now in the 4th year, we are in 14 countries.’