Solar home systems in emerging markets: An interview with Simon Bransfield-Garth of Azuri Technologies

Solar home systems in emerging markets: An interview with Simon Bransfield-Garth of Azuri Technologies

Azuri Technologies is a UK company providing PayGo solar systems to rural off-grid communities, addressing the problem of energy access affecting 1.3 billion people around the world lacing access to the grid. It has   the widest reach of any pay as you go solar company in Sub Saharan Africa and has just announced the launch of HomeSmart, the first use of intelligent automation in small solar home systems designed to provide light every night, even in cloudy daytime conditions.  

The machine-learning technology learns about a customer’s typical power usage and automatically adjusts the light brightness to meet their expected demands. These changes are normally imperceptible to the eye but are the difference between being able to see at night or not for off-grid customers. Interestingly, this ‘reverse innovation’ approach has seen the advent of a new and somewhat strange phenomenon in which the latest technologies are appearing in emerging markets, rather than in the West.

REM talked to Azuri Technologies CEO Simon Bransfield-Garth to find out more.

Tell me about the company and what it does

Azuri is a company selling pay-as-you-go solar power in sub-Saharan Africa. When we set the company up five years ago, we were looking at the business case for domestic solar power in Africa. What we found was is that there is 600 million people that don’t have access to electricity and still having to use kerosene and candles for lighting for example. The amount of money they are spending on that kerosene and candles is huge in comparison to the amount you would spend in the West, typically the cost per kilowatt hour for electricity in the West is now 15 pence, while the equivalent cost for a kerosene lamp is about $8 (£5.56) or for candles is about $16 (£11.12). So the business case for solar power is really overwhelming. We asked ourselves the question, if the case for solar power is so overwhelming, why is it that solar power isn’t all over Africa? It turns out that it comes down to affordability, so that when you or I get electricity in our house, we pay for the electricity that we use. If you put solar on your roof, essentially you are buying your own power station. Individuals earning $3-$4 a day simply don’t have the savings to go and buy even low to moderately priced solar home systems.

So what we did was to combine mobile phone and solar technologies so that people can pay for their solar power as they use it, rather than paying for it upfront. And that makes all the difference. The cost of solar power on a pay-as-you-go basis is actually lower than the kerosene and the mobile phone charging fees that people pay, so it is actually net cheaper to have the solar power and that works extremely well right across sub-Saharan Africa.

How many countries are we talking about here and roughly what percentage of the population?

There are about 1.2 billion people in sub-Saharan Africa. Of those, about half do not have access to electricity. The interesting thing is that in the rest of the world, the electrification problem is broadly getting fixed, so for example in India and SE Asia. But Africa is unique in the world in that it has huge population growth. By the middle of the century there will be about 2 billion people in Africa, by the end of the century there is forecast to be about 4 billion people in Africa. So currently, the rate at which people are being connected to electricity is slower than the population growth. The number of people in sub-Saharan Africa who still don’t have access to electricity is actually increasing rather than going down.

Which countries in particular are you focusing on?

We are currently operating at one level or another in 12 countries in sub-Saharan Africa but a lot of our focus has been around East Africa, so Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Ethiopia, but also activity in West Africa, so Ghana and a number of other countries. We currently have smaller activity in Southern Africa, places like Malawi and Zambia and similar countries.

What kind of solar systems are you providing?

These are really entry-level solar home systems. Imagine a solar panel that is about twice the size of a book, that sits on the roof, then you have a box which has a lithium-ion-phosphate battery, two to four lights, a USB port to charge your mobile phone, maybe a rechargeable torch or a rechargeable radio, that sort of system. So they are really entry-level systems that enable people to get off kerosene and enable them to charge phones at home, rather than having to go into town. Over time, people can progressively upgrade to bigger systems, for example that have a TV or systems that enable people to benefit from productive use applications. For example, almost all of our customers are smallholder farmers, one way or another. Providing powered irrigation or powered crop storage or other related things is the sort of thing that the customers need in order to improve their income, basically making their farming more efficient.

Besides clean energy, is this providing any other opportunities such as, for example, local job creation?

Yes, very much so. That occurs in two ways. Individual customers using our systems find that it enables people to increase their income very significantly. For example, imagine you are a stallholder, it makes a huge difference whether you have to shut the stall at 6 pm or keep on going until 9 pm every night. We’ve got people who are offering phone charging services to other people who don’t yet have their own solar home systems. Farmers in Sierra Leone have deployment in a fishing village. The fishermen come back with the catch in the afternoon and the people in the house are able to process that fish in the evening and so be able to sell it early next morning in the market the next day.

So it very much affects the people who buy the product but also the whole pay-as-you-go system itself requires a distribution and supply chain so people can market, support, educate and sell the product. Significant employment in terms of the people that are providing the product in the marketplace.

Do you have a presence in other areas besides Africa? Or are you considering expanding into other regions if not?

We took the choice that we wanted to continue to work in sub-Saharan Africa. The demand is huge and we’re not anywhere close to being able to satisfy that. We’d rather focus on a market that we understand. Also, what you find is that the market varies quite a bit from place to place. The climatic conditions for instance in Kenya are very different from the climatic conditions in Ghana. This has led to some very interesting technical innovations. Normally with solar home systems, on a sunny day you will get light for, say, eight hours, but if you’re in the rainy season you might only get light for two hours. That causes a problem for householders because people want light.

What we ended up doing was we developed a technology called Homesmart which is the first use of artificial intelligence in small solar home systems. It does two things. First, it figures out what the customer’s usage pattern is. For example, it might figure out over time that the customer tends to use their lights for five hours at night and two hours in the morning. Then what it does is every evening it looks at how much power is in the battery and figures out how to run the lights so you get the amount of time that the customer wanted. From a customer point of view, what you care about is whether you can see at night or not. You’re less concerned about how bright the lights are. It turns out that your eye is very unresponsive to changes in the brightness of light, so even if you just dial back the brightness of light about ten percent, you very substantially increase the run time of those lights. What Homesmart does is that it guarantees that you will be able to see for a certain period of time, as opposed to conventional solar home systems which just run until they run out of juice and then just stop.

That’s the sort of innovation we’re seeing coming into the market and it’s quite interesting because you hear a lot of talk about ‘reverse innovation’ where some of the latest technologies are beginning to appear in emerging markets before they appear in Western markets. If I think back to my house, to the lights I have in my kitchen, essentially I have two pieces of wire and a mechanical switch and the design of those really hasn’t changed for the past 100 years. Whereas in rural sub-Saharan Africa we have the latest-generation LEDs, the latest generation batteries and adapted smart metering and artificial intelligence in $50 solar home systems. Because there isn’t a viable alternative, the technology is enabling the markets in Africa where there really isn’t the same requirement in the West, at least not yet.

What are your plans for the future? How do you see the company growing?

Really in two ways. Firstly it’s just about reaching more and more customers. As I say, the whole industry is still at less than 1 percent market share of the number of people who still don’t have access to electricity. Beyond that is really to go beyond lighting, so individual consumers want lights, but actually those consumers also really want all the things that you or I accept as normal. People want TVs, they want internet access, entertainment and all those sorts of services. We see a solar stepping-stone where you start with lighting and maybe a radio and phone charging and progressively move up to bigger and bigger devices. Further on from there it’s into productive use applications, where can we use solar power to enable people to earn more money and increase their standard of living. There is a whole range of areas where you can do that, right from providing someone with the ability to run hair clippers so they can run a hairdressing salon through to things that support people’s agricultural activity through to information systems that enable people to buy products more efficiently.

So it’s a whole range of different services. Five years ago, people felt that electrification was about the grid. I think we’re now getting to the point where for countries that are relatively sparsely populated, it is cheaper to provide distributed power than it is to provide a grid. That distributed power can be as every bit as good as the grid, providing power for all the devices that the grid would otherwise be powering. More importantly, because you own it, you control it. You know it can work. Right across Africa, we see examples of people that have access to the grid but that it only actually works for four hours a day. With a properly designed solar home system, you get guaranteed power every single night and that enables people to be able to rely on that power and to build upon that.

The key thing is that this distributed power is growing up. It is no longer just a small light to replace a kerosene lamp, it genuinely has the potential to do for rural electricity what the mobile phone did for landlines, providing a new way of doing things. As part of that process, we’re seeing a very strange phenomenon where the breeding ground for the very latest technology is no longer California but rural villages in Ethiopia, because that is where we are using the very latest technology to make a product that hits a price point that these individual consumers can afford.

Simon Bransfield-Garth has 25 years global experience building rapid growth, technology-based businesses in sectors including Semiconductor, Automotive and Mobile Phones. His career includes 7 years at Symbian, the phone OS maker, where he was a member of the Leadership Team and VP Global Marketing. Simon was founder of Myriad Solutions Ltd and was previously a Fellow at Cambridge University. He holds a BA and Ph.D in Engineering from St John’s College, Cambridge UK.

For additional information:

Azuri Technologies

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