By Nick Travis, partner at Smith & Williamson
This article was originally published in Smith & Williamson’s Enterprise magazine, a thought leadership publication for entrepreneurs and growth companies.
Around one in nine people around the globe lives without electricity. Until as recently as 2016, it was one in seven. Real progress has been made in bringing electricity to places such as India, Bangladesh, Kenya and Myanmar. However, the World Bank estimates that 650 million people will still be left without access to electricity in 2030. Nine out of 10 of them will be living in sub-Saharan Africa.It should not be underestimated the extent to which this slows development and keeps people in poverty. Access to renewable energy creates a bridge with the rest of the world through pay-as- you-go mobile payments, which in turn brings financial inclusion. It allows for longer-term storage of food, helps with education and the running of small businesses. The World Bank says access to electricity impacts on a vast range of development indicators, including health, education, food security gender equality.
Bboxx was started in 2010 with the bold ambition to electrify the developing world and solve energy poverty for the millions living without. It was co-founded by Christopher Baker-Brian and his fellow Imperial College students, Mansoor Hamayun and Laurent Van Houke. They built the business from a student-run charity, recognising ahead of their time that smart solar electricity could deliver safe, reliable, affordable energy to people across the globe. In doing so they could replace other inadequate and dangerous sources such as kerosene.
They spotted increasing demand for electrification solutions driven by the vast uptake in mobile phones in emerging markets and recognised the problems inherent in implementing traditional infrastructure in remote areas. They built ‘batteries in boxes’ (which prompted the name ‘Bboxx’), placed solar panels on the roof of people’s homes, and then connected these to appliances, such as lights, radios, fridges, phone chargers, shavers and TVs. This solution leapfrogged the need for expensive electrical infrastructure and enabled Bboxx to target hard-to-reach rural areas without decent road networks.
“We targeted Rwanda as our first country and have expanded across Africa over the past few years. We now operate in 12 markets across the continent.Our focus is on delivering the latest innovation through technology in the form of solar home systems. They are remotely connected to the mobile network in the local area – with low cost access. We have a financing plan which allows the customer to pay in small instalments to get access to energy, using pay-as-you-go model. We also build our own shops and distribution networks.”
Bboxx’s solar home systems replace dirty and expensive sources of fuel such as kerosene. The Bboxx solution was created so that it was not be more expensive than a family’s existing energy options. Bboxx creates packages, including the solar home systems and the appliances, that reduces people’s overall energy costs.
Bboxx’s solar home systems provide millions of data points and are remotely monitored and controlled via Bboxx Pulse™, a comprehensive management platform. Potential problems can be detected remotely, and fixed before they even occur.
Bboxx collects over one billion data points every day, which are used to deliver the best possible service to its customers and answer a range of energy needs.
Naturally, it has not been without its challenges. There are geographic challenges – how to get a moped up a mountain – but also political ones. Chris says: “There are some very real challenges in operating in certain countries due to political instability.”
At the same time, there is significant support provided by a number of African governments. He says: “A central reason for why we’re in Rwanda and Togo is that they have really good renewable energy targets and we are working effectively with the governments to help achieve them.”
Chris Baker-Brian has seen the business balloon from starting in a University dorm room and Bboxx has big ambitions: “To date, we have provided energy to over one million people and are striving to transform the lives of millions more.” Bboxx’s growth plans are centred around forging strategic partnerships with governments and global companies, including Orange (now EE), General Electric and EDF. It is expanding its provision of utility services and looking to power more urban and rural homes and businesses of the future.
The next generation utility has raised funding from nine different VCs. Most recently it raised $50 million from the Japanese group Mitsubishi Corporation and other partners to expand its business. While Bboxx is headquartered in London, the team is spread across a range of local offices and together they work to retain the culture and communicate effectively.
Bboxx employs over 800 staff and has a strong network of local sales agents and offices in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Rwanda and Togo. Bboxx’s manufacturing operations are based in China. Chris Baker-Brian says that he has had to learn to delegate effectively ‘on the job’.
“We’ve got an ambitious mission to transform lives and unlock potential and it has drawn a lot of people in. That rapid expansion has of course thrown up some challenges. We are now working to ensure that one office works in the same way as another office. That they are working to advance the same goals and communicating about the work they’re doing. The senior team is continuing to reinforce and communicate that message as a central way to empower our employees and unlock the potential of our customers.”