By Elizabeth Buhungiro
‘What would you do if you had reliable, affordable access to electricity?’
This is the question that was asked to entrepreneurs in Kiryandongo refugee settlement of Uganda during the initial assessment of Power-Blox.
In April 2021, Lifeline and Power-Blox launched a collaborative initiative, funded by Creating Hope in Conflict: A Humanitarian Grand Challenge, to improve sustainable energy access in Ugandan humanitarian contexts. During this pilot stage Power-Blox units were distributed to entrepreneurs in Kiryandongo and Rwamwanja refugee settlements of Uganda. Entrepreneurs assessed the Power-Blox units for performance, ease of use, reliability, and affordability.
According to Power-Blox Chief Technology Officer Alessandro Medici, obtaining feedback from potential consumers is crucial to designing a sustainable solution. “During my stay in Kenya in 2008, I realized that too many western products are pushed into Africa without respecting the needs of the African market. Most of the ones I saw were complex, unrobust, and inflexible. That is why I decided to use a different approach,” Medici says.
In this fact-finding mission, Lifeline and Power-Blox teams went from one business premise to another and asked for honest feedback about the product design to learn about business possibilities. They met, among others, Chol Mayen, a 21-year-old businessman who was born as a South Sudanese refugee in Uganda. Through resilience and a hunger for success, Mayen has thus far set up a cinema hall and a phone charging establishment. His only hindrance to business expansion is the excessive cost and undependability of the diesel generator which is a crucial component of his business success.
“I pay $2.20 every day to use the generator. It is very expensive but on top of that, it is switched off for two hours during business hours so that it can rest,” Mayen explained.
When asked, ‘What would you do if you had reliable, affordable access to electricity?’ Mayen responded, “I would expand my business and help my community. I would set up several other businesses such as hair salons and provide employment. I would show my peers that it is possible to achieve what I have achieved.”
Mayen is just one of several entrepreneurs who are working to thrive in adversity and are now enthusiastic about paying for a flexible electrification solution which meets customers at their current needs and provides the possibility of creating several business models.
Unlike conventional solar home electricity, Power-Blox allows for an increase in energy capacity without overhauling the system. Lifeline Senior Program Officer Rebecca Apicha explains, “Power-Blox are very user friendly. Their operation does not require technical knowledge. The system does not get damaged when overloaded or overcharged but rather, it simply disconnects. A user can reconnect by reducing the energy load or they can simply stack more Blox to increase the energy capacity.”
At the same time, Power-Blox are not limited to single home or enterprise consumption and can be used to create mini-grid businesses. A business owner may make connection lines to several families, charge an affordable tariff, and still make a profit.
“During our mission, we learned that solar home system users are committed for years to costly payments of $2.4 per day in exchange for limited and unreliable power delivery. Power-Blox offers flexible packages at a lower price point, and with dependable energy services,” says Lifeline Director of Business Development Igor Markov. “Our funding partner helped us de-risk the initial investment. That is how we will understand the sweet spot between affordability to spark demand, and capital recovery to attract more investment in scale and innovative solutions,” Markov adds.
The next step, according to Lifeline and Power-Blox partnership team members, is designing an affordable lease-to-own payment schedule and saturating the market until every low-income household and business in Africa is electrified. “We do not see ourselves as a replacement for any other technology. But we see ourselves as a technology which reaches rural and humanitarian contexts that are not included in the business case for most electrification systems. An integral part of this initiative is to see people using Power-Blox to improve their livelihoods by starting businesses,” says Medici.
For more information about Lifeline and Power-Blox collaboration, see our project kickoff post here.
Power-Blox is an award winning Swiss company developing disruptive electrification solutions for off-grid applications in Europe, Asia and Africa. Learn more about their work on their website here.
About Creating Hope in Conflict: A Humanitarian Grand Challenge:
Creating Hope in Conflict: A Humanitarian Grand Challenge is a partnership of the U.S. Agency for International Development, the U.K. Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands, and Global Affairs Canada, with support from Grand Challenges Canada. Learn more about their work on their website here.