Life for the vast majority of the un-connected rural populace ends after sunset. For Jeremy Higgs, co-founder of Pakistan-based startup Eco Energy Finance, this conundrum presented an opportunity
Crippling power shortages leading to lengthy outages are commonplace in Pakistan. With the government struggling to modernize antiquated infrastructure, people and businesses can face up to 16 hours of no electricity supply daily, especially during the brutally hot summer. Life comes to a screeching halt as small retailers, cottage industries, and households are unable to afford alternative sources of power generation.
Policy experts have estimated that Pakistan will require approximately $20 billion of investment in the power sector to meet forecasted demand by the year 2020. This figure does not include the money required to address issues such as line losses, wastage, and theft – which are all shockingly high. Simply put, the problems are endemic and solutions are few and far between.
Unfortunately for those at the margins of society, this problem is much worse. Rural communities are almost completely ignored by utilities companies as the spread-out population makes it unfeasible to justify the high cost of investing into the provision of electricity. Faced with a severe paucity of funds, the Pakistani administration has prioritized upgrading the power supply for urban and semi-urban areas, leaving people in the rest of the nation to fend for themselves.
Life for the vast majority of the un-connected rural populace ends after sunset. People are unable to watch television, study, visit relatives, or even maintain small businesses such as restaurants and tea stalls. The predominance of subsistence-based agriculture means that families are unlikely to go hungry, but opportunities for socioeconomic advancement are out of the question.
For Jeremy Higgs, co-founder of Pakistan-based startup Eco Energy Finance, this conundrum presented an opportunity. Passionate about social entrepreneurship, Jeremy has prior experience in the country managing the Network of Organizations Working with People with Disabilities, which worked towards training disabled people to help them gain employment or start their own business. In 2012, Jeremy founded the green-tech business along with Shazia Khan with the aim to provide “solar energy for poverty alleviation and a sustainable future.”
Initial funding for Eco Energy Finance came in the form of a $200,000 grant from the GSM Association Innovation Fund and some private donors which helped the duo hire a team and source their initial batch of products – solar lanterns. “Approximately 70 million people in Pakistan are ‘off-grid,’ and therefore not covered by the existing system,” explains Higgs. “The opportunity for success is vast, but it is critical to create a model that is both accessible and affordable.”
On the grid with solar panels
Higgs and Khan got a chance to refine and focus the business when they were accepted into Invest2Innovate, a four-month startup mentoring program in Lahore that supports early-stage enterprises and helps them scale their ideas. During the incubation process, their model was tweaked, incorporating aspects of technology that would help in remote monitoring of the solar energy devices as well as gathering data and analyzing metrics.
Eco Energy Finance’s flagship product is a solar panel which can either be purchased up front for around $10, or in four monthly installments of $3 each. The panels are sourced directly from British manufacturer BBOXX and come with a two-year warranty. There are no recurring costs.
The standard panel is able to power a television, a DVD player, two audio devices, and a light source such as a tube light. While this may not seem like much, it is a much better alternative to poorly manufactured and often unreliable sources of power such as battery-operated torches or kerosene lamps. All panels are remotely monitored through a smartphone application so that the Eco Energy Finance team is aware when there are any faults that need to be rectified. The startup also employs a legion of “community mobilizers,” all of whom are equipped with a smartphone to map data and gauge energy requirements. As Higgs explains, this project is having ripple effects as it helps bring large numbers of people into a centralized database, thereby promoting things like mobile banking, financial inclusion, and documentation. Such things were unfathomable just a few years ago, due to neglect from authorities and the remoteness of the areas involved.
Part of Higg’s quest is to improve the everyday lives of people who fall in this bracket. “It is critical that we provide them with an alternative reality by increasing their productivity hours and allowing them to chart their own future,” he affirms.
The success stories that he views when on field visits have been instrumental in convincing Higgs and the team that they’re making an impact – albeit slowly. “During a visit to a village in rural Sindh, I met Dost Ali Shoro who had purchased a solar system from us in order to run a television and DVD player in his tea shop,” he tells Tech in Asia. “An uninterrupted viewing experience resulted in a doubling of his monthly sales, as more people came to relax, watch television, and enjoy a cup of steaming hot tea,” he explains. For those with limited income, this affordable source of renewable energy can truly seem like a godsend.
There is no doubt that an enormous amount of work needs to go in before this startup is able to scale to a level where the majority of the unconnected population is able to benefit. However, where previously Khan and Higgs were only selling a few products a month, the number has now gone up to the several hundreds. Promotion of alternative energy, sadly, is not on the government’s priority list and therefore it is even more imperative for entrepreneurs to step in and address the gap.
Editing by Steven Millward.
This post was originally published on Tech in Asia.
Featured Image Credit: Asianet-Pakistan / Shutterstock.com