Wanting to apply their engineering skills to something they were passionate about, Afnan and Damien left their secure jobs in Australia 1,5 years ago and set off for Cambodia with nothing but a problem in mind – people living off grid (beyond the accessibility of public utilities) do not have access to reliable and affordable energy. Under the Innovations Against Poverty project jointly implemented by SNV and SIDA in partnership with BoP Innovation Center and Inclusive Business Sweden, Afnan and Damien can now, together with their team at Okra, try to tackle the problem they set out to solve.
More than a billion people around the world are living without access to electricity while millions more have access to unreliable and relatively expensive supplies. Around 80% of these people live in rural areas and they are left to rely on energy from generators or kerosene which is hazardous, unhealthy and cost up to 37% of household income. In the case of Cambodia, only 14% of rural areas had electricity grid access, with 50% of this population resorting to off-grid electricity solutions. Among non-grid electrified rural households, a solar solution is the most common source of electricity (about 47%) and 40% uses rechargeable batteries as their main source, for limited time-use (less than 4h per day) and at a very high cost (2-3 USD per kWh). Solar energy technologies are cheaper and more reliable in the long run but installing a whole system requires higher investment costs, which is not possible for everyone in a rural community.
Taking home solar systems forward
Okra has created a device that allow households producing electricity through a Solar Systems and households only consuming electricity, to be interconnected into a modular micro-grid, that can grow over time as the energy needs of the community increases. Their plug and play micro-grid is, simply put, a cable from house to house that creates a network where solar power generated can be shared if not consumed, reducing energy waste and making energy more affordable for those do not have a solar system in their house. These off grid population represent 50% of Cambodian population, living in areas where distance discourages line grid authority to operate.
“Anyone who can install solar home systems can now install a micro grid” – Afnan Hannan, co-founder of Okra.
Innovation for impact
The relationship between electricity access and human development is crucial. Improved healthcare, education, women empowerment (lighting during the night creates safer environment and provides opportunities for home education or nocturnal business), employment and agriculture can’t accelerate without access to electricity. But it’s not just about supplying people with electricity, it must respond to user demand, their capacity to pay and improve their lives. With a low first payment to connect to the micro-grid and a mobile pay as you go system (a system with which the customers only pay for the energy consumed, enabling them to manage their energy use and control their spending), Okra is confident they have created an off grid energy solution that will have an impact on people’s lives.
Challenge funds like IAP are critical for Okra solar
As a company, working in the social impact sector and especially in rural electrification, implies high risks and a low attractiveness to traditional investors. With the IAP grant, Okra has been able to take their grid solution beyond the pilot stage – buying equipment, manufacturing and deploying their micro-grid to the field. Constantly gathering feedback from the field, they are optimizing their product and making it ready for scale. With the opportunity to gather evidence from this concept that no one has ever seen, they can prove it works. According to Afnan, the IAP grant was funding at the right time.
”If you are going to make it as an innovative company, solving challenges with the lower income people, grant funding is what makes it possible to take your concept to a state where you can prove that it’s working” – Says Afnan Hannan about the need of funds like IAP.