OffGridBox

Compact solar unit (6'x6'x6') placed in rural communities in the developing world, filtering water & charging batteries for 1000 people per.

Photo of Troy

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I confirm that I am fully aware of the eligibility criteria, and based on its description, I am eligible to apply to the CSV Prize 2017.

  • Yes, I'm eligible

Preferred language

  • English

Organization name

Sowlis, Inc.

Year founded

2016

Initiative stage

  • Growth (the pilot has already launched and is starting to expand)

Annual budget in 2017 (USD)

  • $500k - $1m

Number of beneficiaries impacted so far

  • 1,000 - 5,000

Organization type

  • Social enterprise

Secondary Focus Area

  • Rural development

Headquarters location: Country

  • United States of America

Headquarters location: City

Boston, MA

Location(s) of impact

Rwanda: Nyamico (Kichukiro), Bwana (Rwamagana), Nyamirambo (Rwamagana), Buyoga & Karambi (Rulindo), Nyragiseke (Bugasera), and soon more!

Website

https://www.offgridbox.com

Facebook URL

https://www.facebook.com/offgridbox/

Twitter URL

@OffGridBox

Problem: What problem is this initiative trying to address?

We solve the water & electricity distribution problem plaguing rural communities so underserved people can have affordable access to power & water. In Rwanda 4.4m rural people lack access to potable water, and 7.6m lack access to electricity. Globally the numbers are 1.8b and 1.2b respectively, this is a huge market for us to scale within. Current operators who are trying to bring clean water and electricity to rural areas are not affordable for the people they serve, and are often still too far from their communities.

Solution Summary: What is the proposed solution? What do you see as its most promising aspects for creating shared value?

Our unique and innovative solution is, OffGridBox, a small (6’x6’x6’) integrated solar generation and water purification system we install in underserved rural communities in developing countries to provide them with access to clean water and affordable electricity. Inside the container is a five-stage micro-filtration tank that takes in dirty water and produces an odorless, transparent, bacteria-free drinkable water, each family receives 27 liters of this clean water with their subscription, enough for a family’s drinking and cleaning, as well as solar panels that charge 40Wh high efficiency lithium batteries, which families can take home with them, each can power 3 lights and 2 mobile phones. Families in the area can opt in to our Pay As You Go (PAYG) system to receive these services for only $.12 USD a day per family. Each box provides water and power to 232 families, about 1000 people daily.

Impact: What is the impact of the work to date? Specify both the social and the environmental impact of your work

We have sold 14 OffGridBox’s to NGOs & 14 to individuals. These 28 boxes have impacted approximately 9k individuals with more than 300k working hours in 8 different countries. We piloted our PAYG service model, in Bugesera, Rwanda, the impact was double what we expected - 50 families/250 individuals. We have 6 operational boxes, with 12 more under development, to be deployed in Rwanda in early 2018, expanding our impact to 4k families/20k people. We create shared value by providing underserved populations with consistent, convenient electricity and clean water for a quarter of the cost they are currently paying for just less environmentally sustainable electricity. People are currently using power from diesel/gas generators & kerosene lamps which pollute the air, water, & land (including agriculture). The boxes also stimulate the local economy, we hire 3 local women per box, & 1 local regional manager for every 10 boxes, and the reliable energy is used to stimulate local business.

Financial sustainability plan: How is this initiative financially supported? How will you ensure its financial sustainability long-term?

We raised $900k in our first seed round from 1 pilot unit, which funded the first 18 boxes. We will enter our second round later in 2018, with at least 6 commercial units installed, raising $3m. With our Rwanda business model we can make $10k in revenue a year for 20 years per box, with a 2 year break-even point for each unit, which is a very stable long-term revenue model. In the next few years before we hit profitability we are getting money from social impact funds, venture capitalists, and Revenue Share Agreements (RSA’s), where an investor contributes $25k, which funds the manufacturing and installation of 1 OffGridBox. The investor receives 80% of the revenue until they have recouped their investment. At which point, the revenue is split 50/50 between the investor and the company.

Unique value proposition: What makes your initiative innovative? How does your project differ from other organizations working in the same field?

A centralized/community-based solution meaning: units close to our customers, PAYG model makes services affordable, and not penalizing people for non-payment. Current energy providers are installing solar-panels on individual homes, which provide more power than needed, at too high a cost, leading to repos for non-payment. Water purification is energy heavy, requiring a reliable electricity source that rural areas don’t have. Water and energy need to be provided together, only we are doing this.

Founding story: Share a story about the "Aha!" moment that sparked the beginning of this initiative.

The co-founders of the company were in South Africa with Oxfam working on installing electricity and water solutions in 6 schools in very rural areas. The project wasn't hard, but each school took the team 3 weeks. They observed the issues were due to the lack of consistent and convenient supplies and labor in these remote locations. For the last school, the team decided to pre-setup as much of the systems as they could in a small shipping container before they left the city they were in for this last remote location. They were able to do this last installation in 3 days. With that small change they went from three weeks to three days, and knew this model was scalable. This is the model we use with OffGridBox, pre-setting-up water and energy systems in small containers that require very little additional work to install in the rural communities where we are providing services.

Where did you hear about the Nestlé Creating Shared Value Prize?

  • Ashoka page or contact

Program Design Clarity: We are hungry to know more about what exactly your model consists of. Succinctly list a) what main activities are you doing with your beneficiaries, b) where you carry out the activities? c) how often? d) for how many hours? e) who delivers the services? and f) any other brief details

Our main work is providing purified water and solar energy (in portable batteries), to families living in rural off grid communities, in developing countries, with a Pay-As-You-Go subscription model. Each family who subscribes receives daily services of 27 liters of clean water and 40Wh of energy in a high efficiency lithium battery for only $.12 USD a day. This is enough water for a family’s drinking and cleaning needs, and enough electricity to power 3 lights and 2 mobile phones. We are able to provide these services through our product – OffGridBox, which is a modular solar unit, made by our subsidiary La Fabrica de Sole, that we place in rural communities that lack convenient and affordable access to clean water and sustainable energy. Each box provides the above services to 232 families, or about 1000 people daily. We have 6 boxes operating with this model in the Bugesera district in Rwanda. Another 12 have been funded, and are currently under development, to be deployed in Rwanda in early 2018. We have a community-centric model, which helps us integrate into communities, and provide shared value for the communities we operate in. Thus, each box is operated by women who live in the community the box serves. Three women are employed per box, with women rotating who is operating the box at any one time, so services can be available when they are needed. With an additional local person hired per 10 boxes, to be a regional manager.

Focus area

  • Water

We are interested in learning more about your initiative's broad impact on sustainable development. Please reply ONLY to the question(s) related to your above focus area.

Globally 1.8b rural people have a complete lack of access to potable water, 4.4m of those people are in Rwanda, our biggest impact on sustainable development in water is providing access to water and power for rural people in developing countries who otherwise would not have it. Every box we install provides affordable and convenient access to clean water for cooking, cleaning, and drinking to 1000 people who would otherwise be using contaminated water. Groundwater from wells is still the easiest water to purify because it has a lack of solids in the water. We are currently working on piloting an extremely inexpensive system to filter out large particulates from lake water, so that water can be pumped to the OffGridBox to be purified and distributed, without adding extra cost for our consumers. This is not just creating access to clean water, but adding new sources of water that can be treated by coming up with new infrastructure on how to treat water and this is only the beginning.

Creating shared value: How does your initiative create value for different stakeholders?

We provide shared value for the countries we operate in, communities we serve, the environment, our own company & investors. To increase development in Rwanda the rural people need to be included in the economy, for them to be included in the economy they need affordable, reliable access to basic services like clean water and energy. Reliable energy being provided at the community level, stimulates their local economies, creating jobs. The money our customers save by buying our energy & the money made by the people we employ is reinvested in the economy, it can fund local businesses or education. We are also working on adding more value to our customers as we grow, providing services like wifi, radio, remote health services, outdoor community lights. Our product stops people from using more polluting technologies like disposable batteries, kerosene, gas and diesel generators, which helps the local water, air, land, and agriculture, and in-turn helps the health of the the local people.

How is your initiative funded, now and over the next 5 years?

Right now we are using profits from our seed round, which got investments from angels, accelerator programs, grants, friends, and family. The first 18 boxes were funded by RSA’s (explained above), we want to continue to use RSA’s as the primary method to fund boxes, until we are able to qualify for a business loan with interest rates low enough for us to make more money using the loan than we would make with RSA's. In late 2018 we want to do a second round of funding for about $3m to fund R&D and the infrastructure for movement into new markets.

How do you plan to influence your field of work if you are a winner of this edition of the CSV Prize?

We are in the Pay-As-You-Go solar market, a mature market in the developing world. We have developed a novel business model that focuses on shared value for the communities we serve, the countries they are in, our company, our investors, and the environment. Even though we are still testing the model once we have more operational data, we will show the market that it can be successful. Influencing how businesses in the market structure themselves moving forward. To do this, we need up-front investments, like that from the CSV Prize to pay for the development and implementation of OffGridBox. So, others see that a company can be environementally sustainable, while positively impacting the communities they serve, and still returning a profit.

How will you leverage an investment from Nestle to expand the impact of your work?

The investment from Nestle of 500k Swiss Francs could pay for the development and installation of about 20 boxes in rural Rwanda, impacting approximately 20,000 people, by providing them affordable purified water and sustainable electricity. Since we charge far less for electricity than the current market rate, these 20 boxes will save rural Rwandans $600k during their 20-year life-span. Based on the death-rate of rural Rwandans due to waterborne illness, these 20 boxes will save the lives of approximately 32k people over their 20-year life-span. Simultaneously, the revenue these 20 boxes will generate will be reinvested in our company to help us have a sustainable business-model, so we can continue to expand our business and our impact.

Spread Strategies: Moving forward, what are the main strategies for scaling impact? What’s the projected impact for the coming years? Are you planning to expand your programme into new locations? On what assumptions do you build your scale-up plans?

Our goal is to fund, make, & install 4 new OffGridBoxes in Rwanda each month of 2018. The magnitude at which we are able to scale is dependent on getting the funds for each box & how quickly our manufacturing subsidiary can produce them. Grants help fund new boxes, along with our Revenue Sharing Agreements. The break-even for each box is 2 years, so in 2020 we will start making profits from our boxes, which we can reinvest in the company. Our aim is to qualify for bank loans in the next year to cover installation costs, to do this we need boxes installed & generating revenue. After we have proved our model in Rwanda, we will start installing units in other countries. We have the most interest from the Philippians, Columbia, & Zambia. These countries have large enough economies to support our product, and they are already investing heavily in off-grid technologies. Zambia specifically is much like Rwanda, the government is very hands-on and will help support us in our efforts.

Team: What is the current composition of your team (types of roles, number of full-time vs. part-time staff, board members, etc.)? How will this team evolve as your initiative grows?

Core employees:
Full-time
• CEO. Investors relationships, strategy & team building,
• COO/CFO. Operations & financial management. Local contact in Rwanda.
• CTO. Technical design, R&D.
• US Director. US point of contact, business development, US relationships & team building.
Part-time
• VP for European Partnerships. EU Revenue Share Agreements, Impact Funds, & Institutional relationships.
• Rotating interns that support US VP in the US office.
Employees of Italian manufacturing subsidiary:
Full-time
• Senior Engineer.
• Junior Engineer. Assists in manufacturing, also works on monitoring systems.
Part-time
• One person for Buying and Accounting.
• Two Manufacturing workers.

We are constantly hiring business and manufacturing roles as we expand.

Awards: What awards or honors has the initiative received?

• MassCEC Catalyst 2017 - Winners ($65k)
• Singularity University Global Grand Challenge Awards - Top 3 in the Water Category
• The Not Impossible Ignition Award – Winners, for our Commitment to Accessible Energy (Made Possible by National Grid and Hawaiian Electric Company)
• MassChallenge Accelerator 2017 - #1 in Clean Tech ($100k)

Organizational leadership: How are you influencing your field of work in the present?

We operate in the Pay-As-You-Go Solar market but are the only company to combine PAYG Solar with additional added value to the people we serve, by adding purified water services, showing our market that we have more customers because of the added service. Purified water is in high demand, we found we have almost 0 acquisition costs for getting people to purchase water. The innovation we are sharing with our field is how to provide more shared value. Energy in rural areas is wanted, but purified water in those areas is needed, combining the two services helps us to encourage and retain customers, while also doing something that truly helps them, their communities, and their families.

Should you be successful, please confirm your availability to attend the Ashoka Impact Boot camp and Creating Shared Value Prize Live Pitch Event at the World Water Forum 13-16 March 2018

  • Yes, I am available to attend the events on 13-16 March 2018

16 comments

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Photo of Iain Church

Troy, this idea has huge potential. Take Malawi as an example, the amount of power outages and off-grid locations means that solutions like this one could be game changing. If it is of interest I have a range of NGO contacts in Malawi who might be interested in your systems - drop me a line and let me know. Good luck.

Photo of Troy

Iain,

Thank you for your feedback! As for your interest in OffGridBox, we're currently working on developing units for Rwanda, to fill an order. We want to make the product more accessible at a smaller scale in the coming months. Please submit a pre-order inquiry on our website with more details on your needs and we'll try to help out! https://www.offgridbox.com/get-a-box/

Best,
OffGridBox Team

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