Want to charge a phone in rural Africa? This company has the solution.

Millions of people in East Africa do not have access to affordable and reliable electricity. Entrepreneur Gaurav Manchanda is hoping to light up Kenya using solar energy and lighting products created specifically for communities without electricity. The founder of One Degree Solar told How we made it in Africa’s Dinfin Mulupi about the firm’s flagship product, called the BrightBox, a solar-charged system that powers lights, smartphones, tablets, and radios.

How did you start One Degree Solar?

I was born in India and raised in the US. I’ve always had an interest in using renewable energy technology as a means for connectivity and community development. After studying International Development and Technology Transfer at university, I worked in Liberia for the Ministry of Health through the Clinton Health Access Initiative. Access to power was a major problem for patients seeking care, as a vast majority of clinics were without electricity.

We identified solar as a viable option, given the condition of roads at the time and the prohibitive cost of diesel fuel. We secured funding for large solar systems but didn’t have the local resources for proper maintenance services, community trainings, or spare parts. These elements are critical for technology to work properly for the long-term, so I began looking for low-cost, easy-to-use solar products that could fill the needs of community health workers.

I ended up leaving the Ministry to start One Degree Solar and address that specific gap. We were initially focused on a very small niche market and had successful projects in a few countries via NGOs. Nurses told us that their friends were requesting for the product to be available in local markets, and we realised we’d be able to provide more lights to more people via the private sector. We changed our business model in 2011 and started selling to local resellers and distributors. Although I am a former non-profit worker, I’m still a firm believer in the benefits that responsible businesses can bring to people in resource-limited settings.

Last year you launched the solar-powered BrightBox system, which powers lights, smartphones, tablets, and radios. What was the inspiration behind this product?

Given the experiences in Liberia, we wanted to make a product that was compatible with locally available spare parts, easily serviced by local electricians, and extremely easy to use and distribute. We did not want to reinvent the wheel but felt people were not completely satisfied with products in the market, especially when we started a few years ago.

Last year we designed our latest system, BrightBox, which powers lights, mobile phones, tablets, and radios. It uses batteries, light bulbs, and other components that are commonly available across emerging markets, and it’s designed to be easily serviced when necessary. On a full charge, two light bulbs last for about 20 hours, and we have sold over 4,000 units to resellers since launching BrightBox in October 2012. Kenya is our primary market but we have shipped to clients as far as the Pacific Islands and several other countries. We see a huge opportunity in Africa because a lot of people have mobile phones but lack power. We also provide a suite of customer services via phone and SMS, so Kenya is a particularly great market for One Degree.

The complete BrightBox system.

The complete BrightBox system.

Describe the challenges you face at One Degree Solar.

The demand is there; when people first see the product, they really want to buy it then and there. The challenge is visibility. People need to be exposed to it in a personal way, or be able to try it when walking into a store. In certain markets, end-user finance is also a challenge, especially [with] farmers. As demand continues to grow in a number of countries, we also need to stay focused and make sure that we are providing a great customer experience everywhere, not just in the places where we have staff.

Africa was branded the hopeless continent not so long ago. What has changed to attract foreign investors and entrepreneurs like you?

That was not a holistic assessment, but rather, an unnecessary and damaging generalisation. Fortunately, most news outlets in Africa are now available online and offer a wider range of perspectives. The middle class is booming in certain countries. We have seen the success of mobile phones in enabling people to access other services. I think hope and progress come with innovation. Technology access has helped create entirely new markets and reach populations that otherwise could have taken decades to service with traditional approaches. Political stability and exports have also increased.

India was in a similar space 15 years ago before the internet boom, and today parts of Nairobi are just like Delhi: people have a cell phone or two, there are large shopping malls, a booming middle class, and new construction everywhere. It says something that companies like Google are in Nairobi, and I really think the combination of renewable energy and smarter phones will enable incredible advancements in the near future.

What advice do you have for other entrepreneurs?

Hang in there. Perseverance and flexibility are very important. Entrepreneurship is not an easy road, and business plans always change. Maintaining focus while keeping your eyes open to new opportunities is a balancing act that is critical at every stage. Also, mentors and advisors who will both challenge and support you can be incredible assets.