If solar power is a lifeline for rural communities cut off by geography from national electricity grids, it can also be a source of huge frustration. If the sun shines consistently through the daylight hours then a consumer will probably have enough power stored to run lights and a few household appliances through the long evening. On cloudy days, however, the lights may fail after two or three hours.
That may be fine when a regular – if intermittent – source of electricity is still something of a novelty. But as off-grid communities increasingly take advantage of solar power, expectations naturally rise. Yes, it’s great to have lighting and perhaps not a huge problem if you have to switch to another source later in the evening but no one wants to sit down and watch TV or use a PC only to have the battery cut out before the end of a programme.
So the question is, can anything be done to make the electricity produced from solar panels more predictable?
UK-startup Azuri believes it has the answer and using technology developed in Cambridge it rolling out its services across Africa.
Established in 2012, the company currently provides a pay-as-you go solar power solution to customers in 12 countries in both East and West Africa. Nothing unusual there, perhaps, but in addition to the panels and batteries the package also includes analytics and AI technology designed to profile individual customers in terms of their consumption patterns.
And as CEO Simon Bransfield-Garth explains, the AI component enables output from the batteries to be regulated in real time to match the weather conditions of the day. For instance, if a customer typically has lights switched on his or her house for five hours a day, when the weather is cloudy the Azuri system reduce the power output slightly. This dims the lights but ensure they will remain switched on for the expected period. “The difference in the output from the lights is barely perceptible,” he says.
A Commercial Model
The flexibility of the system not only allows Azuri to offer reliable power to individual users, depending on day-to-day weather conditions, it also underpins the companies ambition to build its business in multiple countries with very different climates. “Ghana has a rainy season that lasts for three months,” says Bransfield-Garth. “In contrast Kenya has around 320 days of sunshine every year. We have made the technology that works in countries where there is a lot of sunshine and countries where it is more cloudy.”
As Bransfield-Garth stresses, the company’s business model is fully commercial. Rather than charging for the kit upfront – which would be unaffordable to many potential customers – Azuri offers the package on a pay as you go basis, with the customer ultimately owning the equipment after about eighteen months. Electricity generation is just part of the package. Customers also receive LED lights, mobile phone chargers and a radio/MP3 player and the company is also planning to offer a 24 inch television with a satellite connection running on ten watts of power.Again this will be enabled with power regulation driven by analytics.
The Challenge Of Diverse Markets
As things stand, Azuri has about 90,000 users, spread out across 12 countries. “We have a strong presence in East Africa and we are building our presence in West Africa,” says Bransfield-Garth.
He acknowledges that establishing a business across a range of diverse countries is challenging. “In some areas there are no distribution channels and very few people have bank accounts,” he says. “Every market where you go is different in terms of partners, the market and regulation.”
To gain traction the company has traditionally worked with local partners but increasingly it is putting its own people in place. “When we started, we took the view that we would do everything with partners. Now we have our own people in six countries and a reasonable sized office in Nairobi,” he adds.
The company’s ability to trade has been enhanced greatly by the payments revolution in Africa. In the absence of a traditional bank accounts, phone based payments systems have flourished, allowing Azuri to collect pay-as-you go revenues easily.
Azuri posted a turnover of $2m in 2015, but Bransfield-Garth says the most accurate measure of success is the 90,000 subscriber base. As things stand, company sees huge opportunities in providing reliable power to charge phones, keep lights on and run household appliance. The power is more expensive than it would be in the west but much cheaper and greener than using rechargeable batteries or kerosene lamps, the company claims.
Bransfield Garth is an enthusiastic proponent of so-called reverse innovation – the trend that sees much of the tech-innovation going in the world today either emanating from, or driven by the demands and trading realities of emerging economies. By continuing to innovate with the target market in mind, the company aims to continue growing its market in Africa.
The original article can be found here.