Impact Engine’s Inaugural Class: Light Up Africa

by: Alan Hurt

“Light Poverty,” which refers to lack of access to electricity and modern lighting, directly impacts people’s quality of life, and the impact is more skewed for the marginalized and weaker sections of society in developing and emerging economies.  The problem worsens when it comes to global issues such as climate change and sustainability.

The Zoom Box

In an effort to change this problem, we started Light Up Africa (LUA), a social enterprise in the renewable energy sectorLUA is working to improve access to energy for marginalized and weaker sections. We have developed the Zoom Box, a portable electricity-generating device, which generates electrical energy through kinetic motion and stores the electricity within the box to be consumed when needed. The Zoom Box is sustainable, affordable and offers reliable solutions for the impoverished that need the electricity the most.

LUA is more than a business idea – it is a movement. LUA is the dream of many and is led by a motivated, committed and professional team comprising of business professionals, engineers, and volunteers – each one brining a unique skill set to the team. The company is inspired by its vision to bring reliable and affordable electricity to everyone in the world, and is driven by its mission to improve the quality of life for the impoverished while aiming to make the world a more sustainable place. We’re doing this by bringing reliable and affordable customized technologies to underdeveloped regions globally, starting in Africa.

In a world where 1.4 billion people have no access to electricity, a dire need exists to provide them with it. One specific region with a great need for electricity (and from where LUA plans to launch its operation) is Bungoma, Kenya. As of 2009, 33.4 million – or 80% -of Kenyans did not have access to the electrical grid. Even those Kenyans who did have access to the electrical grid experienced on average 83.6 days per year of electrical outages. Kerosene, an unhealthy and non-environmentally friendly source of energy, is the primary source of energy for the majority of Kenyans who do not have access to grid. The Zoom Box can provide a cleaner and better lighting solution to these individuals at much lower cost in comparison to kerosene, which does not provide adequate illumination, is unsafe, costly, and has serious negative health implications such as lung poisoning and blindness.

The Zoom Box is the most effective solution to bridge the energy gap for rural communities without access to electricity grid. The Zoom Box harnesses the kinetic energy and converts it to electricity to be consumed when needed. Creating energy through motion is not a new idea, but making it affordable for the people who need it – and at such a scale – is unique. Applying this technology in the form of a personal device designed specifically to attach to bicycles, motorbikes, livestock, and boats is an innovative idea. Zoom Box’s ease of use and compatibility with any moving object, such as a pedestrian walking, bicycles, motorcycles, livestock, and boats, provides a significant competitive advantage.

Weighing less than five pounds, the Zoom Box is able to generate nearly 20 volts of electricity during movement. Because the movement is not constant, a robust generator converts these short bursts of kinetic energy into electrical energy. The stored electrical energy can then be used to power a system of LED lights inside the box for 3-5 hours before the Zoom Box needs to be recharged. With the Zoom Box, Kenyans will be able to power lights to help their children study at night in places where there is no source of electricity. Through the incorporation of a universal European plug, all East Africans can attach small lighting devices to the Zoom Box. The product has been designed in such a way that it can be used in all kinds of weather. Fishermen do not have to worry about getting the Zoom Box wet, and farmers can freely use the Zoom Box during the hottest days of the year. Given its robust design, the Zoom Box can be used by both children and adults without fear of cracking or damaging the device.

The Zoom Box customer base includes everyone who does not have access to electricity, which can be segmented into the following categories: small and medium entrepreneurs; rural workers such as farmers, fishermen, taxi owners; and individual households. Currently, there are approximately 27.7 million farmers, over 500,000 fishermen, and 290,000 bicycle taxis in Kenya that can utilize the Zoom Box. This means the Zoom Box can bring electricity to over 70% of the Kenyan population.

LUA sets itself apart from its competitors through innovative technology, developing a strong community reputation, and offering an affordable product with prompt after-sales support.  Where competing companies are focusing on harnessing ‘ONLY’ solar, wind, or micro-hydro power to provide electricity to Kenya, LUA Zoom Box can be combined and integrated with any other renewable technology apart from using its kinetic energy conservation technology. Its robust design allows the Zoom Box to be used in any weather conditions with little to no maintenance by the end user.

The current design of the Zoom Box incorporates several LED lights directly into the box. This design allows for the Zoom Box to not only be used as a personal energy device, but as a light for studying, domestic activities, and to provide light for walking at night. Providing a light for walking at night will result in reduced cases of snakebites and petty crime.

LUA will be able to offer a highly competitive price for the Zoom Box. The Zoom Box is made of quality, low-cost materials. These costs will continue to decrease by taking advantage of economies of scale as LUA expands. The Zoom Box has numerous benefits over its competitors like Sun King Pro, Nuru Light, and d.light – none of which use kinetic energy as a source to generate power.  Additionally, the Zoom Box incorporates a photovoltaic cell into the design to further address solar market needs.

The Competition

The SolarLantern, a product of Sun King Pro, has been operating out of Kenya for nearly two years. The SolarLantern is an LED lamp powered by a PV solar system. Sun King Pro is the leader in electrifying Kenya and has over 25 locations that sell the SolarLantern. The d.light, a solar study lantern, has been providing Kenyans with access to light since 2007.  d.light sells several different models of its solar lanterns in Kenya, with the most expensive one costing $50. d.light aims to improve the quality of life of 50 million Africans by 2015.

The Nuru Light, a solar lantern pod, offers its users light similar to that of a torch. The Nuru Light, however, requires a pod charging system to charge each individual light or pod. Although the price of each pod is extremely affordable for Kenyans, the cost of the charging system is unknown. The Nuru Light had plans to launch operations in Kenya in 2012.

Impact Engine, Here We Come

When I was a kid, all I wanted to be was an adult.  But not for the reasons you may be thinking.  You see, as a kid all of my heros – my parents, Mother Thersea, Nelson Mandela – they were all old.  So as a kid, I thought that in order to make a difference in the world, I had to be old, wise, maybe even have super powers. Well, now that I am older,  I’ve (sadly) learned that I don’t have super powers.  But, by being part of Impact Engine, I have been given that chance to see an idea grow from idea to tangible impact.

It is this accelerator opportunity that will allow LUA to grow.  What LUA is looking to get out of the Impact Engine experience most is simple: the chance to be different in combating “Light Poverty” and the opportunity to change the world.  It also helps that our team is working alongside seven other great companies and a management team with a wealth of knowledge, insight, and experience. I’m excited for what the experience will bring – for us as a team, and for our ability to help solve the light poverty problem globally.

* This article is the second profile within an eight-part series, featuring the eight startup companies from Impact Engine’s inaugural cohort. Impact Engine is a 12-week accelerator program that supports for-profit businesses making the world a better place. *

About the author Alan Hurt @Technori
Alan Hurt is the Chief Lighting Officer at Light Up Africa, a social impact startup built to change the way the world thinks about electricity, while ensuring over 500 million people in Africa have access to it. He spent over 5 years on sustainable engineering projects in 13 countries in the developing world. Following a volunteering trip to Kenya in 2007, Alan made it his lifelong mission to solve the global epidemic that is “Light Poverty.” Alan has broad experience working on engineering projects with Engineers Without Borders, ProBec, and UMABU. He has also collaborated with Re:Char, Jane Adeny Memorial School, African Christian Organization Network, and Walk Children’s Church.

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