240 million people in India have no access to electricity
Without electricity, many families are forced to use candles and kerosene lamps for studying and work after dark. This not only ruins their eyesight, but inhaling kerosene fumes is equivalent to smoking two packs of cigarettes per day. The lack of electricity also means that - while about 80% of Indians own a mobile phone - millions have to walk several miles to the nearest charging station, which in many cases is no more than an informal vendor with a car battery that can damage phones' batteries. All the while, the poorest households spend about 10% of their monthly incomes on energy - without getting much value in return.
No access to electricity means that millions are excluded from the modern economy. Not only does it have negative effects on health and education, but it also prevents communities from reaping the benefits of modern technology, such as the internet, that has the potential to create jobs and boost living standards.
Current solutions are failing the poorest
While it is the Indian government's policy objective to electrify all rural villages, millions of households remain in the dark and national grid expansion is too slow to reach them in time to meet the United Nations' SDG7 "sustainable energy for all" by 2030.
Private off-grid solar solutions, such as solar home systems, have promised a solution to this issue and have already successfully provided electricity to many relatively better-off families. However, because such solutions require high upfront costs as well as regular payments to be met to avoid dispossession, households below INR 5,000 (~USD 80), whose incomes are low and irregular, are unable to afford them.
Our solution empowers the most disadvantaged
Empower Energy will provide solar electricity to the most underserved Indian communities in a pay-per-use model that removes all upfront cost and regular payments. We will partner with trusted local entrepreneurs that already serve our target demographic in rural and peri-urban settings and equip them with one of our "Solar ATMs", which are solar-powered charging stations. Each Solar ATM will charge battery packs that customers will rent for a small fee, use to power their devices at home, and return to swap for a new pack when depleted.
Through our model, below-the-poverty-line consumers in India will have access to clean, safe and green electricity, and lighting that is cheaper than kerosene. However, we don't see ourselves as only providing value through lighting and charging mobile phones. We view electricity as an enabler, and through our Solar ATMs, we aim to empower individuals to transform their own lives. In the future, our Solar ATMs will provide further energy-enabled services, such as internet connectivity, educational content and access to governmental programmes.
Global competition wins have validated our approach
The Hult Prize is an international competition under the auspices of President Bill Clinton and the United Nations that asks students to solve the world's biggest issues through for-profit business models. This year's challenge is to "harness the power of energy to transform the lives of 10 million people by 2025".
We began our Hult Prize journey in November 2017 and, since then, have won both the Oxford campus round and the London regionals. Out of 100,000+ entrants globally, we are now one of 16 regional winners who have been chosen to take part in the Hult Prize Accelerator programme over the summer. During this, we will spend six weeks working with business and energy experts to refine our model for rural energy access in India.
Through the accelerator, we will have the chance to become one of six global finalists and present our solution to world leaders at the UN during Global Goals Week in September. The winner of the global finals will win $1m in seed funding to help scale their solution rapidly. We are now one step away from presenting at the UN!
In April, we took part in the Morpheus Cup European Universities and Graduate Schools' Championship. Ronit, our CEO, represented our team in Paris and we were chosen as the winner from among 90 other semi-finalists from 20 European countries. In addition to winning the overall grand prize, we also won the Energy Category, giving additional validation to our approach.
Next step: Testing and refining our model in India
To demonstrate that our model is ready for scale, we need to test and refine it together with our target customers in off-grid communities. At the end of June, we will travel to Odisha in India and work with a local partner organisation with longstanding relationships to our target communities to identify our first three local entrepreneurs, whom we will equip with prototype versions of our Solar ATMs and train them on how to operate them.
Over the course of just over two months, we will then work together with these entrepreneurs to provide electricity to the local community using our battery rental system, while testing and refining all relevant aspects of our product and delivery model. Part of this will mean finding and hiring a local sales agent who will be able to both manage the existing Empower Entrepreneurs, as well as identify and recruit new ones in additional locations.
By establishing a local team and operations early on, we will ensure that the communities in our first three locations will continue to be served, even when part of the team returns to the UK to take part in the Hult Prize Accelerator.
During the pilot phase, we will:
- Identify, train, and provide an additional income source to three local entrepreneurs
- Test three Solar ATM prototypes and refine the operational details of our service delivery
- Gather feedback from our customers to ensure our model meets their demands and has social impact
- Set up longer-term operations and build additional local partnerships to take the model to scale
On what will the money be spent?
Through the competitions we have won, as well as through support from our university, we have already raised enough money to fund our personal expenses during the pilot phase (travel, accommodation, food), as well as any unforeseen additional expenditures. This means that all of your contributions to this Crowdfunder will go directly to delivering our service to our target communities.
The money raised through this campaign will be allocated as follows :
Who we are
We are four students from the University of Oxford with a passion to deliver impact at scale. We have a diverse range of complementary skills and experience that we believe will make our venture a success.
Ronit Kanwar, CEO
- Young Entrepreneur of the Year, Future Global Leaders Fellow, former Managing Director of Nova (Young Enterprise company winning 11 awards)
- BA Economics & Management, Keble College, University of Oxford
- Indian fluent in Hindi & Punjabi with existing connections in India
Gideon Laux, COO
- Strategy, business development & finance experience with several successful tech-based social enterprises
- Former President at 180 Degrees Consulting, managing a team of 40 and 14 projects
- MSc Economics for Development, Somerville College, University of Oxford (Rotary Scholar)
James Dickson, Head of Data & Impact
- 6 years international development & impact evaluation experience, including as UN programme officer
- MBA, Saïd Business School & MSc Evidence-Based Policy, Green Templeton College, University of Oxford (Pershing Square Scholar)
Vaby Endrojono-Ellis, Head of Market Development
- Previously co-founder of Nunude, securing bulk order from global retailer Forever21
- Worked in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu on micro-finance and data collection
- Experience in Social Impact Bonds and Development Impact Bonds
- MPhil Development Studies, Kellogg College, University of Oxford
In addition to our team, we have built a network of business leaders, solar experts, entrepreneurs, engineers and incumbents that have either endorsed, supported or critiqued our venture which has allowed us to refine and improve our model over time.