ENERGY REVOLUTION AFRICA INTERVIEW: “Data, technology and digitalisation have the overwhelming potential to transform the energy sector in Africa.”

Mansoor Hamayun, CEO and co-founder of BBOXX. African Utility Week 1)    Let’s start with some background on BBOXX and your role there.
BBOXX is a next generation utility company. We bring an on-grid experience in an off-grid setting – powering growth and transforming the lives of those living in rural communities in the developing world. BBOXX believes that there is an opportunity to leapfrog straight to smarter solutions, using solar power and pioneering technology to bypass expensive traditional grid infrastructure. We are driven by our mission to provide energy to 20 million people by 2020.

BBOXX was founded in 2010 by Chris Baker-Brian, now CTO, and Laurent Van Houcke who is our COO, and me as CEO. We met studying electrical engineering at Imperial College London. Whilst studying, we travelled around the developing world and recognised the challenge posed to communities’ economic development by an unreliable energy supply. We saw the potential to create a sustainable and environmentally responsible way of solving this problem.

2)    What projects in the energy sector in Africa that BBOXX is involved in currently are you most excited about?
BBOXX recently launched Pulse – a cloud-based task management platform, which enables distributed businesses to improve efficiency and enhance customer service. Pulse overcomes many of the big challenges that distributed energy companies experience in Africa, for example managing customers, products and employees who are spread out across remote locations.

BBOXX Pulse was developed as we recognised that in order to maximise resources and scale effectively, companies will need to have a clear understanding of how customers, products and sales teams are performing. By digitalising a business’s sales and service management, this data can be used to build up the bigger picture, and provide a better service.

On other interesting projects, at the beginning of 2018 BBOXX collaborated with Victron Energy, manufacturer of components for solar energy systems, to launch large pay-as-you-go (PAYG) solar systems in towns and cities in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

BBOXX was already operating in rural DRC, but we noticed that even in urban parts of the DRC, unreliable energy was still a major stumbling block, and frequent power cuts were a significant barrier to business growth. This collaboration meant we could expand our offering in the DRC, thereby providing access to affordable, reliable and clean energy across the spectrum – from small solar home systems in rural areas to businesses in the more built up Goma region. 

3)    What in your view are the main challenges that the energy sector faces on the continent?
The energy sector in Africa is essentially a multi-billion dollar market. With some 1.1 billion people across the world without access to reliable energy, the potential to provide this energy and plug the gap is enormous. However, access to the right kind of finance in this sector is a major issue. We are working with Bamboo Capital Partners, a private equity firm delivering positive social and financial value, to tackle this issue head on. Together with Bamboo, we recently launched BEAM –an investment platform that aims to break down these barriers, and foster widespread access to energy in the developing world.

BEAM aims to aid the growth of an array of off-grid energy service companies, spanning solar home systems, large solar, and metering applications such as pumps and mini-grids. This investment platform solves two key market failures to scale distributed energy service companies (DESCOs) across the developing world. Firstly, access to equity before debt becomes viable, and secondly it allows to drive disaggregation in what has been a vertical integrated model – both essential to scale.

4)    What is your vision for the sector?
Data, technology and digitalisation have the overwhelming potential to transform the energy sector in Africa. At BBOXX, we are constantly innovating and working on new ways of using data and technology to make a greater impact, improve efficiency and customer service.

For example, BBOXX’s solar systems are remotely monitored, which means that we can proactively troubleshoot any battery depletion issues before they become a problem for the customer. BBOXX receives two billion data points a day as a result, providing unique insights in consumers in Africa, thereby allowing us to tailor our services accordingly. By providing smart off-grid solar solutions, we can leapfrog traditional grid infrastructure.

5)    You are part of the Energy Revolution Africa conference programme at African Utility Week, presenting a case study on “How is Togo bringing electricity to more than two million citizens by 2020?” – can you give us a preview of what your message will be to the utility sector?
In December 2017, we launched our operations in Togo after BBOXX was awarded a contract to work with the Government of Togo to roll out 300,000 of its solar home systems in the country by 2022. This formed part of the government’s "CIZO" initiative which means lighting up in the local "Guin" language.

Interestingly, in this instance, we raised capital locally through Union Togolaise de Banque, which made financial matters more straightforward and enabled us to really boost our expansion across the country. It is exciting to see that under the right framework, private companies like BBOXX can operate effectively and scale up operations, and truly improve the quality of life for rural communities in Africa.

Too many people in Africa do not have access to clean, reliable and affordable energy, as for years, barriers have been preventing distributed solar businesses from growing and developing. With the right framework in place, we can break down these barriers preventing access to energy in Africa. I believe data and technology can act as a springboard to leapfrog traditional expensive grids and opt for smarter grid solutions, and truly transform Africa’s utility sector from the ground up. BBOXX’s mission is to bring electricity to 20 million people by 2020, and I am looking forward to speaking on this panel at Africa Utility Week to share BBOXX’s experiences in Togo and across Africa on how this can be achieved.