Solaris Offgrid, is a company based in The Nest – a social innovation space in Valencia – that provides off grid solar systems to clients in Tanzania and sells the core technology to organisations in other regions. I sat down with Siten Mandalia, company Co-Founder & CEO, to discuss his personal development, Solaris Offgrid, economic empowerment and the role of social entrepreneurship.
Siten Mandalia – Solaris Offgrid Co-Founder & CEO
‘Until I was sixteen I kind of coasted through school. I played around, messed around and had my own little projects with electronics which I worked on during weekends. My dad was an IT contractor and did various things throughout his career, a lot of which involved electronics when I was young. So we had a PC for as long as I can remember and I used to code with my older brother and sister.’
Siten grew up in London and was raised by his parents, a Kenyan-born couple of Indian descent. From a young age, a drive to problem solve and a passion for electronics has been evident. Now, continuing a family tendency to be raised in one country then migrate to another, this passion and his interest in sustainability has brought him to The Nest – a social innovation space in Spain.
Discovering the opportunity
‘Whenever I went there I was always surprised at what I saw – it was like going back 100 years in terms of development. I always thought that there had to be a business opportunity there.’
It was 2008 and East Africans were paying one-hundred times more for energy than Europeans. Siten explained this to me – ‘Our electricity is measured in kilowatt hours. If you work out how much energy they are getting – equivalent energy from kerosene, candles and similar sources – and work out the cost, they are paying one hundred times more than we are.’ I was astounded.
‘Mobile phone charging was a business there,’ he continued, ‘people were travelling to the city and paying 20 cents to have their phones charged. So if you’re able to provide a better service and better product, surely you can have a profitable business model.’
As an ambitious mechanical engineering student at Imperial University in London, Siten’s profound interest in energy, electrification and sustainable engineering led him to search for renewable energy solutions in foreign markets. Given his family ties in East Africa, Siten travelled there and noticed a significant socio-economic gap. He began to brainstorm and engineer a product that would allow people to earn more money and eventually lead to further product development.
Developing the off grid solar system
First Siten built a small ‘Blackbox’ containing a battery and some USB ports powered by a 10 watt solar panel. He travelled to Kenya and began selling it for eighty US dollars’ cash. The idea was for the Blackbox to allow customers to set up a mobile phone charging business. However, after an initial trial period two clear barriers arose – cash payment for the device was unaffordable by most even if their return came in 3 to 6 months, and solar products and electronics in general had a bad reputation for breaking without the availability of a repair service. Customers needed an affordable, functioning product and access to a support service.
After three years of working alone, his project finally gained momentum when he received funding from Climate-KIC in 2014 – Europe’s largest public-private innovation partnership focused on climate change. As a result, accompanied by new co-founders Thibault Lesueur and Benjamin David, Siten was able to re-engineer the product, and provide customers with access to a modular off grid solar electricity system with a flexible mobile pay-as-you-go service.
Solaris Offgrid today
Today Solaris offers an off grid solar energy system that can provide device charging, home lighting, satellite TV, and internet access using a tablet device and 3G router. The system is available in multiple sizes – from a 20-watt solar panel to a 200-watt solar panel (twenty times the power of the original Blackbox) that connects to a main box with an array of ports that charges appliances and powers lights. Additionally, customers are able to modulate their system according to their needs and payment is made easy through flexible mobile-payment schedules. Customers make regular payments and in return receive a code that unlocks the system for another period. Similar to a Lease-Purchase Agreement, once they have repaid the price of the system – typically taking three years – they become owners and have no further obligation to pay.
With various stores across Mwanza, Tanzania, a team of thirty-five provide this service to customers within a 50 kilometre radius and the core technology is sold to organisations in other regions. The team consists mostly of Tanzanians who work in sales, instalment or after sales support. Additionally, volunteers and interns with relevant experience provide the Solaris team with valuable insights.
Powered by solar panels, the environmental benefits of the electricity system are clear, but what Solaris also provides is economic empowerment and an improved quality of life for its customers. Solaris conducts a baseline study for each customer, gathering data on estimated income and energy requirements, before recommending and installing a suitable solar energy system.
To measure its impact, Solaris revisits customers yearly and records any improvements to living standards. However, impact measurement does not stop there. Interestingly, Solaris also monitors children’s school grades as research has shown a strong link between school grades and electricity.
Given that social impact is inherent in Solaris’ business model, profitability and scalability can come first without loss of impact. As such, the company aims to consolidate by making the organisation’s operational structure process-oriented and efficient before scaling it. In the meantime impact data will continue to be collected for a later, well-founded analysis of changes in living standards.
Solaris Offgrid and Social Enterprise
Today, there is no clear approach for fostering social impact and opinions on how to move forward have become highly polarised. On the one hand, individuals call for more effective aid to help especially fragile countries develop. While on the other hand, the impact of development aid is being questioned. With this in mind, I was interested to hear how Solaris Offgrid regards social enterprise as an approach to solving pressing issues.
Companies like Solaris Offgrid regard social enterprise as the main tool for making a lasting impact in the world. Siten identified social entrepreneurship as having a unique capacity to solve problems in a ‘universal way’. He outlined that through social entrepreneurship an ordinary person, wherever they may come from (as long as it allows for private enterprise), can make a huge impact through this model of creating a business.
Central to this idea is the innovation – the solution to the social problem – which the enterprise converts into a business opportunity. Acknowledging that we face several problems, Siten identified the disparity in capacity to generate income as the greatest challenge to societal development. ‘
‘People need to be able to increase their income, and to be able to do that they need to connect with the rest of the world so they can work and share with the rest of world. Right now, if you live in isolation in the middle of nowhere and have no way of communicating and no electricity, that’s not going to happen’
The economic success of emerging economies demonstrates that less developed countries can achieve growth. However, as the rate of digitisation of society increases, so too does the gap in income generation between individuals living in developed and developing countries without electricity. By providing its customers with electricity, Solaris Offgrid takes a significant step towards empowering individuals by connecting them with the world. Siten seemed to identify something that we often take for granted…
‘It will be very interesting to know what people start doing with the tablet for example. Obviously it isn’t going to happen in the next couple of years, but the rate of change is huge once people get access to the technology – its exponential. It’s really interesting to know, in terms of income generation, how that affects people. Start with the basics like access to education… then maybe in the future we might have people in rural Africa working on coding projects for Silicon Valley startups– and the gap closes. We may have taken years of internet access for granted, whereas in East Africa they are just getting used to it and to see the power of it is something special.’