FEATURED: The 'Next-Generation Utility' company shaping the dawn of smart energy

For five years, BBOXX Capital Rwanda has been at the forefront of improving rural Rwandans’ quality of life through the provision of affordable, clean energy solutions nationwide. The company has had stellar growth in recent years and now boasts of powering over 50,000 households and benefiting over 250,000 individuals in Rwanda.

The company is transitioning to become a next-generation utility, using new technologies to address new needs and further transform the lives of off-grid communities in rural Rwanda. The New Times’ Joseph Mudingu caught up with the BBOXX Managing Director, David Easum, and below are the excerpts.

Joseph Mudingu: BBOXX has no doubt been on an interesting journey, albeit not an easy one. Five years down the road, right?

David Easum: Yes, and it has indeed been an interesting journey. BBOXX started operations in Africa in 2014 with Rwanda being one of the first and now the most important of the operations in the group. The solar industry in Rwanda is still relatively young, but we have managed to electrify over 50,000 households that are serviced through 27 shops countrywide. If you look at electrification numbers, off-grid (meaning where classic power lines don’t yet go) companies such as BBOXX currently contribute around 12%, while on-grid electrification stands at around 33%. According to the government’s National Electrification Strategy, off-grid solutions are targeted to contribute 48% in the not too distant future. This means we have to continue the already fruitful collaboration with the government and push hard in rural areas if we are to meet the national target for electrification.

JM: How do you hope to achieve this target considering the modest financial capacity of your target market?

DE: We are constantly thinking of new solutions to make our products and services more attractive and productive to rural dwellers. We have flexible payment solutions such as ‘pay as you go’ whereby our customers can pay for our services on a daily, weekly or monthly basis, depending on what they can afford. Also, we have the lowest rates amongst our competitors when it comes to entry level packages. In addition, we are diversifying our products because we understand that providing solar energy for lighting is just one piece of the puzzle. People in rural areas should be able to have an on-grid experience and live a much better life. In the long run, we are looking at how to empower them through several other services that will transform how they go about their day.

JM: How do you hope to achieve this?

DE: We are currently transitioning from a ‘solar company’ to a ‘next-generation utility’ company. This means we shall be providing, among other things, refrigerators, internet services, home biogas and LPG for cooking, solar irrigation systems and a virtual reality smartphone app to access agricultural advice – all running on clean energy. All these are basic needs that are required to be able to live a productive life. Every day, we work towards finding innovative solutions to the common problems faced by rural populations. We believe these solutions will also provide alternative sources of income thereby increasing their disposable income. Lastly, I’d like to underscore that BBOXX is a fully-fledged service company rather than a simple equipment vendor. This is key to making our products accessible to even the lowest tier of income earners.

JM: Obviously, this comes with challenges. What are the major barriers you have faced?

DE: Well, energy problems are everywhere and that includes Rwanda. However, the more challenges we encounter, the more we see opportunities and our mission is to be part of the solution. We try not to lose sight of our vision, to genuinely satisfy the energy needs of individuals and families through our vast network of shops countrywide. However, our main challenge is affordability: A large segment of the population needs our services but only a portion can afford them. We hope that the government will continue to help bridge that gap by putting in place a wider range of subsidies for those at the bottom of the economic pyramid. It’s not right for people to be deprived of solutions for basic needs such as reliable electricity, cooking gas and internet. Our ambition is to deliver a whole range of these vital utilities to those who would not be able to afford them in their classic format or without subsidies.

JM: Various reports indicate that the internet infrastructure in the country is still below the required level. Don’t you think this poses a big threat if you add other products and services to the already existing ones?

DE: Not really. The communications technology embedded in our products does not rely on the internet alone. If need be, it can fall back to legacy means such as SMS, and still retain full functionality. This means that our products can always be remotely monitored and controlled while also enabling enhanced features of next-generation utility products where the internet is available. Wherever our equipment is installed, we are able to detect and solve issues such as battery depletion and also collect data which informs our decision about other products and services to bring to the market. This ability to communicate with the equipment also contributes to improving the efficiency of our employees.

JM: At the end of ‘Unlocking Solar Capital Africa 2018’, which took place last November, you launched ‘Tomorrow’s Rural Home 2025.’ What is that all about?

DE: To put it simply, ‘Tomorrow’s Rural Home’ captures our vision of the aspirations and needs of rural households of the future, who want affordable and ecological technologies and utilities to improve their quality of life. It is a depiction of our outlook on how combining new technologies can address these needs, transform the lives of off-grid communities and power growth in rural Africa. It uses smart, sustainable building materials and design, combined with our energy products and services to bring the on-grid experience to an off-grid location. The Rural Home 2025 could be seen as a stepping stone towards a healthier, wealthier and more connected future for rural households.

The main features of the home are its eco-friendly and inexpensive construction, integration of home biogas for clean cooking, solar energy for lighting, internet and powering accessories such as television, shavers, irons, fridges, radios, fertilization generated by the biogas digester, solar irrigation for the vegetable garden, eco-toilet, clean drinking water and so on. Furthermore, all of these technologies are connected to BBOXX’s proprietary Pulse monitoring platform that allows us to solve problems proactively. Our belief has always been to deliver recognizable improvement in the quality of life for rural households and this house represents just that.

JM: Such exciting ventures happening at once and so fast. Will the team be able to keep up the momentum as you did last year when you were recognized as a ‘Great Place to Work’?

DE: It goes without saying that there is a lot of pressure on the team, but the culture at BBOXX thrives on solving issues that are faced by Rwandans on a daily basis. The zeal and passion of the team is there, and they deliver the best. It was an honor to be recognized with the “Great Place to Work” award last year, but it doesn’t mean we can now sit back and relax! What it really means is that we have to maintain the high level that is expected of us.

JM: What next for BBOXX this year?

DE: There’s a lot in stock. We are raising the bar in terms of doubling our customer/households base in the next year. We recently received an injection of capital to enable us to meet the demand.

Lastly, in the second quarter, we shall be unveiling our new brand to show the transition from a solar company to a next-generation utility platform. It will be exciting and we can’t wait to see the impact we shall have on the local market.