In November 2017, a group of students from Oxford University, including Royal Holloway alumna Vabyanti Endrojono-Ellis (BSc Economics 2015) came together to compete in the Hult Prize 2018, an international competition that asks students from around the world to come up with for-profit business models to tackle global social issues.
Each year, the Hult Prize Foundation sets a thematic focus and this year’s focus is to harness the power of energy to alleviate poverty with a target to impact the lives of 10 million people by 2025. Upon entering the Hult Prize, the team who call themselves “Empower Energy” won the Oxford campus-level competition in December 2017 and went on to win the London Regional Finals in March of this year. Empower Energy were selected from 100,000 teams to go to the Hult Prize Accelerator where they will compete against 40 other teams. Out of the 40 teams, six finalists will be chosen to pitch their solution to world leaders at United Nations Global Goals Week and the winner will be given 1,000,000 dollars in seed funding to further their impact.
Empower’s CEO Ronit Kanwar is of Indian heritage, having visited India numerous times for family visits Ronit was directly exposed to the energy problem in India and knew something needed to be done. In India, there are around 250 million people that do not have access to electricity, as a result many are forced to use unsafe alternatives like kerosene to light their homes, the fumes of kerosene pose serious health risks to inhalants, breathing in the fumes of one kerosene lamp is equivalent to smoking two packets of cigarettes a day. Mobile phone owners (which includes around 75 percent of the Indian population) are forced to walk hours to reach the nearest charging station. Existing solutions such as solar home systems and microgrids, require upfront costs and regular payments which are unaffordable to households with incomes below INR 5,000 (USD 80) per month.
Empower Energy devised an off-grid energy solution that targets the most underserved communities in India through their “Solar ATMs”. The ATMs are battery rental systems run from local solar charging stations in unelectrified communities, providing general-purpose electricity, without any upfront costs or requirement for regular payments – a reliable service for local Indian communities, which is safe, green and cheaper than kerosene. Empower’s Solar ATMs will be run in rural and peri-urban areas by franchisees, who are local entrepreneurs already successfully serving their target market identified through existing wholesale distribution networks and trained on sales skills, as well as ATM operation and maintenance.
To move this venture forward the team are now crowdfunding to run a pilot in India to test their Solar ATM prototype in the north-east of India. During this pilot the team will conduct tests (both survey-based and prototype-based) to validate their hypotheses with regards to uptake and willingness-to-pay of final consumers. In addition to this, the founders will set up a local team, consisting of about three franchisees, one sales agent, and one administrator that will carry forward the operations while part of the team is engaged in the Hult Prize Accelerator in August.
Having already raised around 10,000 pounds by winning the Morpheus Prize in Paris and awarded grants from Oxford University they are well on their way to raising the sufficient funds to carry out the pilot in June. If you would like to get involved by either sharing their story with others or to make a contribution, visit their crowdfunding page and help a fellow Royal Holloway alumna reach the goal to transform the lives of 10 million people through the power of energy by 2025.
Empower Energy is a social enterprise that aims to enable the most underserved communities in India to access the modern economy through off-grid solar energy.