Mobile phones have proven invaluable for connecting communities in developing countries where there is no wired telecoms infrastructure. Often, however, there is no electricity infrastructure either, making device charging problematic. BuffaloGrid solves this by providing solar charging hubs to communities, and sharing its profits.
Virgin Media Business recently selected BuffaloGrid as one of the winners of its Three New Things contest, which sought out new technologies with the potential to change the lives of those who use them. The three winners were selected by a panel of tech experts from around 100 entries, plus BuffaloGrid also came second in the People's Favorite vote.
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The idea for BuffaloGrid came from founder Phil Schluter, who has spent 20 years as a coffee trader in Africa. Schluter saw the benefits that mobile phones were bringing the local communities, but also the difficulties in charging that people were having without access to power. The original idea was for a bicycle generator, but over three years it has evolved through an ongoing design and development process, and intensive field research.
The BuffaloGrid is provided for free to entrepreneurs in the local community. Customers pay for the use of the device to charge their phone by sending a premium text message as payment. The entrepreneurs who own and manage the device then share in the profits generated by BuffaloGrid. The company also partners with local network operators to offer power as an added benefit to their mobile network.
Managing Director Daniel Becerra explains to Gizmag that, to some extent, BuffaloGrid is actually emulating the mobile network operators. "The mobile phone is the first and only device to reach the most remote rural and low-income regions of the world," he says. "This success is due to a simple business model – mobile network operators provide the infrastructure and run an accessible service that everyone wants. Following this example, BuffaloGrid is doing what mobile network operators did for telecommunication to electrical power. We provide the infrastructure for free and we run an affordable, convenient and reliable service."
According to Becerra, the BuffaloGrid costs about £250 (US$420) to produce, but the company's approach means that the cost does not have to be met with any initial outlay. Each unit is estimated to generate around £300 ($500) revenue per quarter, based on selling around 40 charges per day. Once the operating costs and agents have been paid, profit comes in at around £170 ($280) per unit per quarter.
Beccera explains that most of the competition are trying to produce solar chargers at a very low cost that can be sold to a low-income target market, reducing the quality of their products as a result. Not only does this means that such devices often fail after months or even weeks, he says, but it has bred a lack of faith in solar charging devices amongst rural users. The BuffaloGrid team has been able to turn this model on its head.
"The core development team is a group of designer and engineers," says Becerra. "We have been traveling to rural Africa testing our different concepts. Talking to our users and understanding their needs is the key to a successful approach ... The innovation is in the distribution system that allows us to administrate the unit remotely, lowering our operating cost and keeping track of the performance of the unit."
BuffaloGrid estimates that in three years' time, it will be serving more than 1 million people, providing 85 million charges, employing a network of over 8,000 entrepreneurs and generating £7 million ($11.5 million) of revenue per year. After five years, it expects revenues to reach £40 million ($66.5 million) per year.
The company begins its deployment in India this May and has potential partnerships lined up in Brazil, Indonesia, Bangladesh and over a dozen sub-Saharan nations. It has also signed a deal to try and reach more than 170 nations that could benefit from the service, and is aiming to begin providing internet connectivity.
The video below provides an introduction to BuffaloGrid.
Source: Buffalo Grid