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an independent report from lyonsdown, distributed with the sunday telegraph

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January 2014

Business Technology

Future of electronics | 5

Mobile phones are transforming life in off-grid third-world communities. Dave Baxter reports from Rio de Janeiro on the company that’s fuelling the revolution… HE PL ACE looked like a hideout for an army of tech entrepreneurs. Upstairs in a slightly scruff y office block, I found Daniel Becerra in a forgettable room with a coffee machine, computers and white boards on the walls. But a s I wa l ked i n , people were hunched over desks, fidd ling w it h Powerpoint slides and honing arguments. Many of these entrepreneurs, hungry for capital or partnerships, were nailing down fi nal pitches to deliver to the Brazilian Development Bank, a large investor keen on foreign innovation. The room buzzed with ideas. In the corner of the office, the founder of 21212, a digital business accelerator and our host, evangelised about his vision – to create a Brazilian Silicon Valley. And outside, Rio de Janeiro – first stop on the Clean and Cool trade mission Becerra and I were on – fizzed with energy. That morning, late last year, was just one experience in a packed year for Becerra, which also saw him visit Uganda and India and even address the United Nations. While electronic systems may be everywhere, from planes to alarm clocks, he believes they could be used, in the form of smartphone technology, to help eradicate the worst examples of economic hardship. Buffalo Grid, a UK firm at which Becerra is a partner, aims to lift some of the world’s poorest out of poverty – by helping them charge internet-connected phones, which they can then use to access life-changing services, from communication to trading and even remote medical diagnoses. With the aim of boosting access to the services, Buffalo Grid has created portable, solar-powered hubs which can recharge mobile phone batteries. It plans to deploy these in some of the world’s poorest rural areas, where there is no power grid and energy companies have no incentive to build the necessary infrastructure. Users can pay to use the hubs with the same mobile phone they have recharged – whether by sending a text or using airtime. Speaking to me back in England, Becerra says the company, which started in 2012, began working on power hubs after its founder saw how dramatically mobile phones were changing the lives of African farmers. “The idea started with our founder. He was trading coffee, and travelled to Africa 10 or 20 times a year,” he says. “He

saw how mobile phones were increasing the quality of life for farmers there. “But there was a struggle to charge them. Sometimes you could spend a day trying to get a phone charged.” The fi rm set about trying to tackle the problem, fi rst with the idea of bike-generated power, before turning to solar. But Becerra says selling energy outright to people in poverty was unviable, with small mobile payments providing a better solution. “People are energy-hungry, and dozens and dozens of companies are trying to tackle this problem,” he says. “Most want to sell products to the poorest people on the planet. To them it’s quite challenging even to offer the cheapest price they have. “We identified that there was no point trying to sell these people anything, if 50 companies are doing that and failing. “Looking at that scenario, we thought, let’s mimic what the mobile phone operators have done. How do they manage to be so successful? “When you see 650 million of these [one billion] people have a mobile phone, you realise the operators have done it well. “They have provided infrastructure themselves and a Clockwise from service that everybody wants. It becomes more of a need than a want. So we set up infrastructure ourselves and top right: engineers work on provided a service.” a Hub; the first The company collects payments using mobile operator prototypes were networks – but the methods can vary from country to pedal-powered; country. “We let the users buy a SIM card and pay us as mobiles are hugely popular they go,” Becerra says. in sub-Saharan “We can get them to pay through a text message, for Africa. Above: example, or through their airtime. We have many different a Buffalo Hub

ways to do it. You need to tailor your payment methods to each place. You can’t even have one payment that works for a single nation. The technology is the same, but the payment structure is different. It makes sense, because these places are very remote.” The company has successfully set up five of its power hubs in Uganda, and now plans to focus on India, where it will deploy 50 hubs in 2014. “We have to make a sustainable business in India,” Becerra says. “Out of the 650 million off-grid phones in the world, 300 million are there. “We will be just focusing in India for this year, to try to make the service viable. But we are also keen on getting to sub-Saharan Africa and a joint venture in Brazil.” The company is also receiving support from organisations including the UN, which is monitoring its progress. The challenges at hand are growing. In 2014 the number of people off-grid with smartphones is expected to reach 750 million. But Becerra is bright about the future. “We are very optimistic (about having an impact) and it’s not just us,” he says. “When I spoke to the UN, I was speaking alongside Google. When you provide access to communication and a world of opportunities, through time you can start eradicating poverty. “The UN identifies the mobile phone as the biggest contribution to economic growth in these (poverty-stricken) nations. If in 10 years you can have every single farmer with a smartphone, being able to connect to the internet, we can take a world out of poverty. That’s the dream.”


Future of Electronics