We’ve got a good social mission and it draws a lot of people in
Christopher Baker-Brian, along with his two co-founders and fresh from university, set out to address a vast global problem – the lack of access to reliable electric power for over a billion people. He talks to Smith & Williamson’s Hall of Fame about how BBOXX is changing the world.
BBOXX had an unusual germination. Christopher and his fellow Imperial College students, Mansoor Mohammad Hamayun and Laurent Van Houke, built the business from a student-run charity. They recognised that smart solar electricity could deliver safe, reliable, low cost energy to people across the globe. In doing so they could replace other inadequate sources such as kerosene.
They spotted increasing demand for electrification solutions driven by the vast uptake in mobile phones in emerging markets. With this in mind, they started the business with no less ambition than to electrify the developing world.
Their ‘battery boxes’ (which prompted the name ‘BBOXX’) placed solar panels on the roof, connected to plug sockets within the home. This solution got round the need for expensive electrical infrastructure and allowed the group to target hard-to-reach rural areas; on the sides of mountains, in areas without decent road networks.
“We targeted Rwanda as our first country, expanded within Africa over the past few years and we’re now in 12 markets across the continent. Our focus is on combining innovation on the technology – solar home systems that have a remote connection to mobile network in the local area – with low cost access. We have a financing plan which allows the customer to pay in small instalments to get access to energy. We also build our own shops and distribution networks.”
Chris says that the group’s average customer might be spending $15 a month on existing sources of energy such as kerosene lamps. The local sales agent will look at what they’re spending and try to create a package that reduces their overall costs.
He says the business has progressed quite a way since it started in 2010 in a small box room. They have expanded beyond Africa – to Pakistan, for example. BBOXX’s growth plans are centred around forging strategic partnerships with global companies, including Orange (now EE), GE and EDF. It estimates that it has helped almost a million people gain access to clean, reliable energy, offsetting around 87,000 tonnes of CO2. It is now starting to expand to utility services and looking at developing the rural homes of the future.
Naturally, it has not been without its challenges. There are geographic challenges – how to get a moped up a mountain – but also political ones. Chris says: “There’s a pretty good correlation between people who don’t have access to energy and countries that are difficult to work in. These can be difficult places to do business: it is tough to operate in West and Central Africa with real political instability.”
At the same time, there is a significant difference in the amount of government support. There are only eight countries across Africa with a renewable energy policy. He says: “The reason we’re in Rwanda and Togo is that they have really good renewable energy targets and we are working effectively with the governments there.”
The group has raised funding from nine different VCs. He believes London is currently the best place to attract finance and also to harness technology talent. Nevertheless, the geographic spread of the business is a challenge. Culture and communication was relatively easy when the company was 30-strong and communication chains were short, but retaining the culture has become more difficult as the company has grown. This is particularly difficult because the technology hub is in London but the group relies on a network of local sales and administration teams (500 and counting) in Africa and elsewhere.
“We’ve got a good social mission and it draws a lot of people in, but that rapid expansion has led to some challenges. We are now trying to ensure that one office works in the same way as another office. That they are working to the same playbook and communicating about the work they’re doing. When you have more than 600 employees it’s difficult to have a good grasp of that. The senior team is working hard to reinforce and communicate that message in a consistent way.” He admits there is no secret sauce to building a business on three continents, but they have found ways to do it.
What’s next? They’ve improved access to energy for around 1 million people, but that leaves 999m still to target. Christopher has his work cut out for the time being.
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