Interview with Bas Berends, Chief Partnership Officer, OffGridBox
WT: What is OffGridBox? When was your company started? Where is the company headquarters?
Berends: OffGridBox is a company that wants to provide renewable energy and clean water to communities around the world.
OffGridBox, Inc was registered in 2016, when our founders were taking part in the Techstars Boston Accelerator. OffGridBox is headquartered in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with an office in Kigali, Rwanda, and manufacturing in Arezzo, Italy.
WT: What was the impetus to create OffGridBoxes? Who are the founders and what did each bring to the start-up?
Berends: Our founders, Emiliano Cecchini and Davide Bonsignore, have been active in the solar industry for over 20 years, but when they started doing energy products that were slightly smaller scale to allow them to go deeper in the village, they encountered challenges such as roofs that could not support a solar system with no spare space for technical equipment.
They found themselves with a high-tech solution that was not easy to install. OffGridBox was born from this desire to bring solar to communities in the most rapid way possible, enabling us to serve more needs.
I joined the company with over 20 years in international diplomacy and sustainable development. Jodie Wu joined us shortly afterwards with her 12 years of experience in last mile distribution of solar equipment in East Africa.
WT: Please describe the technology. Are there different models for different situations? What might the different situations be?
Berends: The standard OffGridBox is a mobile and modular 2x2x2 meter container with 4kWp solar panels on the top and a water purification/desalination system inside. This unit is one solution to three problems: lack of access to energy, lack of access to clean water, and lack of access to connectivity.
It uses solar energy to power a microfiltration unit inside the box that can produce 1000 liters of purified water per hour. We also have a model that has double the solar capacity (8kWp), a model that can desalinate brackish water by means of reverse osmosis, and most recently, we have added a miniaturized OffGridBox to our portfolio (50x50x50cm, 250-1.5Wp), drastically reducing the costs for communities to have access to our technology.
Projects range from disaster relief to rural electrification, and include desalination, serving coastal and island communities with fresh water.
WT: Where do you collect the water that is purified? Tell us more about electricity, Wi-Fi connectivity. How large is the typical community that you can serve?
Berends: The main purpose of the OffGridBox is to purify contaminated water from a borehole, surface water or rainwater and make this drinkable. Part of the solar energy generated is used for this purpose.
The electricity can also be used to power (agricultural) productive use equipment, such as a water pump, an irrigation system, fruit and vegetable dryers, refrigeration and ice makers, welding and carpentry equipment, etc.
The energy from the Box can power a main off-taker like a health post or a rural school.
We use a 3G or 4G signal that we turn into a Wi-Fi signal by means of a hotspot, so people around the Box can go on the internet.
Typically, our OffGridBox serves a community of 400 families. In the Sub-Saharan context that is around 2,000 people.
WT: Please tell us about your projects and successes. How many locations now use OffGridBoxes?
Berends: Until now, over 80 OffGridBoxes have been installed in 18 countries around the world (Rwanda, Tanzania, Zambia, Madagascar, South Africa, Columbia, Puerto Rico, Italy, US, UK, Philippines, Kenya, Somalia, DRC, Congo Brazzaville, Santo Domingo, and the British Virgin Islands).
Our focus is mostly on East Africa, where we have carried out projects with UNDP and USAID, but also companies like Aquatech and Engie.
We provide clean water and power to remote communities, we power health care where there is no electricity, and we provide quick solutions in humanitarian settings like refugee camps or in post-disaster situations.
This has helped to prevent water-borne diseases and has enabled people to increase their incomes.
WT: What about financial recovery and creating self-sustaining communities? What have you seen in your projects thus far?
Berends: We serve communities where there is a high need for access to safe water and energy. But these communities do not have a lot of purchasing power. Often, the investment in the technology itself is covered by a grant. But we set up the project in such a way that sales of water and power cover operational expenses and maintenance.
That way, the project can be sustainable for the lifetime of the Box which is around 20 years.
WT: How are your projects empowering women?
Berends: Our projects are empowering women in different ways. First, in the countries where we operate, it is mostly women that must spend time and effort collecting water and boiling it if it is not safe to drink. By providing access to clean water, we help them to save time, and money that does not have to be spent on biofuels.
Additionally, we hire local women in the community. We pay them a salary, and we train them in technical, bookkeeping and entrepreneurial skills, thereby empowering them. They can use these skills in any future jobs as well if they decide to move on.
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WT: In Canada, we have remote communities that are geographically located in harsh climate conditions – communities with little or no access to safe drinking water. Can an offGridBox function in freezing temperatures?
Berends: The OffGridBox is a very sturdy piece of equipment since it comes in a steel container that has weathered harsh conditions. At the same time, it runs on solar energy, so there needs to be some sunshine to power the water purification system. If temperatures go below zero, this may affect the lithium batteries that are inside, even though there are recent technological developments that may counter this. We’re always up for a challenge!
WT: Please leave us all with one last drop.
Berends: Climate change is real, and the effects are not limited to places far away. We cannot take it for granted that access to affordable clean water and 24/7 power will always be available.
Our mission is to make people and communities more resilient and prepared in the light of climate change. Currently, 2 billion lack access to safe water and 800 million people lack access to energy. Whenever there is a natural disaster or conflict, these numbers go up.
These are the people who are on our minds every day when we do our projects.
We do want to change the world and have an impact.