Frugal innovation: An opportunity to democratise electricity

December 3, 2019

Power Blox installation on Lelepa island. (Photo: Power-Blox AG/Timea Luette)

"The highest impacts in developing countries are achieved with technology solutions that are easy to use and widely accessible, not those created to impress customers" – this statement comes from Navi Radjou, Innovation Strategist from the Silicon Valley. Navi points out that the Global North is learning from the South by doing better with less in a resource constrained world, through horizontal solutions with low-priced, smaller distribution units as opposed to centralised operations in big factories. These bottom-up solutions will help to bring the global North and South closer together. The term now widely used for such approaches is frugal innovation: solutions are born out of necessity in the Global South where resource constraints force people to do more with less.

Introducing a new technology on Lelepa Island

Recently, I had the opportunity to witness the impact of an example of frugal innovation.

The off-grid island of Lelepa in the Republic of Vanuatu, located in the South Pacific Ocean,  has just started trialing a modular energy solution called ‘Power Blox’. Power cubes with a modular design and grid-connectivity, much like blocks of Lego, allow for expansion and growth of the grid over time and at the pace needed by the rural community, while delivering all the other benefits that come with renewable energy, largely through improving livelihoods without damaging the environment. The more blocks you add, the more energy you get, and the stronger the so-called swarm grid becomes.

It’s the first-ever introduction of a swarm technology in the Pacific region with the goal to create solutions that speak to the communities in an unprecedented way. Instead of compromising on quality and performance, the technology provides a more affordable solution that is easy to use, at the same time offering maximum performance and quality. Using and maintaining the power cubes is “as simple as a breeze,” according to Brownie Billy, locally trained technician on Lelepa Island.

A learning path to innovation

Seeing costly installations of other technologies in the Pacific made me wonder if we will ever be able to achieve Sustainable Development Goal (SDG)7 - affordable and clean energynot to say by 2030, I learned about a humble team of innovators that had carefully listened to the people in the Global South. With years of experience, learning and experimenting in Eastern Africa, a ‘swarm technology’ was created. The technology introduced to these ‘overlooked’ consumers, is a power system that starts small for those communities with little ability to pay, but allows for almost unlimited upscaling with increasing wealth. Swarm grids are strong and sustainable because they don’t depend on the usual master-slave setup of electricity grids. Each power cube is its own independent system, and lowered performance of one cube will immediately be compensated by another element of the swarm.

I saw the happiness and astonishment of the community on Lelepa Island after the pilot installations were completed. Quickly, I realised that we are on the right track. The cubes are technically so easy to handle that no lengthy training was needed to ensure someone like Brownie knows how to handle the Power Blox. A mobile application allows the inventors to follow the performance closely and make corrective actions remotely, if necessary. This, however, is only needed in this initial phase, as the cubes are designed for full local maintenance. A local power supplier company was engaged in the setup and can troubleshoot without having to reach out overseas.

Simple solutions with high socio-economic impacts

The system was installed in two days for less than one third of the costs of conventional solar power systems. Since it is built as an expandable swarm system, future expansion will not only cover all households within the community, but even more importantly increase the power capacity by easily and quickly adding new cubes.

Vanuatu’s rural island population consists - like many other rural communities around the world - of subsistence farmers or fishers without regular income. The productive use of electricity in the community will increase income, create jobs, reduce poverty and generate more electricity demand. These typical growth patterns after electrification of off-grid communities require flexible systems that can adapt to the changing energy demands. Systems just like Power Blox. The Government of Vanuatu is planning to introduce the swarm technology to several island communities across the country.

Removing barriers to energy access

Communities in remote, scarcely populated areas of the developing world simply cannot afford to consume enough electricity to develop robust and fully bankable renewable energy investments. For this reason, international organisations, development banks, foundations and donors are all searching for financially feasible de-centralised solutions to implement renewable energy solutions at scale. These organisations, however, are known for slow implementation pace and overly complicated project approval and development processes.

It is clear that the SDG 7 of universal access to sustainable and affordable energy by 2030, will not be achieved with such a donor-heavy, slow-paced approach.

Innovation may well be the key to success – a success that can address low but increasing demand of rural communities, while promoting productive use of energy to develop and expand the grids. Technology solutions that don’t overburden communities and force men and women out of village structures to earn money elsewhere to cover the costs of unsustainable electricity bills. Technology that allows communities to create new livelihoods within their safe social structures, at their own pace.

It’s a true democratisation of electricity. No more inflexible systems that lock consumers into unsustainable fee structures. No more under-consulted and underserved communities. With Power Blox, Lelepa sets an example of how systems with maximum flexibility and affordable fee structure has the potential to quickly create wealth and happiness, at scale.