Impact Hustlers - Entrepreneurs with Social Impact

13: Caroline Angus of Deciwatt - Bringing Light & Electricity Off The Grid

October 26, 2018 Maiko Schaffrath Episode 13
Impact Hustlers - Entrepreneurs with Social Impact
13: Caroline Angus of Deciwatt - Bringing Light & Electricity Off The Grid
Show Notes Transcript
I speak to Caroline Angus, the CEO of Deciwatt which has gone viral with their Gravity Light and nowLight, a product that allows people without access to the electricity grid to easily generate power to charge their cellphones and light.

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[0:22] Maiko: In today's episode I'm speaking to Caroline Angus, the CEO, and co-founder of Deciwatt, who have invented GravityLight and Nowlight, both lamps aimed at providing energy and light for people outside of the electricity grid. Their first product GravityLight went viral, as it was able to use gravity to generate light for hours. After GravityLight, Deciwatt has now evolved the product into Nowlight, a lamp that generates one hour of light by simply pulling a string for one minute, it also allows users to charge their phones with it and generate lighting for their homes. It's great to have you on Impact Hustlers, thanks very much for joining me


[0:57] Caroline: Oh, thanks for inviting me.


[0:58] Maiko: What is the impact that Deciwatt is looking to make? Is this about sustainable lighting and applying sustainable energy or is this more than that?


[1:07] Caroline: Well, I mean, the beauty of GravityLight, now Nowlight, is that it is far more than just renewable energy. So, at the core, yes, it is a renewable energy solution but also, when you're looking at replacing kerosene lamps, used by the 1 billion people without access to electricity, you have a knock-on of positive benefits. So, from the start, as soon as you switch to a clean, safe, renewable solution, like Nowlight, you stop using an open flame, which can cause burns, is creating fumes, so you're inhaling these noxious fumes, but also, from a longer-term health perspective that contributes to cataracts and cancer. From an environmental level, yes, you'll also reduce in co2 and black carbon, which has an even more intense and localized warming effect. And then in terms of the ecosystem around lighting in a home, and what's that used for, you know, anything from helping, cooking, but also reading in the evenings or maybe doing more work and increasing your earning potential. And so, then that has a nice positive knock-on effect in terms of people's earning power.


[2:11] Maiko: You're structured as a for-profit company, but obviously, with a very strong focus on the impact that you're looking to make, how do you measure that impact? Do you measure it by sustainability metrics or do you look at the education element as well, where then people can read in the evening hours and educate themselves? How do you solve that?


[2:30] Caroline: You can start to look at so many different facets of different benefits caused by providing clean, safe lighting and energy. And I think, especially as a startup, you need to look at what's realistic to measure and I don't know if you come across the acumens, lean data. But that's definitely what has inspired me to think about, okay, what can we embed into our business, so that it isn't necessarily an added cost or unrealistic to collect certain data points. And then we'll do deep dives to really understand more about that, that impact from a longer-term point of view, on, multifaceted point of view from a family's experience. So, I suppose at the core, we have the question of, to what extent is a Nowlight replacing a kerosene lamp? And then you can make certain assumptions based on multiple studies already done in the industry, on the positive impacts of that, so whether that's co2 reduction, you know, 150 kilograms, per lamp replaced. And then as well as more anecdotal stories on the benefits that people have experienced in terms of their health, or what activities have been enabled.


[3:40] Maiko: You started with GravityLight generating electricity from gravity, how does that even work? How can you possibly get light out of gravity?


[3:49] Caroline: So, by gravity, you actually mean a bag of rocks or sand, which is wonderful when you demonstrate it to people and people, they are kind of shocked and don't actually believe that it is just rocks in the bag. So, several times, I've actually had to stop my demonstrations and hand around the rocks to show people like actually, that is in the bag. So, that's been brilliant, to see the look of shock. And so, in terms of the principles of how GravityLight works, you literally just fill a bag with rocks, or sand about 12 kilos, and you attach the unit to a sturdy beam and then pull up the bag. So, with it with a pulley system, so it just feels like you're lifting two kilos. And that was actually an experience through our user trials, was recognizing that if you're just asking someone to lift 12 kilos, and you know, not everyone is going to be able to do that or is to be able to do it as high as they need to get the full drop time out of the product. So, then the bag of rocks will gradually descend and as they do so, they turn a gear train, which powers generator Dynamo, and then powers in LED. So, that's live power, there's no need for a battery in that system.


[5:01] Maiko: You have evolved a product, you just recently completed a new crowdfunding campaign for your new product Nowlight, which doesn't have a bag of rocks anywhere, anymore. It looks, otherwise, it looks similar from the outside, it doesn't evolve in terms of the design, but why have you changed your approach? And what is Nowlight all about?


[5:19] Caroline: So, the past two years have involved extensive user trials, and particularly in Kenya and also extensive research and development in terms of how do we create the next generation solution and what does that look like? So, some of the benefits that we wanted to keep from the GravityLight system were around the fact that it's instant, you can generate light and power immediately. And the fact that it's independent of the weather, you don't need to leave anything out in the sun, you can just create it yourself because it's manually powered. And however, some of the insights that we found from our user feedback was that it just needed to be brighter and given that, you know, 95 percent of the population in Kenya and is applicable worldwide own a mobile phone, mobile charging is essential. And especially when you're looking at a price point of anything really above 20, $25 in that market, people expected to be able to charge their mobile.


[06:15] Caroline: That said, there's only so far, we could take the GravityLight concept, you know, do we make the bag of rocks heavier at the risk of people's ceilings? Do we, can you install it higher? Not really, if you're limited by someone's roof beams. And then the other dynamic was, do we make it drop faster? But actually, the current drop time was 20 minutes for a six-foot height. And there's only so many times you want to go back and lift the weight again. So, we really needed a radical rethink of the product development. In the meantime, as well, battery technology and solar technology had advanced significantly. So, not only have they gotten much better and more efficient, but it was also coming down in price. And so, whilst that was an original barrier in the design of GravityLight and why we decided to sort of eliminate solar panels and batteries. Now we thought about, okay, well, how do we want to integrate it into the system? 


[07:10] Caroline: So, what we have with Nowlight is basically a hybrid solution, you can charge it manually, with the pull of a cord, and as you said, you know one-second pull is a minute of light, but you can also attach a solar panel. So, if you're in a sunny country, make the most of that sun. And you can attach a DC charger, so basically, plug it into the mains. So, if you're in the context where it's more around power cuts, you can charge it up in advance and know that you've got your power bank ready.


[7:37] Maiko: In your recently campaign you raised more than 20,000 pounds on Indiegogo and I saw in the campaign that Nowlight actually is selling for about $90, I think at the moment, but $90 is a hefty price tag for people in developing countries, right? And even here, some people might think, okay, for a light, do I spend $90 a day or just buy a flashlight for $10, right? How are you looking to solve for that, in terms of really getting people in developing countries to use it and make it affordable for them?


[8:06] Caroline: There are a couple of parts to that answer. So, one is in terms of the performance and obviously we've been looking at the competitive landscape, and what other solutions would people use in different contexts. You also mentioned the fact that we're obviously selling it to a more affluent market through our Indiegogo crowdfund and 50% of those people are in North America, they're also European supporters. And that's a very different context of why people would use it, whether it's for camping, or for power cuts, like in the next hurricane. And, then yes, how do we then apply that technology in that commercial model to less affluent consumers who don't have access to electricity or reliable electricity? So, there's a couple of dynamics, one, the knowledge system is modular, so you basically have, at the core is the main unit, then you can add on different accessories. So, you can add on additional lights, we call satellites, each with their own independent brightness settings, add on the solar panel and so really build it up depending on how much you want to spend and what you want to use it for. 


[09:09] Caroline: Then the other dynamic is our commercial model, selling at different price points to different markets. And so, we will be selling at a higher price and high margin in Western markets, if you like, developed markets, where people can afford to spend that and where also is still a competitive price point versus other solutions. And so, part of that those funds will help us support our activities in lower income markets, where frankly, it's a lot, lower margins, but also a lot more time and effort to be able to reach those customers. And then a third sort of piece of that puzzle is, pay-as-you-go. So, households living on just a few dollars a day really can't afford anything, or to invest in anything above $10. You know, that's a huge outlay of their savings, even if they're part of savings groups. And this is definitely part of the research that we already did with GravityLight was understanding, okay, what is reasonable, what can people afford, and and also a willing to pay for a solution like Nowlight. And so, we have developed and will be refining over the next few months, a pay-as-you-go system. So, you pay your deposit to the local distributor, and they'll give you the light and then you can pay either in cash or mobile money, receive a code for that amount that you've paid, and then that will unlock the next week or so of power. So, basically people will be renting to own, so at the end of four or five months, they'll be owners of that product and then be able to benefit from the savings for the next few years.


[10:46] Maiko: What is your vision for off-grid household? So, many of the households that will use it, especially in developing countries, they're really not under-grid or unreliable grid. Do you think we will evolve more in a decentralized energy production where, devices like Nowlight have a good place because we might just produce it ourselves? Or is, Nowlight an interim solution until these problems get fixed and until the energy grid gets distributed to its people?


[11:14] Caroline: Well, I think I've had my sales hat on, I'd say every household would probably own a Nowlight and that's the solution. But I think the amazing thing about the ecosystem for energy solutions is how varied it is. So, you have anything from really small lanterns or, you know, 5 to $10 to micro grids that serve a community to then obviously, the main grid. Now the reality is, in terms of how remote some of these areas are, is they're just going to be too hard to reach and they just won't be electrified in the next 20, 30 years’ time, so, you do need the decentralized solutions. Then to the question of, okay, well, is it a household level or is it a community level? I think it's definitely going to be a mixture of both and that's partly based on the realities of what distributors are there, what solutions are there available and what community initiatives are there to save, to be able to invest in these different solutions.


[12:08] Maiko: I'd like to talk a bit about your validation process. And, you know, discovering the problem originally, when you just had the idea of all this, to iterating with GravityLight, iterating with Nowlight, how did you validate this problem? How did you validate that, will the solution, the hardware solution you came up with is actually the right one, with hardware being quite hard to iterate on as well without spending a lot of money? 


[12:33] Caroline: So, with the design process, and particularly with Nowlight, user feedback has been substantial at each different stage. So, from identifying the problem, which we obviously knew a lot about from our GravityLight experience, but then also really understanding different ways in which we could solve that problem. Some of that has been in-house, in the workshop, and from a very practical level of, okay, well, what is the most efficient and easy way of manually charging? Is it hand over hand pulling, is it a rowing mechanism, is it a foot pedal? And then also putting that into the context of, okay what is small and portable and realistic for a household level solution? So, it is a real mix of where we've conducted the different trials in our development process but throughout, it has been around users using it. And I think also from my GravityLight experience, I want to make sure we fail fast. Our aim is to develop a solution that not only meets people's needs, but also excites them enough for them to want to buy it because we are a social business model, and this will be predominantly a sales based approach. 


[13:43] Caroline: And so, people are only going to buy it or spread the word about it, if they're really excited about the performance. We've absolutely needed to treat it like any other product solution that are in the shops, in terms of, robust research, competitive comparisons, as well. So, one key part of what we've been doing is around giving households different solutions that are already on the market or that are in similar price bracket, as well as our own solution and saying, okay, use these for several weeks on rotation, and then tell us what you think. And then once they've said, okay, I prefer this, I would buy that one, then see if they'll put their money where their mouth is. So, offer them a thank you incentive for being involved in the pilot, and then say, okay, well, now you have that money, are you actually going to spend it on this product? And in some cases, they'll say, actually, I'm going to prioritize school fees, but I might buy that at a later point. So, that's also really interesting in part of our research process.


[14:41] Maiko: How do you validate with so many completely different customer segments? So, me, I love to go camping, I went to Poland on a kayak trip, this is the ideal product for me, right? I'm a completely different customer than somebody in rural Kenya, trying to get some electricity into a small place. How do you create a product that serves all those needs? And who are your target segments, who are you actually catering for right now?


[15:13] Caroline: Refining our user profile is definitely what we're focusing on at the moment, because you're right, you can't be, sort of, one thing to everyone, especially with the same hardware solution. And part of our development journey over the next few years will really be tailoring to specific, different markets and different use cases. So, whilst we've had the off-grid market as, our sort of, core focus, on the product development side, we've also recognized, okay, actually, you've got huge appeal in this Western market, who wants to use it for camping cabins and hurricane preparedness. So, what we're doing at the moment is really focusing in on who are we reaching at launch and who are we reaching, sort of, six months down the line and why. And so, that's actually less about the product at the moment and more about thinking, sales and marketing strategy through. So, for example, in North America, it's more campers who take their car with them, or overlanders. And in terms of emergency preparedness, it's people who might be in a hurricane prone zone, who are spending a couple hundred dollars getting there, sort of, go-back together and thinking about a multi-day power-cut. So, we are sort of narrowing in on, okay, who specifically is our target markets and how we're going to talk to them and reach them through sales and marketing channels.


[16:38] Maiko: What is the big vision here, if you think about the next 10 years? What sort of world would you like to help contribute to achieve, what's the big vision that you'd like to help create with Nowlight and with Deciwatt?


[16:50] Caroline: So, in 10 years’ time, hopefully everyone will own a Nowlight, as a starting point. But I think that speaks to just the shift towards renewable energy and looking in particular at the households without access to electricity, who are using kerosene lamps. The fact that those will be eliminated in the next 10 years, through both Nowlight and other off-grid solutions and the growth of the grid as well. And so that's definitely part of our core vision for what does that look like. But more broadly, I also want to see impact as standard, in terms of how businesses are thinking, that they're always being conscious of their environmental footprint or their social impact. And that it's not seen as a "nice to have" or gimmick or something that's kind of on the periphery, but actually mainstream businesses, small and giant corporates have to operate with a real consciousness of their wider impact.


[17:47] Maiko: Do you ever feel yourself, I think it is very common question. But do you feel yourself at trading off between the profitability of your business and the impact focus of the business or do you feel it really goes mostly hand in hand?


[18:01] Caroline: Given that we are yet to launch Nowlight, I think that is a future question, it's definitely something that I'm conscious of, because we have some very different markets. I mean, to some extent, they are so intertwined in terms of the commercial model, so we don't rely on, but it's important to have those profit margins in more affluent developed markets, to help our activities in developing countries. So, it is quite core to how we make our impact. But then the risk is, as you're hinting at, is what if we just focused on the Western camping market? And I think part of that comes down to the team, you know, who the founders are, who the leadership team are, and also who we continue to recruit, and, you know, what is driving them? And then also very topical at the moment, because we're just talking to investors, is who are our investors? You know, so obviously, we're talking to some impact investors, because I want to ensure that's, sort of going to be baked into what they want to see out of our business going forward.


[19:00] Maiko: So, for somebody starting out, looking to create a hardware solution aimed mainly at developing markets, what advice would you give them?


[19:08] Caroline: A couple of things that I haven't necessarily followed myself, so it's probably easier to give the advice. But definitely be in the country, and be building up a team, a local team, so you really understand, sort of, the cultural nuances of your target market. I haven't seen my friends or partner very much over the past few years, because I've been in Kenya so much, it's been absolutely essential to be in the market, you're looking to serve. Another element, again, which I need to do more of myself, but is to build up that support network of advisers of people who've been there, done that because there are a lot of pitfalls that you can avoid, or at least have, someone to bounce other solutions around, from people who've been there, done that. I mean, I would also say that crowdfunding has been invaluable to us, three times now. And it's been an incredible way of testing the proposition, of getting critical funds in terms of cash flow to be able to invest in that tooling. The watch out there, is then you have a massive supporter base that is waiting on that timeline that you promised. And even, I mean, I put so many buffers in and they always get eaten up pretty quickly. And so, it is a trade off because obviously you then have a whole other supporter base and audience, you need to talk to you rather than focusing in on your core user if they're different people. But I think that that's definitely been something that's been invaluable to keeping us, frankly, afloat but also giving us the sort of, the energy and momentum to keep going with that initiatives.


[20:51] Maiko: I wish you all the best on that journey, still, you just closed the crowdfunding, so now it's about producing it. And you told me just before that you're right into tooling and actually making it happen. So, I wish you all the best for that and that most things go right, not everything will go right but that everything will go right enough for you to deliver and thanks very much for joining me today.


[21:13] Caroline: No, thanks so much for your time. 


[21:14] Maiko: Thank you. 


[21:15] Caroline: Cheers.