Berlin-based start-up Boreal Light GmbH has developed a new clean water solution for African countries, based on solar driven desalting equipment. Dr. Hamed Beheshti, co-founder and Chief Executive Officer of Boreal Light, gives insight into the new venture and his experiences.
blog:subsahara-afrika: Dr. Beheshti, which factors are in your opinion most vital when adapting or developping a product for Africa?
Dr. Hamed Beheshti: Simplicity and affordability are the very key characteristics to be considered when addressing off-grid communities. Whatever technologies offered to less developed countries should very well consider the simplicity of their performance and the ability of being adapted and integrated into the daily life of local people with no need of further – often expensive – interference by foreigners. The offered solutions should correspond to the actual need of the local people. To say it in a nutshell: When for example it comes to transportation solution, it makes no sense to offer a Ferrari but rather a tough affordable Toyota with the advantage of local knowledge about the required maintenance services.
blog:subsahara-afrika: Against this backdrop, which success story of a product made for Africa would you find particularly remarkable?
Dr. Beheshti: Look at Wazi Vision in Uganda and the way they have transformed the access of local unprivileged communities to medical glasses. Or Mobisol and Little Sun from Berlin with their simple and practical solutions for bringing light to the nights of families in off-grid parts of Africa. Look how drones are helping millions of people across Rwanda for having fast access to medicine, or how Eco Fuels is making liquid fuel out of street trees in Kenya! BRCK’s story of offering internet to the remotest parts of East Africa or M-Pesa to revolutionize banking in Kenya! These are all the great success stories inspiring me in my mission to offer affordable hygiene drinking water to the most remote villages of the world.
blog:subsahara-afrika: Dr. Beheshti, how exactly was your new product idea for Africa born?
Dr. Beheshti: In 2014, my partner and I were working on a project of solar water pumping system for a village in Tanzania. The donor stopped the project and informed us, due to the salinity of borehole water villagers cannot drink from it and thus no pump is needed. Later we understood such salt intrusion into borehole water is rampant in East Africa. That was the moment we decided to use our expertise and to manufacture an affordable and simple solar water desalination machine. That was exactly in January 2015, and it took over a year and a half of engineering work and hundreds of “trials and errors” to come up with the final design.
blog:subsahara-afrika: Which countries did you have in mind when you developed your “WaterKiosk”, which is now a registered brand?
Dr. Beheshti: From the beginning, we had in mind to work in Sub-Saharan countries of Africa. When the system was market ready, we were more than lucky to get an invitation from the Delegation of German Industry and Commerce in Kenya, the AHK office in Nairobi, to join a delegation of German companies working on renewable energy going to Kenya. That was in April 2017, and since then Boreal Light GmbH has opened two local engineering offices in Nairobi and Mombasa with project records all across East Africa. WaterKiosk Ltd, is the African subsidiary of Boreal Light GmbH offering our technology and services to the local market.
blog:subsahara-afrika: What are the advantages of your product compared to traditional water supply systems in your target countries?
Dr. Beheshti: Our systems have three main characteristics: First, simplicity of the design. Secondly, affordability of the cost and thirdly, running fully on direct solar energy. These three main USPs (unique selling propositions) are key to our success when working in Africa. We are capable of directly desalinating seawater at relatively low pressure. If we can run such a machine at low pressure, we can then install simpler fittings, piping and connections. That leads to easier maintenance – over 80 percent of the required maintenance of our machine can be done with just a wrench and a screwdriver – and cheaper components. Beside simplicity of the design and affordability of the cost, the ability of the system to get direct solar energy, with no need of expensive battery banks, reduces the running cost of our machines to an absolute minimum. Considering those three characteristics, producing 1000 liter of hygiene drinking water by our Winture Planet Cube, that is our brand name, from direct seawater quality would not exceed 0.50 Euro! And, although the technology is simple and operation is easy for local people, we have embedded a sophisticated remote monitoring facility transmitting to us the live data from the system. That makes our technical team in Berlin capable of checking the operation status, quality of delivered water, volume of produced water, pressure of the pipes and the electric status of solar panels. In practice, we are more aware of the current conditions of our systems in Africa than the local system operators are!
blog:subsahara-afrika: From what we can take from your company`s website, you apply two business models.
Dr. Beheshti: Yes, a business-to business (b2b), as well as a business-to-consumer (b2c) approach. When we target other businesses, we sell our solutions under the Winture Planet Cube brand name to charities, aid organizations, development funds, UN organizations, farming communities and private businesses. We run our b2b model as a regular sales business. B2c is, when we keep the ownership of our machines in our hand, and sell affordable water from them under the WaterKiosk® brand name instead. The WaterKiosk® is equipped with our Winture Planet Cube solar water desalination system. It also offers a children’s library and mobile electricity charging ports free of charge. Every WaterKiosk® creates three permanent jobs and five value-added jobs in their host communities. Kenya is the first market for us to introduce the WaterKiosk® business model. While the average cost of 20-liter hygiene drinking water in Kenya is 4 US-Dollar, we sell the same quality water at 0.4 US-Dollar at village tariff and 1 US-Dollar at urban tariff.
blog:subsahara-afrika: How do you find investors for the WaterKiosk® business model?
Dr. Beheshti: Either Boreal Light GmbH finance 100 percent of the cost of a WaterKiosk® through classical finance acquisition, or by finding partners and donors. Wherever the local communities in Kenya finance 50 percent of the project cost, we ourselves finance the other half and then together we sell water and share revenues proportionally. This way, the local investors are sure they are not left alone with the system and its operation, and we are also sure the local investors will take good care of the security of the machine and the sales volume. We have now two of our WaterKiosk® projects financed through the partnership scheme. In addition, there are often European foundations looking for high social impact projects to be financed. They fully finance a WaterKiosk® for a village and we then take care of the operation and delivery of water on behalf of the donor. Just in November 2018, we have signed such a contract with Friedrich Vorwerk KG for a WaterKiosk®. It will be delivered as a New Year gift to a village at the border between Kenya and Somalia.
blog:subsahara-afrika: What role do donor projects play?
Dr. Beheshti: Considering our b2c business model, I have to confess that is not for the very “bottom of the pyramid”. I know there are people who have not even the chance of paying for the very low cost water I sell from my systems. Here is where the role of donors is so important. We have four running projects now in which donors have either partially financed a WaterKiosk® or have covered all its costs. That makes me able to sell water at an incredibly low price (0.05 US-Dollar for 20-liter hygiene drinking water) since I don’t need to consider profit or return on investment. The collected money is enough to cover the maintenance and operation cost of the machine. Bear in mind, we never recommend delivering water free of charge. That is the worst thing a donor may do – it makes people dependent.
blog:subsahara-afrika: Which kind of national regulations do you have to consider marketing your product in your target countries?
Dr. Beheshti: In terms of standalone system sales, no specific regulation or laws are applied. However, when it comes to water sales from our WaterKiosk®, a long list of certifications, laboratory tests, standards etc are applied. Particularly in Kenya, selling water is a not easy and obtaining a license from the Kenya Bureau of Standards (KEBS) is a real challenge. Fortunately, we could finally receive everything that was required by the authorities.
blog:subsahara-afrika: What are your experiences in dealing with government officials and public procurement agencies in these countries?
Dr. Beheshti: It is not an easy task to deal with official bodies in most of developing countries. We have been lucky enough that our first market was Kenya. The institutional development in Kenya and the country`s open-doors-policy toward international companies have helped us a lot. Often I am communicating to the highest political players in Kenya simply via WhatsApp! That is quick and easy. Nevertheless, the other side of such close collaboration with the authorities is: falling into the political games in the country. That is a very tricky point, and as a foreigner you are often not able to notice that until it is very late!
blog:subsahara-afrika: And who are your company`s competitors in Africa, where do they come from? And, how do you deal with them?
Dr. Beheshti: When it comes to solar water desalination systems, not so many companies are active in this field. At the meantime, there are a few European and American companies already having their records in Africa, for instance Trunz from Switzerland and Solar Water Solutions from Finland. We don’t necessarily see them as competitors. For instance, I might not be good enough to go for mega-scale projects, or my competitor cannot deal with small-scale projects, so we can help each other and pass projects among each other.
blog:subsahara-afrika: How long will it be in your experience until breakeven point in your venture?
Dr. Beheshti: Within two to three years after installation, beak-even-point is to be expected.
blog:subsahara-afrika: And one last question: What recommendations can you give to other professionals regarding use of start-up support projects like “Adlershof Gründerwerkstatt”?
Dr. Beheshti: Such programs are the golden chances given to new entrepreneurs. They give you the freedom to focus on your business case and develop what you want. For us, Adlershof Gründerwerkstatt came at the very right moment and we have, indeed, seen how great the support has affected our work.
blog:subsahara-afrika: Dr. Beheshti, thank you very much for this interview.
Dr. Hamed Beheshti has a Bachelor in Political Sciences from the University of Tehran, Iran, a Diploma in Renewable Energy Management in Developing Countries from Technical University of Dresden, Germany, a Master in Environmental Sciences from the American University of Beirut, Lebanon and a PhD in Renewable Energy Policy Planning from Freie Universität Berlin, Research Centre for Environmental Policy (FFU). After various assignments as consultant, project manager, market developer for renewable energy companies, Dr. Beheshti is presently Co-Founder and CEO of Boreal Light GmbH, Berlin. Kontakt: E-Mail: Beheshti@boreallight.com, Tel.: 0176 70924068, Internet: www.winture.de.
Dieser Artikel ist Teil 3 der Serie: Produktstrategien für Afrika
- Teil 1: Was ist zu beachten? (22.10.2018)
- Teil 2: Produktstrategien für Afrika: Erfolgreiche Unternehmen dank angepasster Strategien (29.10.2018)
(Bildnachweise: Dr. Hamed Beheshti)