New startup provides solar energy to rural families in Haiti
RE-VOLT is on a mission to bring affordable and reliable electricity to families in rural Haiti and is running a crowd-funding campaign to help fund the expansion of its service to more customers.
Through the installation of a system consisting of a solar panel, a control / power storage unit, several lights and a phone charger, RE-VOLT is bringing power to the people in rural Haitian homes for the first time.
Customers are charged a low monthly fee of 250 Haitian Gourdes (about US$5) and pay for the service through Digicel’s proprietary Mon Cash mobile banking platform. The units themselves contain a cellular antenna allowing RE-VOLT to manage payments and maintenance remotely.
Founded by Digicel Haiti chairman, Maarten Boute, RE-VOLT currently serves over 800 customer households, or about 4,000 people, on the island of La Gonave, one of the most isolated and impoverished communities in Haiti. An on-the-ground sales team made up of La Gonave locals goes door-to-door to find new customers and makes regular visits to open-air markets, a central part of daily life in rural Haiti. The team also performs basic maintenance and troubleshooting on installed systems.
The idea for RE-VOLT’s business model came to Boute over five years ago in the aftermath of Haiti’s devastating 2010 earthquake. At the time, he was two months into his tenure as CEO of Digicel Haiti, having previously served as the company’s chief operating officer.
“To their tremendous credit, Digicel Group chairman Denis O’Brien and the Digicel board decided to commit even more capital to Haiti after the earthquake,” says Boute. “Others might have walked away at that point, but they decided to double down instead.”
Under Boute’s leadership, Digicel Haiti’s subscriber base grew from under two million customers in 2010 to over 4.5 million in 2014, when Boute relinquished his duties as Digicel Haiti’s CEO to co-found RE-VOLT along with former Digicel executive, Darragh Dolan.
According to Boute, “At the start of that period of expansion, Digicel already had a strong subscriber base in cities like Port-au-Prince. The biggest opportunity to grow the business was in rural areas, and, as we expanded our network there, we began to realize how much of a problem energy-poverty was. It became very clear to us that there was a huge business opportunity to provide affordable, reliable energy to these people – as well as it being a morally compelling thing to do as well.”
The idea was a regular topic of conversation between Boute and Dolan, a chartered accountant and former professional mountain climber who at the time was Digicel Haiti’s head of special projects.
“You would visit these villages and people are spending around a fifth of their day’s wages to pay a guy on the street with a generator to charge their phone,” says Dolan. “It bothered us every time we saw it. There had to be a better way.”
When asked what prompted him and Boute to launch RE-VOLT last year, Dolan said that they both felt that the time was right for a variety of reasons, including higher daily household demand for electricity due to the increasing penetration of power-hungry smartphones and the plummeting price of solar system components, such as solar panels and batteries.
“There have been massive advances in both the quality of available technologies and their affordability,” says Dolan. “A few years ago the economics of RE-VOLT wouldn’t have made sense. Today, this is a viable business model.”
“One really cool aspect of our business is that we’re creating jobs in the communities we serve,” says Boute. “And for most of our customers, this is the first time they’ve interacted with an in-home service business that is responsive, treats them well and actually stands by a product.”
RE-VOLT recently launched a campaign on crowd-funding site Indiegogo in order to raise the working capital necessary to grow its customer base on La Gonave to 2,000 households or 10,000 people by January 2016. The campaign offers a variety of “perks”, ranging from US$40 T-shirts to a $10,000 all-expenses-paid camping trip to La Gonave.
Boute and Dolan are enthusiastic about RE-VOLT’s future. According to Dolan, “We think there’s massive potential for us to provide additional services such as Wi-Fi hotspots, not to mention systems with better power generation and storage capabilities. We think this business would work in other emerging markets, although we’re very focused on growing our footprint in Haiti at present.”