Prize-winning SDM project promises affordable solar power for rural India

Early conceptual drawing of the Beejli Solar System with a single lantern and phone chargerThis graphic shows the Beejli transaction and use model. By Ali Kamil SDM ’12

Editor’s Note: Ali Kamil is a student in the SDM Program. Before coming to SDM, he was a manager in Deloitte Consulting’s Technology Advisory practice where he helped a major carrier develop an online streaming media service. Kamil has a computer science degree from Georgia Institute of Technology.

Despite decades of international development work, 1.5 billion people—nearly a quarter of the world’s population—is without access to electricity. Most of these people are concentrated in Africa and southern Asia. India alone has 400 million people without access to electricity. These people suffer in the dark, or use dirty, expensive kerosene lanterns for light.

Kerosene’s hazards, including upper respiratory and skin ailments, are well documented by the World Health Organization. Kerosene is the most widely used lighting fuel in India. The average family in rural India uses 6 liters of kerosene per month.

On the flip side, the world has seen exponential growth in mobile phone use in the past decade. In India, mobile phone use has quadrupled in the past 5 years to 900 million subscribers and is projected to achieve 72% penetration by 2016.

The Idea

What if there was a way of leveraging this mobile phone penetration and growth to enable electrification of rural areas in India? This question led to an idea: Beejli.

Beejli, which means electricity in the Hindi/Urdu language, aims to disrupt the kerosene lamp market in South Asia by making solar energy affordable and accessible to households. The Beejli Solar System uses the existing mobile phone network in India to enable remote monitoring and control of solar panels. Through this capability, Beejli provides its solar systems at low upfront cost and meters the electricity output from the panel.

This past April, Beejli won the MIT Clean Energy Prize in the Renewable Energy track. The Beejli team was invited to the White House to participate in the National Clean Energy prize competition in June.

The System

The Beejli Solar System embeds remote monitoring and billing capabilities into a 50-Watt solar panel using the existing GSM/GPRS cellular networks in India. Under the system, the panels are placed with shopkeepers or other local entrepreneurs. Our innovative business model makes it possible for these local entrepreneur owners to pay a low upfront cost, incurring the remaining cost as a fee-for-service based on the amount of electricity they use. The owners will purchase electricity with pre-paid scratch cards, which will enable the system to deliver a fixed amount of power.

In this way, Beejli system will provide a solar source to an entrepreneur who can, in turn, rent out Beejli’s battery powered lanterns to villagers at less than the cost of kerosene lanterns. This model simultaneously makes the Beejli system affordable to the owner and makes bright, clean lanterns available to villagers at no upfront cost.

Early conceptual drawing of the Beejli Solar System with a single lantern and phone charger

The Beejli business model is unique because the product is intended to create a direct source of revenue for the owner of the system. Because it’s a source of revenue, shop owners are discouraged from tampering with the system to defeat the remote kill-switch. However, security is also built in to notify the Beejli server and to disable the device if the device is tampered with or the electronics are disrupted.

Scratch Cards

The transaction model is as follows:

  • A shop owner purchases electricity from Beejli Technologies in the form of pre-paid scratch cards.
  • The scratch card number is texted to a designated number where the Beejli server activates the panel for a designated amount of power.
  • When the shop owner has used up the power through phone charges and rented lanterns, additional power allowance can be purchased.
  • Once the initial Beejli Solar System has been fully paid for through electricity sales, the shop owner can upgrade the panel system to a larger capacity—providing a clear path for growth.

This graphic shows the Beejli transaction and use model.

Taking it a Step Further

After talking to researchers and entrepreneurs experienced with the target market, we have come to believe that other services can be added to the charge-and-rent business to deliver value to the villagers. Field research will determine if there’s a market for devices such as battery powered radios, fans, DVD players with Bollywood movies, and medical devices for conducting self-tests. Furthermore, once the adoption and use patterns are established, we will explore the household market. The goal is to give villagers access to electricity and lighting with a low barrier to entry while providing a means to pay back the remaining costs.

Winning the MIT Clean Energy Prize Renewable Energy Track and the chance to participate in the National Clean Energy prize competition was a highly rewarding experience. The team came together around a single idea of using technology to enable access to clean energy. In a span of eight weeks we built a viable business plan, worked with fantastic mentors, and pitched to a prestigious panel of judges that included Sun Microsystems founder Bill Joy and MIT Prof. Charlie Cooney. Within that short time, the team learned and grew immensely, and we all believe we have soaked in the MIT entrepreneurial spirit.

The Team

The Beejli team is comprised of four SDM Fellows from the class of 2012. Andrew Campanella, who formulated the idea for Beejli, united with by Abhijith Neerkaje, Lesley Yu, and me. The interdisciplinary nature of the SDM program is evident in the team’s composition; the team members brought unique and diverse backgrounds, from management consulting and sales, to systems integration and electronics engineering.

Sorin Grama and Khanjan Mehta—two highly experienced individuals with deep knowledge of the Indian market—advised the Beejli team. Sorin, SDM ’06, is the CEO and co-founder of Promethean Power, a startup focused on cold storage solutions for the rural dairy industry in India. Mehta is the director of Humanitarian Engineering and Social Entrepreneurship (HESE) Center at Pennsylvania State University. He has led many development ventures in East Africa and India.