Solution Overview & Team Lead Details

Our Organization

Atutu

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What is the name of your solution?

Sunbird Solar Technologies

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Provide a one-line summary of your solution.

Atutu accelerates solar energy access to internally displaced persons (IDPs) of Myanmar, bringing dignity and opportunity to the resettlement process.

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Film your elevator pitch.

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What specific problem are you solving?

Due to the military coup, additional 495,300 people have been internally displaced in February 2021, bringing Myanmar’s IDP population to 865,700 (Source: UNHCR). Humanitarian assistance and infrastructure development is severely lagging, leading to a housing shortage. As a result, IDPs are being housed in overcrowded or makeshift shelters.  Of nearly 1 million IDPs, our conservative estimation (based on UNHCR and NGO reports) puts only 30% of the IDPs to be in permanent housing while the rest of them are unhoused or are in temporary housing. Based on current estimates, one in every four camps are built without energy access. And as the humanitarian assistance catches up to meet the housing demand, the majority of the shelters are expected to be built on cheaper land, which implies there will be no grid access. We estimate that nearly half a million IDPs will be housed without electricity access in the next 3 years. With no plans from the government to resume rural electrification initiatives, the families will have to resort to candles and small lanterns given out by the humanitarian response agencies. 

This overstressed housing situation has insidious and detrimental long term effects on the families beyond the physical daily impact. Energy inequities can be a setback for the education of the children and financial opportunities for the adults. Before the military coup, our team made residential solar installations at homes, schools, and stores. Our customer testimonials highlighted how night time productivity and safety improved for students, business owners, and farmers with our solar lights. Contrasting that with the IDPs at off-grid shelters, they are severely lacking the energy access other families enjoy. This disparity in energy access contributes to the wealth gap solely based on ones misfortune of having their home taken away. 

With underfunded humanitarian assistance efforts, they cannot afford to prioritize energy access for the families. Just because it is not a priority, it does not mean energy access is not a basic need. Many families still need to consume energy for their survival, so they have to resort to unsafe, inefficient usage of alternative energy sources. Many families use charcoal and wood burning stoves to cook.  This unmet yet crucial need leaves room for our team to create a novel solution. We believe that a local team, with shared lived experience, is uniquely positioned to address this need. 

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What is your solution?

Our two tier solution is aimed to accelerate energy access to the internally displaced people (IDPs) living in off-grid shelters. The first tier is our solar home system which we are offering as the basic needs package and designed to be deployed quickly and easily. In this package, our solar home system comes with 4 LED lights and USB charging ports for electronic devices. The number of LED lights in our system are customizable to accommodate the housing plans of the shelters. Our team has installed over 70 solar home systems starting in 2018. All of them since installation have been functional and our team has quickly responded to maintenance requests from our customers. We’ve also done repairs and maintenance on the home systems as needed and logged the damage and failure reports. This aggregate knowledge and experience allowed us to iterate on our latest design of the solar system. Based on our experience working in remote regions of Myanmar, this solar home system has been configured to optimize reliability, ease of deployment, and ruggedness. Our solar home system is comparable to RV and camping solar kits that are sold in the USA, where we prioritize reliability and ease of deployment. 

The second tier solution is a community microgrid. The solar microgrid deployed at a shelter wide scale can power 20-30 homes. We found that each resettlement shelter has 20 to 30 residential units and are built in an arrangement that easily accommodates a microgrid infrastructure. With IOT monitoring and incident management tools, our team can constantly monitor the performance of the microgrid and provide any on the ground support as needed. Establishing a microgrid also allows the community to easily connect to the power grid in the future when the grid access has been expanded to their community. Instead of having to pay for rewiring of the homes, the grid can easily plug into our microgrid and serve as a back up to our solar energy.  

This solution allows us to use the “energy as a service” business model where we take on the upfront cost of implementing the microgrid and subsidize the monthly cost of energy. Being a nonprofit organization, our plan is to find individual and corporate donors who could sponsor the monthly energy bill for the shelters. 

Our two tier approach ensures that the IDPs are given energy access on an accelerated timeline and guarantee affordable energy access. 

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Who does your solution serve, and in what ways will the solution impact their lives?

Our products are designed with the displaced communities in mind, not retrofitting an existing product to address a need. Based on our installation experience in off-grid communities, we verified that reliability and durability are the most important aspects to communities. Consequently, our designs feature a high quality enclosure and components with long warranty times, which are selected to withstand Myanmar’s climate, as well as pests and rodents that are indigenous to the installation sites. This allows us to present our products as an all-in-one solution with warranty to customers, easing their worries and eliminating the barrier to entry to use our products. Keeping the installers in mind, we have also taken steps to streamline the deployment and installation process. This reduces the burden on local electricians and technicians who can take our product and install it in the markets and sectors outside of the IDP population. Currently, the pressure falls on local electricians to design and source the solar components. Our product eases that burden. 

With the usage of digital technologies, we are turning a localized energy access project into a global movement. This opens the doors to future partnerships with energy service companies, component manufacturers. This also allows us to scale not only to Myanmar, but beyond Myanmar’s borders to serve other off-grid communities without major additional resources.

Having affordable energy access can be the foundation for future opportunities and developments. Our solution has the potential to bring energy access to half a million displaced people of Myanmar who are currently living without access to electricity.

Working with local technicians, we provide a pathway to sustained employment in the energy sector. With our approach, local technicians are the primary point of contact for local energy needs. Having local competition also serves as a way of bringing energy cost down in the future when we eventually see foreigh service providers coming into Myanmar. Our approach is designed to promote a circular economy within the communities of Myanmar to promote self reliance and sustainable community development. 

Our utilization of solar energy also mitigates the unsafe and inefficient methods the communities are currently using to fill their energy needs. With an estimated average energy consumption for a Burmese consumer to be 16 kWh per day, the future energy needs of our 500,000 customers will come from a renewable source.  Powered by the computational abilities of digital technology, we have the ability to optimize the energy sector in Myanmar at a scale we haven’t before. This can compound our social impact with environmental impact with our solution. 

Based on our local experience, we know that Burmese families who rely on electricity as the main source of energy consume around 15 kWh per day. Their primary usage comes from the water pump, mini-fridge, lighting, rice cooker, electric cooker/hotplate, electric kettle, and electronic devices. In contrast, the majority of off-grid households rely on the burning of charcoal, wood, and other organic materials as a heat source in the kitchen. Cooking three meals a day using the current method and using candles at night negatively impacts the environment and their respiratory health. At our end state, we will have serviced nearly 1 million displaced people with solar energy, which means we will be significantly mitigating inefficient and unsafe energy sources from their daily usage, leading to a much cleaner and more efficient usage of renewable energy. Not only are we promoting renewable energy usage, our community centric approach empowers local and indigenous population to optimize their power grid to fit their lifestyle. With energy independence, each community can rely on localized knowledge of their land and climate to adjust their grid as needed. Knowing how the seasons change and consumer behavior, each community can foresee the changes in energy generation and usage more accurately than a standardized grid. This means they are able to make the necessary changes to the power plant to promote grid resiliency and optimize energy flow. 

The testimonials we have based on our previous installations have reaffirmed the value our solution brings. Students report that our solution allowed them to study at night in a brighter and safer environment. Farmers reported that our solution allowed them to wash, prepare, and package their harvests at night right before the morning market, enabling them to sell freshly prepared produce the next day. Store owners reported that they are able to open their businesses later into the evening and increase their service hours, enabling them to increase their revenue. These reports show that our solution has the potential to serve as an investment for the population. We empower our customers with the tools to improve their own life as they see fit. 

With our solution, we aim to close the dignity and opportunity gap that is present in the lives of the internally displaced. Our solution has the power to propel the families with opportunities. We are not saying we can undo the violence and the harm that they’ve gone through. But we are saying we can bring a small sense of safety and comfort into the families who’ve already gone through more than they bargained for.  

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How are you and your team well-positioned to deliver this solution?

The communities are the driving force behind our initiatives. In our experience, we have seen how communities can take the lead and steer the development efforts. We do not go to communities to get their permissions. We do not go to communities to consult with them. We do not go to communities to get their feedback. We start with the communities. The communities must commit and work to steer the expertise and resources our organization brings to the communities. This approach has been validated by our pilot project to yield equitable and sustainable results. 

This is highly evident in the leadership and the team that has done the work on the ground. Lin Thu Hein, the Executive Director and cofounder, was born and raised in rural Kachin state, Myanmar, where his family lived in an off-grid community. Working in the energy industry as an engineer and having grown up in an off-grid community placed him a position to effectively contribute to the electrification efforts of rural off-grid communities. Driven by his shared lived experience with rural communities of Myanmar, Lin aims to dismantle energy inequities that exist in rural Burmese communities by centering community lived experiences.

Atutu also works with a team of Atutu Fellows, young community leaders who are from off-grid communities and are currently residing in Kachin. These Fellows also are highly integrated in the local communities and their needs, which gives them a unique perspective that others in the industry cannot attain. Our core team's upbringings in rural off-grid communities exposed us to challenges, experiences, and localized knowledge that can not be taught or researched. This gives us a unique perspective to critique, plan, and implement energy projects that center community lived experience. We can easily identify the disconnects between energy industry professionals and the off-grid communities in which their designs were implemented. Many, if not most, of them do not have any shared lived experiences with off-grid communities, which leads to making incorrect (and sometimes problematic) assumptions about the people who’d receive their products or services. In contrast, our team is from these communities. This is not a case of visitors to the community bringing aid to help these communities. This is a story of people from the community championing change for their own communities. We address energy equities that uplifts the people of the community on our own terms. 


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Which dimension of the Challenge does your solution most closely address?

Enable mass production of inexpensive and low-carbon housing, including changes to design, materials, and construction methods.

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Where our solution team is headquartered or located:

Dublin, CA, USA
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Our solution's stage of development:

Growth
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How many people does your solution currently serve?

We have installed a total of 71 solar home systems, 60 of them are at residential homes and 11 of them are serving community locations (schools, convenient stores, crop preparation spaces, and places of worship). With an average household of 4 persons, we approximate we’re providing lighting solutions to around 276 persons on a nightly basis. Our 11 installations at community locations are also currently supporting community functions and the local economy in a sustained way. We focus on testimonials from three distinct groups: students, businesses, and community service providers (churches and schools).

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Why are you applying to Solve?

While we have community representation and industry experience, the rural electrification work requires a lot of capital up front. We are primarily looking to ease our financial burdens and allow us to scale faster with the financial support we gain from Solve. 

Becoming a Solver team also means we are able to be in the network of other Solvers who are solving pressing problems in their own way. We believe cross sector and cross regional collaboration is the key to ending energy inequities and addressing climate disasters in the global stage. 

Being part of the Echoing Green 2021 cohort, we already have seen what a forward thinking institution can offer us and how this could propel our work to the scale we haven't imagined before with the support we get from Echoing Green. Now, we are looking for other networks in the engineering field who can also propel our work to the next level. Our team has so much to learn and to grow, we believe the support that Solve can provide can play a crucial role as we scale our service to other marginalized communities of Myanmar. 

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In which of the following areas do you most need partners or support?

Financial (e.g. improving accounting practices, pitching to investors)

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Who is the Team Lead for your solution?

Lin Thu Hein

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More About Your Solution

What makes your solution innovative?

Our co founder Lin Thu Hein’s experience in the solar microgrid industry as an IOT applications engineer has been an asset. We are able to easily design a microgrid that is equipped with digital technology and IOT cloud integration features. Doing so enables us to not only monitor and control the grid from the cloud, but also allows us to run optimization methods to maximize energy efficiency of the microgrids. More specifically, each component of the grid (the battery, charger controller, inverter, and the meters) has been selected to ensure they use the same communication protocol (modbus and CAN bus). This means we can rely on a smart data logger and controller which publishes to the cloud and can take remote commands to actively manage the grid. Having integrations with the meters also ensures that we can log the amount of energy each household is consuming. This cloud integration feature enables us to do data logging, reporting, as well as optimization as requested by our customers, donors, field technicians, and technical partners. 

This allows us to implement distributed power generation for distributed communities, while allowing us to monitor and respond to incidents. This enables us to scale to locations and communities in isolated and hard-to-reach locations of Myanmar. Currently, these communities are living without access to electricity. Our model allows us to overcome the issue of proximity and enable these communities to get access to affordable energy. 

The potential competition to us employs a centralized approach to energy, where the entities have control over the production and distribution of energy. With cloud monitoring, we provide servicing and support to communities while they own their power generation. 

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What are your impact goals for the next year and the next five years, and how will you achieve them?

For the 2022 calendar year, we plan to make 300 solar home system installations across 10 IDP shelters in Kachin state, with the intent of validating product-market fit. We also plan to explore distribution of 50 solar home systems across northern Myanmar to local electricians to gauge interest from the non-IDP consumers. We are working to partner with American NGOs focusing on Myanmar to begin planning shelter-wide microgrids as a pilot project. 

For the 2023 calendar year, we plan to scale our solar home system installation to 30 off-grid IDP shelters in Kachin state and Northern Shan State.

In the next five years, we aim to service clusters of IDP sites all across Myanmar, focusing on ethnic and marginalized communities. Our roadmap and our scaling plan currently consists of working with local technicians, therefore we plan to scale one province at a time. Identifying IDP shelters isn't the main limiting factor since collaborate closely UNHCR local offices and other aid agencies. The limiting factor of scale for us comes from identifying local community members who can serve as our technicians. With this approach, we plan to scale to Chin State, Kayah State, Karen (Kayin) State and Mon State in that order. This expansion guideline prioritizes ethnic minorities and indigenous people of Myanmar who’ve been facing racial and systemic inequities for generations. Our cofounder Lin Thu Hein was born and raised in Kachin, so we started our pilot project with his local contacts in Kachin State and decided to expand from there. 

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How are you measuring your progress toward your impact goals?

Our main impact will be based on two metrics: basic unmet need and full energy access. Basic unmet needs refers to lighting and phone charging, which will be filled by deployment of our solar home systems. And full energy access refers to the shelter wide microgrid we presented in the earlier section, which powers electric kitchen appliances along with other household appliances, in addition to lighting. For our reliability standard, we aim to deliver 90% uptime. 

We have installed a total of 71 solar home systems, 60 of them are at residential homes and 11 of them are serving community locations (schools, convenient stores, crop preparation spaces, and places of worship). With an average household of 4 persons, we approximate we’re providing lighting solutions to around 276 persons on a nightly basis. Our 11 installations at community locations are also currently supporting community functions and the local economy in a sustained way. We focus on testimonials from three distinct groups: students, businesses, and community service providers (churches and schools). The testimonials we have based on our previous installations have reaffirmed the value our solution brings. Students report that our solution allowed them to study at night in a brighter and safer environment. Farmers reported that our solution allowed them to wash, prepare, and package their harvests at night right before the morning market, enabling them to sell freshly prepared produce the next day. Store owners reported that they are able to open their businesses later into the evening and increase their service hours, enabling them to increase their revenue. From the schools, we have seen that teachers are able to hold after school activities and study sessions. In our first school installation, we heard how the teachers were holding additional homework sessions for students who were falling behind in school. We were unable to get testimonials from churches and monasteries since covid has affected their attendance. These reports show that our solution has the potential to serve as an investment for the population. We empower our customers with the tools to improve their own life as they see fit. 

Our local team members made installations. We had a total of 8 youths working with us to make installations. Our goal starting in mid 2022 is to pay for labor of our local team and transition them to full time staff. For 2022, we plan to make 300 more installations at IDP shelters in Kachin state. 

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What is your theory of change?

Systemic inequities and oppression in communities ultimately leads to scarcity-based harm done to community members. Scarcity-based harm is a preventable type of harm that is born from lack of opportunities, resources, or tools. In our case, energy inequity creates a scarcity-based harm in the form of lower academic performance for students, having exposure to unnecessary and preventable risks, and shunted economic prosperity. 

In an end-state, communities will be able to see economic prosperity and shared wealth because their basic energy needs are met. Students will be able to focus on extracurricular activities and hobbies instead of doing manual labor because they can use the available energy to automate those chores. Parents can light up a room or leave their children alone without having to fear for risk of fire. 

Of course, it should be recognized that having energy inequities dismantled does not mean the communities are now free of all oppression. It is only one of the complex issues that communities in Myanmar face. We must continue addressing many other forms of oppression and injustices.  But for our cause, dismantling energy inequities puts us one step closer to collective liberation, climate justice, and economic empowerment.

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Describe the core technology that powers your solution.

Our team works with electrical hardware and components. We carefully select commercial electronic components as well as manufacture our own components to create turnkey products and services that enables people to bring solar energy into their communities. These components include solar panels, batteries, circuit breakers, charge controllers, inverters, and consumer electronic products such as LED lights, USB charging stations, electric cookware and space heating elements. 

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Which of the following categories best describes your solution?

A new business model or process that relies on technology to be successful

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Please select the technologies currently used in your solution:

  • Internet of Things
  • Manufacturing Technology
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Which of the UN Sustainable Development Goals does your solution address?

  • 7. Affordable and Clean Energy
  • 8. Decent Work and Economic Growth
  • 9. Industry, Innovation, and Infrastructure
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Your Team

What type of organization is your solution team?

Nonprofit

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How many people work on your solution team?

1 full-time staff, 20 volunteers

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How long have you been working on your solution?

3 years

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What is your approach to incorporating diversity, equity, and inclusivity into your work?

Our team works to actively recruit and foster community from the immigrant and diaspora communities who bring their lived experiences to the organization. The lived experiences that our members bring enriches our practices and designs to serve the communities better. 

We pay close attention to system barriers that people face and do our best to eliminate these barriers in our recruitment practices. For instance, we do not require our members to speak english at any proficiency level, we do not require our members to be able to use computers or digital technology at a high proficiency level, we do not have education requirements for our members. We meet our members where they are and value them for the experiences and wisdom they bring to our team. 

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Your Business Model & Funding

What is your business model?

Our business model is to install and service solar home systems and solar microgrids for the displaced families who are living in off-grid shelters. The distributed off-grid nature of the shelters create a prime opportunity to deploy solar microgrids as the primary source of electricity. With IOT monitoring technology and incident management tools, we can scale and service each shelter effectively using the “energy as a service” model. 

We provide a turnkey ready-to-deploy pre-assembled solar home system for customers who are ready to add solar lights for their residences. This solar home system is our "basic needs" kit, which consists of 4 lights and two USB charging ports. Based on our market research and local experience, this is the system that most off-grid communities elect to choose as they adopt solar technology. The system comes with a 3 year warranty where our team will do maintenance and fix any issues that arise in order to ease the risks the customers take on. For the IDP Sites, we aim to raise 80% of the cost of the system in the United States and raise the 20% in Myanmar to be able to install systems for free at IDP Sites. 

Our "energy as a service" service takes place at a larger scale. We install a microgrid that distributes power to a string of homes or an IDP resettlement shelter, where we cover the upfront cost of installation and charge our customers monthly energy fee, similar to that of a utility power provider. Depending on our finances and community's financial situation, we are able to set prices that are carefully adjusted to ensure the energy is affordable for our communities. We intend to explore paths to ownership of the microgrid for the communities in the future where Atutu becomes the company that does maintenance and provide technical support while the communities own their microgrid, but we have not reached any conclusion yet on how we aim to achieve path to ownership. 

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Do you primarily provide products or services directly to individuals, to other organizations, or to the government?

Organizations (B2B)
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What is your plan for becoming financially sustainable?

We sell our products and services at a mark up to provide financial sustainable for the business as well as any staff we will have in Myanmar. We also fundraise in the USA to be able to sustain our staff and continue subsidizing the cost of our products and services in Myanmar. 

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Share some examples of how your plan to achieve financial sustainability has been successful so far.

In the past, we have sold our products at a 20% markup to ensure we are able to cover any unforeseen costs as well as being able to purchase inventory. That was when our members were volunteers. Now, we have the cost of labor and staff built into our pricing model. 

As a nonrpofit, we have also received grants and financial support from institutions and donors. The following outlines the financial support we've gathered over the past three years. 

  • $6,500 UC San Diego Electrical & Computer Engineering Department (support for Atutu’s University Branch)
  • $5,000 UC San Diego Rady School of Management for a pitch competition
  • $12,000 from individual donors
  • $80,000 as a stipend from Echoing Green for the 2021 Echoing Green Fellowship (to be disbursed over a period of 18 months) 


The Echoing Green Fellowship allowed our cofounder Lin Thu Hein to be hired as our first full-time staff. 


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Solution Team

  • Lin Thu Hein Executive Director, Atutu
 
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