Next-generation off-grid solar solutions to enable refugees to provide essential services and connectivity within their communities.
Pitch us on your solution
With over 68 million refugees and growing we live in the greatest era of mass migration known to man. Current camps lack access to the most essential services (clean water, electricity, education).
Our vision is to empower refugees around the world to lead a prosperous life wherever they go, re-instilling hope for their future. That is why we have developed next-generation off-grid solar-tech solutions that catalyse the transformation of stagnant refugee communities into places of opportunity and growth. Our solutions are operated by refugees who enable essential services in their communities through our devices (water filtration, mobile phone charging, digital services and light).
With a current proof-of-concept deployment of 11 solar systems across 6 refugee camps in Europe and Africa (Greece, Rwanda), impacting more than 30,000 people per month - we have a validated approach that if scaled up will impact the lives of millions.
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What is the problem you are solving?
Refugee camps today, particularly in Africa are often unelectrified, with poor infrastructure and no opportunities for employment, education and civic engagement. In particular, Rwanda currently hosts more than 173,000 refugees in 6 main camps. We visited three camps (Gihembe, Mahama, Kigeme), which all did not have adequate access to electricity, clean water, education and employment.
The lack of electricity in camps reduces the potential for refugees to earn any income, and complicates economic participation with mobile money being a key financial vehicle across Africa. Concerns over water quality are leading many refugees to boil water which is resulting in the deforestation of the surrounding countryside. Furthermore, lack of lighting in the evening is compromising safety, particularly of women and girls. With a growing number of smartphone users, connectivity is also a problem due to financial barriers. This coupled with sparse in-camp educational opportunities for adults, means that many are left with little to no future employment prospects.
These problem statements also hold true across refugee camps in Europe (Greece, Serbia), the Middle East (Jordan, Lebanon) and Asia (Bangladesh, Myanmar) and thus we have built our solar systems to address these key needs.
Who are you serving?
As climate mediated dislocation is on the rise in neighbouring countries, Rwanda has become a hot-spot of migration for thousands of refugees wishing to establish new permanent communities. Residents living in these communities, some of the most vulnerable individuals, are this project’s direct beneficiaries.
We have adopted a validated learning approach, and have identified residents' specific needs and responded with a tech-solution that puts refugees back in charge to provide for their own communities. With access to electricity being limited across all 6 Rwandan camps and the water quality not adhering to government standards the use of our off-grid solar systems as a ‘business in a box’ solution goes hand in hand with the lack of employment found within the camps.
After conducting 4 months of market research in Rwanda, including interview sessions and focus groups, and having conducted a pilot for one year in its biggest refugee camp (Mahama Camp), we have built lasting relationships and gathered key insights to our proposed solution.
The message we have received is that our solutions are transforming lives, and empowering refugees to deliver critical services within their communities in a sustainable manner.
What is your solution?
Elpis Solar (Greek for “Hope”) was born out of a response to the influx of refugees who have been arriving in Europe since 2015. Large numbers have ended up in camps lacking essential services such as electricity, information and clean drinking water.
A group of students from the University of Edinburgh, in collaboration with a Greek solar technology company developed two off-grid solar systems, a mobile phone charging system (SolarHub), and a charging system that also provides water filtration (Swapcy). The SolarHub powers 3600 phones per month, and Swapcy filters up to 9000 litres of water per month as well as charging 1200 phones and providing light in the evenings.
Furthermore, all of our units include an integrated offline educational content platform that is made available via a local WiFi hotspot. This ‘Digital-Hub’ currently contains over 250GB of educational content in French and English (complete copies of Wikipedia sorted by subject, over 40,000 e-books, TEDx videos, interactive science games and others). Now anyone with a WiFi-capable phone can access this information without needing a connection to the internet.
The introduction of our solar systems into refugee camps provides a direct way to foster civic engagement, as all our units are operated and maintained by refugees who then enable these essential services in their communities. Most recently we have worked with UNHCR, and the Rwandan Ministry of Refugees to provide entrepreneurial and business training to a cohort of refugees in Mahama Camp (the biggest one of its kind in Rwanda) as part of our pilot installation in July 2018.
One year later, our units still operate in the camp, and have empowered 4 refugees to become solar entrepreneurs and provide for themselves and their families, earning an average of 8000 Rwandan Francs per month (double the amount provided to them as their monthly allowance by camp authorities). In addition, thousands of people have benefited from the services they provide and as a result, demand is high for more of our solar stations in Mahama camp.
In the long-term we aim to cross-subsidise our solar systems in refugee camps by selling solar street light modules in MEDCs as a service, thereby generating a bi-directional low-carbon development pathway between MEDCs and LEDCs.
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Where is your solution team headquartered?Amsterdam, Netherlands
Our solution's stage of development:
Select one of the below:
New application of an existing technology
Describe what makes your solution innovative.
This project differentiates itself by providing solar infrastructure developed to address currently unmet needs in refugee settlements. Elpis Solar is uniquely positioned as it is the first to combine off-grid water filtration, mobile charging, provision of digital services and light at this scale. Often the provision of these services is not offered at a community scale since they lack a mechanism for residents to also benefit financially from the provision of services, as is the case with this project. The only comparable refugee project of this kind was a small-scale project managed by the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) which provided solar charging and phones for some within the camp.
Finally, our technical innovation is also supplemented by novel business modelling. We are deploying a micro-entrepreneur model that empowers camp residents to run their own solar charging business. Unit managers will gain valuable skills and income, whilst some of the proceeds cover operational and maintenance costs. Finally we are also developing a range of solar-powered products that we will sell in MEDCs (more economically developed countries), in particular solar-street lighting - thereby creating a circular social business model that reinvests profits made from these low-carbon investments into direct impact in refugee camps abroad. Last but not least our digital services platform, will provide a direct way for digital service providers (humanitarian organisations, governments, private companies), to disseminate their content and advertise to a hard to reach and often neglected customer segment.
Describe the core technology that your solution utilizes.
Our low-cost solutions enable mobile phone charging, access to digital services and triple layer water filtration (one 0.5-micron and two 0.1-micron filters), through two off-grid systems.
The ‘Solar Hub’, charges up to 3600 phones per month (120 per day), and delivers free digital content (over 250GB of medical, education, literature, entertainment) through an on-board server (Raspberry Pi computer) without the need for an internet connection.
Through the on-board computer, remote monitoring can also be enabled via a 3G connection, allowing the digital content on the unit to be updated remotely. These digital services can be accessed freely through a Wi-Fi access point that users can log onto using any mobile browser.
The ‘Solar Water Alternative Purifier and Charging System’ (Swapcy) is the first off-grid product of its kind combining triple layer water filtration (300 litres per day) and mobile phone charging (40 per day) at the community scale. We combine three certified Profine filters to improve the existing water quality, which often comprises river and ground-water treated at the refugee camp using chlorine, alum and lime. The combination of our filter assembly blocks the passage of sediment and organic matter, reduces chemicals, and inhibits the passage of bacteria. Furthermore, Swapcy also features an integrated LED to provide lighting in the evenings.
Most importantly, our offerings are tailored to the needs of refugee camp residents, which we have identified following extensive market research, and a pilot in the biggest refugee camp in Rwanda (Mahama Camp).
Please select the technologies currently used in your solution:
Why do you expect your solution to address the problem?
Our goal is for refugees in Rwandan refugee camps and eventually around the world to become self-sufficient and be able to enable essential services within their own communities.
We aim to start by deploying 12 units (6 Solar Hub & 6 Swapcy) across three Rwandan refugee camps, whilst providing entrepreneurship and business training to 12 solar entrepreneurs.
At the same time we will commence with prototyping our solar street light modules to be sold as a service in MEDCs, starting with Switzerland where we already have received interest from the municipality of Wohlen.
Short Term Outcomes:
In the short-term this will result in thousands of litres of clean water every month along with access to free educational content and electricity for mobile phones, all provided by our solar entrepreneurs (See diagram for details).
We will also start establishing partnerships with municipalities in Switzerland and thus establish a key foothold in the market to start generating recurring revenues to expand our impact.
Medium Term Outcomes:
In 2 - 3 years we will have empowered hundreds of refugees to run their own businesses and become self-sufficient. At the same time we will have built up a bidirectional low-carbon development pathway as we reduce emissions in MEDCs through our solar products, and through that also fund clean-tech projects in refugee camps.
Long Term Outcomes:
After 5 years, in many camps the social dynamics will have changed, and refugee camps will become areas of opportunity rather than of frustration and poverty.
Select the key characteristics of the population your solution serves.
In which countries do you currently operate?
In which countries will you be operating within the next year?
How many people are you currently serving with your solution? How many will you be serving in one year? How about in five years?
In 2016 - 2017 we deployed 7 Solar Hubs in Greece with a capacity to charge 25,200 phones per month. In summer 2018 we deployed two additional Solar Hubs (12 charging ports x 10h daily operation per unit) and two Swapcy units (8 charging ports + 300 litres of water-filtration per day) units in Mahama Camp, Rwanda, resulting in an added capacity of 9,600 phones charged and 18,000 litres of filtered water.
Feedback collected from camps has shown that average usage is 70% in Greece and 80% in Rwanda. Therefore, mobile phone charging in Greece translates to approximately 17,640 monthly charges, and 7,680 in Rwanda. Water filtration is used at its optimum with users utilising the free nature of the service, reaching the daily limit of 300 litres per day, per unit.
In 2020 - 2021 we plan to install an additional 12 units across Mahama Camp and two more Rwandan camps, with 2 Solar Hubs and 2 Swapcy units in each location. A feasible projection for our impact would be the following:
Solar Hubs: Monthly rate of 17,280 charged phones and access to digital services.
Swapcy: Monthly rate of 54,000 litres of filtered water, 5,760 charged phones, evening light and digital services.
In the long term, assuming organic growth and aggressive marketing to obtain both CSR related funding, Public Private Partnerships (PPP) and sustainable revenue generation from the micropayment scheme and light as a service model, we aim for a 10% increase in the number of annual installations in refugee camps.
What are your goals within the next year and within the next five years?
After having obtained a proof-of-concept of our MVP empowering refugee communities in Rwanda, we now aim to scale-up and replicate our approach to serve the needs of more people.
This year we will invest in R&D to upgrade our SWAPCY unit to incorporate UV water-filtration, thereby significantly reducing the replacement costs for the multiple currently installed ultrafiltration membranes. We also aim to increase the filtration capacity to 600 litres per day. New developments will also encompass enabling remote-access on our in-camp digital platform. Here the goals are to start generating platform use-data, allow content to be updated remotely and to monitor the impact we are having (number of charges and users).
Next year we aim to start rolling out a first MVP of our modular solar street lighting systems in European markets (starting in Switzerland). Here we will pilot our light as a service model by leasing solar infrastructure to municipalities. Through this activity we will be able to fund more solar solutions for refugee camps, and further scale-up the micro entrepreneurial model and reach of the digital-hub. Through this revenue stream we aim to fund a 10% increase in the number of units installed per year in refugee camps.
Looking ahead, we aim to reach more than 300,000 people over the course of 5 years, providing that we can form partnerships with UNHCR, NGOs and big telecoms that wish to reach out with their services to larger refugee communities.
What are the barriers that currently exist for you to accomplish your goals for the next year and for the next five years?
Starting capital ($36,000) is required for the installation of 12 more units within the next year.
Funding is required to enable remote-access capabilities on the digital-hub, allow faster charging through USB 3.0, and measure phones charged through the addition of a current sensor.
$6,000 is needed for the testing of various UV filtration solutions, ensuring goodness of fit with the scale of filtration we are performing, and the energy supplied by our solar system.
Right combination of sediment filters and UV technology is required to improve water quality whilst reducing replacement costs.
Various technologies to establish internet up-link within camps must also be tested to enable remote-access, the same applies to electrical load monitoring (number of charged phones).
Solar modules for our light as a service model must be prototyped.
Issuing IP and legal protection for our new lighting offerings co-developed with ENTEC S.A.
Obtaining an extension of camp permissions in Rwanda by drafting a Memorandum of Understanding with the Ministry for Refugees.
Incorporating as a social enterprise and finding the most suitable legal entity to ensure legal protection for our operations in the humanitarian sector.
Gaining the trust of the local board of seniors within camps and ensure the pricing of our services do not compromise the ability of other vendors to make a living.
Provide tailored digital content (libraries of e-books/resources) according to the demographics of the camp (age, languages).
Ensure adequate training for micro-entrepreneurs and the design of a ‘user manual’ answering queries.
How are you planning to overcome these barriers?
With regards to technical challenges, Entec S.A, an Athens based company with extensive experience in solar-energy and water services (filtration, desalination plants) in municipalities has agreed to extend their collaboration with us and help us improve and upgrade the Swapcy unit by retrofitting a UV filtration component. They will also help us prototype our new solar lighting modules. The additional electronics upgrades for the Solar Hub will be carried out by informatics students at the University of Amsterdam.
With regards to the financial needs of our venture, we are exploring a matched funding mechanism with other NGOs as well as planning a second crowd-funding campaign which will help us kick-start this scale up.
Any legal and cultural complications are addressed by utilising our network of mentorship schemes offered by our universities (Imperial College London, University of Amsterdam) along with independent support received from our previous base, The University of Edinburgh. Challenges Consulting Rwanda will help us resolve any logistical, legislative and communication related issues in Rwanda by playing the role of our in-country team on the ground. MIDIMAR, UNHCR and the network of solar entrepreneurs and volunteers we have established under the supervision of Fidele Gisore are also some of the key links we have established locally. Challenges International operate in 7 more African countries so the same model of market entry can be replicated for new geographical locations in the future.
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Not registered as any organization
How many people work on your solution team?
3 current Elpis Solar staff
10 Elpis Solar staff alumni
1 contractor (ENTEC S.A.)
1 partnering organisation (Challenges Worldwide)
For how many years have you been working on your solution?
Why are you and your team best-placed to deliver this solution?
Our growing team differentiates itself by covering three key areas needed for the realisation of our projects. We merge expertise in technology, green finance and local knowledge of the problem at hand to develop effective solutions that have the user at the centre of our developments.
Samuel aims to catalyse progress in the environmental sphere through his growing informatics toolkit. With a BSc in Environmental Sciences from the University of Edinburgh, and starting an MSc in Data Science at the University of Amsterdam this fall, his knowledge of web-development, data analytics, machine learning and internet of things makes him a key force behind the development of our digital services platform for refugees.
Brings experience to the team in energy finance, ESG investing, carbon accounting and green & sustainable entrepreneurship through his postgraduate MSc in Climate Change, Finance and Management at Imperial College London. His most recent project being the introduction of solar powered street lighting systems and solar bus stops, in Kalamata district (Greece), where he led the procurement, pre-feasibility assessment and installation phases of the project, liaising with state officials.
Having a civil engineering background, born and raised in Rwanda, Fidele has acted as a key link for Elpis in Rwanda, laying out the groundwork for camp permissions, logistical support with imports, translations and the training & monitoring of refugee-volunteers and local in camp entrepreneurs. Fidele has also worked towards establishing partnerships with organisations such as the Red Cross and UNHCR.
With what organizations are you currently partnering, if any? How are you working with them?
Provides solar-powered modules, technical and logistical support. As our closest working partner, Entec S.A provides these components and has over 30 years of experience in the Greek energy sector. This standing in-kind collaboration is vital to our success, as Entec S.A. is currently helping us design, prototype and optimise our products at cost and is responsible for the manufacturing and shipping of the units as well.
Challenges have been supporting Elpis to enter the Rwandan market through short-term work including, market assessments, business development, training and mentoring of local volunteers in liaison with UNHCR and state authorities in Mahama Camp. They researched needs on the ground from January until April 2018, also conducted literature reviews and online research using UNHCR data and documentation.
Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts
Elpis Solar is an industrial partner of the Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts. Recently, Samuel Kellerhals supervised a bachelor thesis in an Industrial Engineering & Innovation course with the aim to develop a circular business model and conduct market research in Switzerland. The results of this thesis were published in June 2019, and are now leading to new product developments for Elpis Solar.
What is your business model?
We operate a circular multi-sided business model that accelerates low-carbon development across borders.
Light as a service in MEDCs:
Its backbone is formed by selling solar street lighting modules in MEDCs. Our value proposition is to sell light as a service in the public sector by providing modular solar street lighting modules that can be installed on pre-existing street-light poles. This reduces capital costs, increases sustainability, and generates a recurring revenue stream for us. After termination of the use contract, solar street light modules will be returned to Elpis Solar, where they can be reused for other installations in MEDCs or installed within refugee camps, most of whom lack lighting facilities. These devices are enabled with IoT technology and provide usage statistics and insights from environmental sensors to our customers, including direct billing.
Within refugee camps, we allow residents to become microentrepreneurs by operating our offgrid solar systems as solar charging businesses, with the addition of the sale of other potential services such as airtime. As our deployments in refugee camps grow, we aim to collect micropayments from these operators which will support operations and maintenance of our units in refugee camps.
Finally our digital platform provides a direct way for organisations to interact with refugees and enhance their CSR portfolio. We will offer the opportunity for digital service providers to disseminate their content on our platform. Furthermore advertising opportunities will also be made available for selected organisations.
What is your path to financial sustainability?
For the past 2 years during our initial ideation and prototyping stage we relied solely on philanthropy to fund our activities, however we now aim to validate our business models and become a financially sustainable venture.
After 6 months of empirical qualitative research in the Swiss market (municipalities, tourism board), we have identified a key opportunity in a niche market, selling access to solar street lighting as a service. This will constitute our primary revenue stream, which we will use to fund R&D and further installations of our solar systems in refugee camps. Our next steps are now targeted at developing a minimum viable product for the Swiss market, and following up with our leads to initiate a testing phase in the municipality of Wohlen in the canton of Aargau. This testing phase will inform product development and our route to market strategy, which ultimately will result in a recurring revenue stream for us.
Next, we seek to approach potential partners for our micro entrepreneurial model (e.g. Rwandan Telecoms like MTN Rwanda), so that they can provide their products to sell alongside our stations. We will take a processing fee and after scaling up operations across more camps this will constitute another significant revenue stream to cover in-country maintenance and operations.
Finally, we also aim to approach organisations and companies that create digital content and services that could be consumed within refugee camps. Here we will also charge a premium for certain companies to be able to host their content/advertise on our platform.
Why are you applying to Solve?
We’re applying to Solve to turn Elpis Solar into a fully financially sustainable social enterprise - where until now it has just been a project set-up by students. Primarily we seek to access the expertise and mentorship from the MIT Solve community to validate and build upon our current business models and solutions.
We are at a crossroads where we know that our solutions work, and that there is a strong demand for them, however we still need to validate our business models and move towards a fully self sustainable entity.
In order to do this we require funding to scale-up our micro entrepreneurial model to more camps in Rwanda, and invest into developing a full-scale entrepreneurial training and monitoring programme in those camps, while also setting up a micropayments scheme.
Furthermore we also seek to invest into R&D to make our units more useful to refugees, and thus increase the success of our solar entrepreneurs. One of these changes is integrating UV water filtration to not only rely on membrane filtration and thus reduce maintenance costs. Furthermore, we also need to integrate lockable compartments in our solar-units to increase security and give entrepreneurs the ability to leave the units unattended.
Finally the fact that MIT is a pioneer in the distribution of educational digital content through their MIT OpenCourseWare database is a key reason for this application. We seek to integrate these educational resources into our digital platform and thus make it available to thousands without an internet connection.
What types of connections and partnerships would be most catalytic for your solution?
If you selected Other, please explain here.
Access to the MIT OpenCourseWare content so we can distribute it in refugee camps around the world.
With what organizations would you like to partner, and how would you like to partner with them?
In order to help us scale our solutions within Rwanda, we seek to enter a Memorandum of Understanding with the Rwandan Ministry for Refugees. Furthermore, a potential partnership with UNHCR has also been discussed during a meeting with the regional UNHCR manager in Rwanda in July 2018. We envision to become a key partner of UNHCR to help them deliver critical essential services at the initial phase of refugee settlement formation. Discussions with UNHCR representatives have also shown that they would see us as a potential primary distributor of information throughout refugee camps via our digital platform – as this is something they have struggled to find a solution to in the past.
Furthermore, we also want to partner with high-quality providers of educational content such as MIT through their OpenCourseWare database, as well as other providers of MOOCs such as Edx. A partnership as such would enable these organisations to directly impact the lives of millions were their content to be integrated into our digital platform and deployed in refugee camps. Other organisations in this space include Khan Academy, Coursera, YouTube and Kiwix.
Additionally we would like to further diversify the offering of our solar mobile phone charging stations by allowing our microentrepreneurs to also sell airtime. This is made possible by partnering with telecoms, in particular in our case with MTN Rwanda. Lastly we also seek a partnership with the Raspberry Pi Foundation in order to access subsidised single-board computers.
If you would like to apply for the Prize for Innovation in Refugee Inclusion, describe how you and your team will utilize the prize to advance your solution.
Our offgrid solar systems and entrepreneurial programme in refugee camps, promote self-reliance, boost economic growth and enhance inclusion into host countries. By enabling refugees to run their own solar mobile phone charging business, Elpis Solar Microentrepreneurs are earning an average of 8000 RWF per month, double the amount currently provided to them through camp management (4000 RWF).
As a result, our solution enables a systematic change in refugees’ lives. As Solar Entrepreneurs refugees are given an opportunity for employment and self-development, including the responsibility to start providing for their own communities through the provision of essential services such as access to clean water, electricity and digital services.
Currently we have already deployed four units in Mahama Camp (Rwanda), one at the UNHCR registration office, two at the Women’s Opportunity Centre, and one at the health centre. There is a great demand for more units in the camp which currently is still completely unelectrified as is the case with many other camps in Rwanda. Not only due to the lack of essential services, but especially because of an overwhelming desire for employment.
Our goal now is to scale-up our pilot in Rwanda within Mahama Camp and to two more camps (Gihembe, Kigeme), installing an additional 12 units (4 per camp) for a cost of $36,000, generating a monthly impact of up to 23,040 charged phones, 54,000 litres of clean water, unlimited in-camp access to educational digital resources and the creation of at least 12 full-time jobs.