Harrison Leaf is a second-year master’s student at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. A London native, Leaf launched access:energy, a triple bottom line startup that brings electricity to underserved communities in East Africa in a way that’s both environmentally sustainable and beneficial to local economies. Leaf and his collaborators have established a leasing model that can be replicated on an entirely local level, and that allows smaller communities to act as co-producers in the process. Born out of a bleak job market in the years after his first degree, Leaf’s company is now the proud developer of award winning clean energy technology and is poised to begin installations this very month. I recently sat down to talk with Harrison about the experience of starting a new company.
SM: What led you to launch access:energy?
London was difficult for young people in 2009. Instead of taking a bar job or living on benefits, I took six months to live and work in East Africa. access:energy started in Ethiopia with a friend and I tinkering with building a wind turbine from bike parts. We actually got surprisingly far along considering the lack of materials or even a decent internet connection. This naturally led us to the hardware mecca of East Africa – Nairobi’s scrap metal districts. Two months later on a windy rooftop on an island in Lake Victoria our scrap metal turbine made so much power it literally melted the control board.
I had a lot of fun with this. But it was the people we came in contact with as we went through the design process, who had skills and jobs and education but no electricity – they were so interested in what we were doing, that convinced us to push further.
Video short: time-lapse rotor building in access:energy’s workshop, Kenya.
How do you balance the demands of a new company with your work here at Yale?
There’s rather a lot of work involved, you really have to love what you do. The way I manage it is to combine the research for both. Starting a company involves creating new knowledge, so in many ways there’s no better place to start a company than a university. It all ties together.
access:energy makes a point of incorporating small, local manufacturers into the production process. What role have those relationships had in your success thus far?
Existing renewable energy initiatives treat African end users as consumers, distributing or financing expensive imported products into underserved areas. We go way beyond this by reverse-engineering clean energy technology to be made by local technicians. This makes the technology much cheaper and more applicable or “appropriate” to the context. You see local companies doing this with agricultural technology, furniture, cookstoves and the like, but very few organizations appear to be doing this with higher tech solar and wind energy in developing countries.
Although it has taken some time, there are some major advantages to this “network supply” approach. Local sourcing keeps costs way below competing solar and diesel generators, and it means we can custom design and operate each system to our customers’ exact needs. What is really exciting about our work, though, is that we are genuinely building the local economy – every turbine we install creates skilled jobs locally.
How does the introduction of electricity enhance the quality of life in Kenya?
Improvements to indoor air pollution, business productivity, and school achievement associated with rural electricity are well recognized – this year is after all the International Year of Sustainable Energy for All.
My take on it is that there is a very modern kind of conundrum taking place with the advent of mobile phones. Small appliances, like mobile phones, lights and radios, can only run on electricity – very different from cooking or mobility. Sixty percent of Kenyans have a mobile phone but only 16% of them have electricity at home, which is just crazy. These applications are all generally very low power but have really high social or economic impact. In Kenya, if you don’t have these things you’re really being left behind. So in the information age there is a strong social equity element to electricity.
Ten years ago this wasn’t the case. Most Africans didn’t have mobile phones or e-mail or Facebook. Now many Kenyans use M-Pesa, which enables their mobile phones as a wallet. It’s all about connectivity. We’re currently designing an installation to power Ekialo Kiona community radio station. Their project is to build community by broadcasting on local health issues on a remote Kenyan island in the local language and, if I know Nyanza province, acting as a mouthpiece for aspiring young DJs.
Your business is modeled on conditions in a very specific corner of the world, in order to maximize both efficiency and sustainability. Do you think the same model could be applied elsewhere?
We’re doing this because we think that it could work far beyond our little pocket of Kenya. Our work applies to all situations where there’s little existing grid infrastructure, where people use solid and liquid fuels instead. It applies where people don’t have disposable income to be able to invest in their own system. And it applies where there’s wind. Those three conditions, taken together, make up a huge swath of the world. One point three billion people don’t have electricity at home, 500 million of those are in Africa. Even a subset of that is a significant part of humanity. Whether this model can work in England or America or Japan is a completely different question.
That said, (relatively) small wind companies like Ecotricity are doing a lot to bring community-scale projects through in the UK, where energy bills have been rising sharply and where I think it’s fair to say there is heightened concern about carbon emissions. There, civil society groups recently came out supporting community ownership of clean energy projects as a way to push through planning faster from the bottom-up than national policy has been able to. It’s certainly a space we’ll be watching closely.
What has been the most challenging part of this experience for you?
If you take on something like this, you have to come to terms with living in limbo. You have to be able to put your heart and soul and every hour into something where failure is very likely and where failure is also not an option. You have to be able to live uncertainty, always, and yet that uncertainty can’t stop you from just giving it all the fire you’ve got. That’s hard.
So how do you live with that?
The thing is, I also thrive on it… Working like this, you have to have constancy in your heart. You have to be able to feel both at the same time; both the challenge and the excitement. You can’t reconcile them, they both exist on a daily basis. That’s hard, but I love it.
What’s the next step for access:energy?
Well, the big news as of last week is that we are officially in business. Our first customer put a down payment in for an access:energy hub. We are scheduled to make his home fully wind powered beginning of February. If all goes well, he will be the first of many.
We’ll be working throughout 2012 to do further research with our informal sector “insourcing” program, which is funded through Yale’s Centre for Business and the Environment. We’re hoping to publish something on that next year.
Otherwise, we’ve been working on a wind-powered rural roller disco concept…
access:energy are currently raising startup capital through crowdsourcing on IndieGoGo. If you like what they do, get involved! www.indiegogo.com/accessenergy