Afnan Hannan, BEng, BEc ’14, is working to democratise access to energy in South-East Asia through his start-up social enterprise Okra Solar. Ellen Parsons writes.
It’s 35 degrees and humid, and Afnan Hannan is standing on the dusty dirt floor, sheltering from the sun under a rusted corrugated iron roof. He’s in Prey Pdao, a remote village in rural Cambodia, accessible only by a dirt road and then a long boat ride.
A village dog lies dozing under a tree, and children are playing nearby, shrieking and laughing. However something seems out of place in this peaceful, agricultural community – a state of the art solar energy micro-grid. Afnan, his co-founder Damian Veling, and their team are in the process of installing the first ever Okra Solar meters into the remote village, the first reliable source of power the residents have ever had. Afnan (Affy), graduated from the ANU in 2014, with a degree in Engineering and Economics. “I’d studied renewable energy systems at ANU, and I knew in my mind that somehow I wanted to work in solving this challenge,” he says.
Affy and Damian set out to find a solution to one problem: there are still more than a billion people on the planet without access to consistent, 24/7 power. This presented a great human need, as well as a substantial commercial opportunity. They approached existing local energy companies in Cambodia to find out what their challenges were in order to create a viable solution and product.
“We realised from day zero that for us to really make an impact we needed to partner with the local ecosystem” Affy says. It was too expensive for the major companies to extend the existing electricity grid infrastructure out to the remote villages.
“Even if they did set up the distribution of power, they’d have to go out into the middle of nowhere and maintain the systems, which when you don’t even know what’s going wrong, costs a lot of money and time,” Affy says. Residents were using alternatives like kerosene and diesel-run generators to power their homes, which was expensive for the consumer and damaging to the environment. So Affy and his team came up with a solution.
“Rather than extend the grid 10 kilometres, and connect every house to the main grid, which could cost a half a million dollars, they [the electricity companies] can just connect 20 or 50 households into a solar smart-grid with our technology, and it might cost $20,000 or $50,000. That smart-grid can then be managed autonomously through our software.” The ‘smart-micro-grid’ served as a simple, yet high-tech answer to the problem. By installing the Okra meters in every house, it enabled the sharing of power between the households.
This meant more reliability – if one house runs out, it can get power from the other houses that are producing excess. Each meter is controlled through remote software, and is reporting data in real time. “So you don’t have to go out to the middle of nowhere to maintain something, you could see exactly what’s gone wrong with the software. The information is instantly sent to the energy company and to the house, and much of the time, customers can even fix things themselves,” Affy says.
Because the devices are controlled remotely, there’s no need for the electricity companies to collect cash payments in person.
“The meters measure how much energy is consumed and the customers basically just top up mobile phone credit on their device.” Despite their impressive initial success, it hasn’t been all smooth sailing for Okra – they’ve had their fair share of challenges throughout the three years they’ve been operating.
They had a period of two weeks before their first round of investment where they had to borrow money to bridge the gap, and their first office was in a hostel room (with the bunk beds taken out). Aside from the practical challenges, there were also cultural lessons to learn.
When the first boxes were installed, there was a flashing red light to indicate connectivity – which made some customers think that the machine was possessed. However, Affy is well suited to the rollercoaster of start-up life, “I think creating a start-up is one of the most exciting things that anyone can do. Even the downs of start-up life are 10 times more exciting than the day-to-day working life that I had before.”
Affy says his university experience also played a key role in preparing him for starting his own business. “I think my time at ANU was a period of me building a bunch of knowledge – fundamentals, how engineering and electronics work, as well as markets, motivations and the economic side of things.”
“But more importantly, I got to be part of an ecosystem where I met a bunch of really exceptional people and built good friendships with them. Now I’m working with those same people from ANU at Okra, and we’re putting our brains together to solve a challenge that we think is really significant,” he says.
Looking towards the future of the business, Affy is thinking beyond just Cambodia.
“This coming year we’re looking to have about 40,000 people energised with our technology in Philippines, Indonesia and Cambodia” he says. “And there is a billion more people in our sights.” His long-term goal is to democratise information – and the first step is improving access to energy.
“We love to build technology, and we see a future where 10 or 15 years from now all these people in emerging market economies are learning online and getting as many opportunities [if not more] as people who have the privilege to go to ANU.”