Picture this. You’re living in a rural area of a developing country. The nearest major town or city is a couple hours away. The community that you are living in does not have electricity. Proper sanitation might also be lacking. Once the sun goes down, that’s it. No more lights. For billions of people around the world, this is a reality. Makes you think.
Sunlabob, a company based in Laos is helping to create a new reality for these rural areas by bringing renewable energy and clean water solutions to these communities. Founded in Laos in 2000-2001, co-founder Andy Schroeter, who was working in a remote province of Laos, saw the need for rural electrification in a local village and saw a business opportunity.
During Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week, I sat down with Evan Scandling, Director of Communications at Sunlabob to discuss where Sunlabob has been and where they are going.
The company has been an innovator in developing market based rural electrification models where Sunlabob acted as a micro-utility providing electricity to local villages. The company also introduced solutions using solar lanterns where you would have a central charging station with 30-50 lanterns and the company would train a local entrepreneur to maintain the battery, clean the panels, and in general run the business of renting out lanterns to local villagers. This worked in small scale.
For many of these early projects, Sunlabob self-financed the capital costs and according to Evan, as the projects scaled up, the challenges were magnified. Evan noted that it was a tricky equation where one piece can alter the model. For example, if a rainy season did not yield enough rain, villagers might not harvest enough rice, which means they don’t have enough income to rent the lanterns.
In 2009, the company won a successful won a World Bank tender for 6,500 solar home systems. According to Evan, this represented an opportunity to leverage Sunlabob’s prior experience in rural electrification. As a result of the World Bank tender and other successful bids, the company was able to boost revenue and allow the company breathing room to continue its fee for service model. The company is now working in 20 countries including Cambodia, Thailand, and Myanmar.
The company is looking now towards partnering with an anchor client, for example base tower operators for telecommunications base stations in Myanmar. Conceptually, Sunlabob would act as a private energy operator for base towers where the traditional solution is diesel generation. The company developed a concept that combines solar panels and diesel backup for the base stations. Sunlabob hopes to be able to size the system to allow excess energy to be channeled to a nearby community.
The Company also announced in Abu Dhabi that it will join the International Renewable Energy Agency’s (IRENA) “Coalition for Action to Bolster Public Support for Renewable Energy.” According to Evan, Sunlabob views this partnership as an “opportunity to build public awareness and demystify myths of [renewable energy]in the developing world.”
The needs of the developing world are many. Innovators like Sunlabob are proving that solutions to meet the varied needs of rural communities can work and provide hope for a better life.