Empowerment through power
Chico-rooted solar venture expands impact in Africa
When former Chico State faculty member Dale Word took a job with Off Grid Electric, a solar-power provider, about a year ago, he wanted to get his hands dirty. But he never imagined he’d be jumping into a 4x4 truck and driving down dirt paths in Sub-Saharan Africa to help deliver the ways and means of electricity to those living—yes—off the grid.
“When I left Chico State after 15 years, all I wanted to do was get my hands on real engineering,” said Word, previously an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering. “I had no idea I would come across this opportunity.”
Word, 55, lives in Chico and is now a computer engineer with Off Grid Electric, a venture-capital-backed firm providing small-scale solar-power units for lease to some of the poorest places in Africa. The company has expanded vastly on the continent and grown its workforce immensely since Chico State grad Joshua Pierce co-founded it in 2013.
Pierce planted the company’s roots here early on. He since has moved its U.S. headquarters to the Bay Area, along with relocating his family there. However, the Chico footprint remains firm—and Word is a large part of that.
“It’s been where a lot of the hands-on technical work has happened,” Word said.
From a small office in downtown Chico, Word works with a team of designers at Solutions Cubed, a subcontractor of Off Grid Electric that also does independent projects. The office is filled with circuit boxes connected to various electronic devices, such as fans, to help test the units. Solar panels also are strewn about the space on East First Street.
Word spends three days a week in the small design studio and two days at the headquarters in San Francisco. He codes the circuits inside small boxes that are meant to be the brains and battery pack of the system, connecting solar power to a small light. The systems are alternatives to archaic power supplies including kerosene lanterns, which can emit unhealthy fumes, or heavily polluting diesel generators. They are meant to provide light in places without electricity.
Off Grid Electric leases the small systems to each customer individually for less than $7 a month for the base option. The regional economy primarily functions on mobile currency. Users have a similar account to PayPal and deposit money; they then receive a code to type into the small box that connects solar power to the lights.
The company reached about 500 customers in its first year. That number jumped to about 21,000 the next. It now provides power to more than 100,000 homes and businesses across Tanzania, Rwanda and the Ivory Coast.
“Off Grid Electric has expanded from East Africa into West Africa, and we have plans to continue growing,” Pierce said. “Africa and distributed energy are ripe with potential, and we’re proud to be creating value in every new community we enter.”
Pierce’s company has secured $100 million in total funding and has more than 800 employees in the U.S., Tanzania, Rwanda, the Ivory Coast, the Netherlands, Russia and Nigeria.
Across its swath of Africa, Off Grid Electric is distributing thousands of new systems every month. Word sees his work as not just providing light in places where that commodity is hard to come by—it’s providing a metaphorical light for those looking to better their economic situation.
“This is our chance to get this continent right,” Word said.
Lights in the solar systems make it possible for children to do homework. They allow adults to read.
“Our goal is to empower folks,” he said. “It’s really exciting to see how proud people are to have these boxes.”
He has experienced this first-hand. On a trip to see the African operations, he went out on service calls with local technicians. His intent “was to go to some of the more remote customers,” he said.
Word recalls riding in a four-wheel-drive pickup down a gravel road in Tanzania when someone in his convoy tapped on the window from the back of the truck, telling the driver to turn left.
“There was nothing [to the] left, other than a path and some trees,” he said. “We had to figure out how to get it down the path.”
After navigating the truck, the group arrived at a clearing with a collection of round huts made out of sticks and mud, most with solar panels installed on the roof.
“It was great to see that connection between traditional lifestyle and using our products,” he said.
The future looks bright for the solar-power provider. The company recently started leasing small television sets that run similarly off the solar-power battery packs.
Word also is developing circuits that communicate wirelessly with Off Grid Electric, eliminating the process of entering a code after a payment to make the units work. With the new systems, Off Grid Electric could activate the units remotely and access them to perform diagnostic checks.
Additionally, the company formed a partnership with the EDF Group, a low-carbon-energy company, and launched a pilot expansion last year into the Ivory Coast.
Off Grid Electric is looking at developing new products as well.
“We’ve done a lot of really wonderful work on some things I can’t talk about yet,” Word said with a smile.