For many students, a university project often ends up scrawled in a tutor’s red ink, destined to accumulate dust in the attic. Not so for Laurent Van Houcke.
The project he worked on at London’s Imperial College with fellow students Christopher Baker-Brian and Mansoor Hamayun had a noble aim: a charity delivering solar power to communities in Africa.
Six years on, that charity is still running (e.quinox.org) but has also spawned for-profit firm Bboxx. Turnover is £2m and year-on-year growth 300 per cent but, crucially, the company has brought electricity to 120,000 people across Africa via its cut-price solar power kits. Not bad given the Bboxx founders are all 26 or under.
“Our friends thought we were crazy – nobody thought places like [Democratic Republic of] the Congo had a market,” says Van Houcke. “But we were convinced of its market potential. Now, we employ 200 people in 14 countries.”
The friends formed Bboxx three months before leaving university in 2010, with Van Houcke, a Belgian, working on Bboxx full-time. The trio poured their life savings (plus Baker-Brian and Hamayun’s salaries from jobs at Rolls-Royce) into the fledging firm, raising $50,000 (£30,000).
“We thought we could conquer the world,” says Van Houcke. “But we had no business experience. We definitely learnt the hard way.” Bboxx’s attempts to set up a Rwandan assembly line failed, so Van Houcke flew to China to explore manufacturing options. Luckily, a Chinese university friend had a father working there. “We slept in his Hong Kong office while he showed us tricks on operating in China and the logistics of exporting containers,” says Van Houcke.
Within 18 months, Bboxx had sold $1m worth of products to African distributors. Part of this success was down to the product: solar-run ‘battery boxes’ that power small appliances – such as lights, TVs and fridges – are more reliable than the large, noisy kerosene-fuelled generators many African households depend on. A drop in LED solar panel prices and the continent’s rising mobile phone use aided expansion. Mobile-charging represents Bboxx’s biggest market. Nearly 60 per cent of households interviewed in a survey have created a phone-charging business through Bboxx equipment, three-quarters of which are owned by women.
Then there’s the potentially lucrative hardware lurking inside each solar-kit: a remotely controlled monitoring system. Normally, this is used to cut off power when customers default on payment. But it also tracks usage. Together with off-grid solar specialist Product Health, Bboxx has been analysing this data, with the equipment described as an “African equivalent to Nest [the smart thermostat company bought by Google for £2bn].”
Having received a £1.5m investment from a US-based venture capital group, the future looks bright for Bboxx. “[We] control the entire value chain from design to servicing the end-customer,” says Van Houcke. He also believes Bboxx will be delivering electricity to 20 million people by 2020.
Who? The local partners we work with in our markets. They give us the keys to understand how to operate and how to get to end-clients. They have very good relationships. In Africa, doing good business is all about trust.
Which media? Google Maps – we use that to see where we should put our next shops in Africa.
Favourite place Lake Kivu, which borders [Democratic Republic of] the Congo and Rwanda. We have barbecues, go on the boat and swim in the lake. Our offices are in Goma, on its shore. It’s a beautiful place.
Favourite brand Tesla [US electric car manufacturer]. They are creating new technology and have a good financing structure, which I admire.
Social media We run our company on WhatsApp. In some countries in Africa, the mobile phone network is so bad [for speaking to others], we can only manage with WhatsApp.
I can’t live without… My Bose noise-cancelling headphones. As I take a plane every week and need to sleep on the journey, they help a lot.