Hope you’re doing well. I’ve done my best to write this newsletter without mentioning COVID-19 so far, but today’s letter broke that bet. Hope you enjoy it!
In case you missed it, here’s last month’s newsletter.
We all know about the electromagnetic spectrum from high school but let me recap a little bit: electromagnetic energy is radiated in waves that travel and spread out as they go. The more powerful the wave is, the shorter it travels.
The electromagnetic spectrum. Source: Open Text BC.
Why this is relevant is that WiFi communications exist in the spectrum somewhere between radio and microwaves. And when companies like Google and Facebook announce plans to improve internet connectivity around the world, they focus on the physics behind powering long range communication. This past month, Alphabet announced that it was shutting down Loon - their spin-off company that was to beam the internet using balloons as ‘floating cell towers’. Loon had recently launched in Kenya in partnership with Telkom.
Three years ago, Facebook shut down their Aquila project, which was to build a large drone to do the same thing (Mark Harris has a great story about their travails for IEEE’s magazine). They’ve instead focused their efforts elsewhere. Both projects ultimately never found a way to make costs low enough to be sustainable (Paresh Dave had reported earlier for Reuters that Loon’s balloons needed to be replaced every five months at the cost of tens of thousands of dollars). And the unit economics may never make sense for any other private players to take the technology forward.
But here’s the thing: Google and Facebook were looking at a mass market play where millions of people could be connected to their tech - the so-called Next Billion Users. What if the focus was instead on a smaller number of people? That means the technology could be built further down the spectrum, maybe in the visible range. Enter LifiLED.
LiFi is relatively new, it’s less than 10 years old. Wi-Fi uses radio frequency to induce a voltage in an antenna to transmit data, whereas Li-Fi uses the modulation of light intensity to transmit data. Basically, instead of a router, you use a light bulb.
That technology becomes really impactful when you combine solar power with the internet, and connect off-grid communities killing two birds (electricity, internet connectivity) with one stone. In Cote D’Ivoire, LifiLED led by Ange Frederick Balma is doing this with their range of products. They’ve patented solar powered street lights with LiFi and individual solar kits that extend the range of the internet connection into homes in the same vicinity.
There’s research to support this strategy too, as M-KOPA’s recent impact report shows how solar power subscribers go on to acquire incremental add-ons like internet-enabled smartphones using the credit unlocked by owning (and paying off) these devices.
Could this smaller solution reach a sustainable scale faster? That’s the big question. They think they can (and are currently looking to raise capital for expansion).
CNN did a feature on solar technologies that could help distribute COVID-19 vaccines on the continent. One of those is the Frij made by GRICD, a company building portable cold chain devices for drug transport in Nigeria. GRICD was a spotlight on the newsletter in August 2019, and since then they’ve worked with the Nigerian Institute of Medical Research especially during the pandemic, helping to collect and transport COVID-19 test samples.
In 2018, HelloSolar launched in Ethiopia to integrate a new Pay-As-You-Go solar business with an existing mobile money operator. Last year, they published a report of their learnings that I find quite interesting. One of their strategies has been to localize their product packages by customer demographics to the point where they now offer different packages to nomadic communities and subsistence farmers.
Data centres are springing up across the continent, as part of a larger strategy for global companies like Netflix to upgrade digital infrastructure in order to cut access costs to their services. Joseph Cotterill has an good rundown on how different parts of the continent are getting in on the cabling spree.
TACT by Interact Labs is a kit that converts any monitor or wall to an interactive screen. [Egypt]
A robotic prosthetic arm built from upcycled materials by David Gathu and Moses Kinyua. [Kenya]
Wattnow is an easy-to-install energy management solution for building managers. [Tunisia]
The Tony Elumelu Entrepreneurship Programme is open again and receiving applications from entrepreneurs looking for equity-free seed capital to build a proof of concept.
Deadline: March 31.
The Adaptation Fund Climate Innovation Accelerator is receiving applications for clean technology and energy solutions as part of their micro-grant programme.
Deadline: April 30.
In South Africa, Sabinano Nanotubes is developing commercial-scale carbon nanotubes and graphene oxide for wastewater treatment, energy storage and lightweight composite applications.
Until next time,