Shedding a Light on the Expanding E-Waste Sector

Photo Credit: Solaris Offgrid

The Global LEAP Awards are an international competition to identify and promote the world’s best, most energy-efficient off-grid appliances. The Solar E-Waste Challenge was launched in 2019, with an aim to identify innovations in solar e-waste management across sub-Saharan Africa. Now in its second round, the Solar E-Waste Challenge strengthens its objective to accelerate the provision of sustainable e-waste management. Through a rigorous evaluation process, the competition selected four winners spanning five countries to implement projects in extended product lifespan, enhanced reparability and refurbishment and battery technology. This blog series explores solar e-waste ecosystems and provides insights into each company’s unique challenges and opportunities.

What we hope to achieve with this project is for a large share of manufacturers and distributors to adopt a more durable, affordable and environmentally friendly technology. Our final goal is to have a lot less e-waste generated and be part of the extension of access to essential services in developing countries.” — Benjamin David, CTO and co-founder of Solaris Offgrid

Founded in 2014, Solaris Offgrid is the result of a coalescence of skills and creativity that began when Siten Mandalia, who was helping to distribute solar home systems (SHSs) in Kenya and toying with ideas on how to optimize and expand these services, met Thibault Lesueur and Benjamin David. Lesueur was researching pay-as-you-go (PayGo) businesses in East Africa, and Benjamin was finishing up an environmental policy masters in Europe at the time. At first, the idea was for Solaris Offgrid to serve as a last-mile distributor of Solar Kits in rural Tanzania. However, the three co-founders quickly realized that one of the biggest challenges distributors faced in the sector was the availability of quality technology. ced in the sector was the availability of quality technology.

“Back then, each of the distributors was making their own PayGo technology and software. Nothing was standardized, which can be a big waste of time and money for everyone. We decided to focus on technology development and help other distributors deliver their life-changing services” says Benjamin.

Now, Solaris Offgrid provides flexible Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) solutions and Product Development Services to companies that are delivering essential services to Bottom-of-the-Pyramid customers. With their innovative tools and infrastructure, Solaris Offgrid helps last-mile distributors and manufacturers deliver SHSs, cookstoves, water pumps and other life-changing technology or essential services such as Agroservices, allowing clients to pay a few dollars a week to acquire the system or access subscription-based services. By designing technologies for a broad range of manufacturers and distributors, Solaris Offgrid, which now partners with organizations across four continents, is enhancing interoperability across solar products.

The desire for greater interoperability and exchange also informs the company’s e-waste efforts. Through their Global LEAP Solar E-Waste Project, Solaris Offgrid is developing a tamper-proof external battery that can be easily attached to a SHS or removed and recycled without discarding the entire system. Their battery prototype aims to utilize used battery cells that come from the automotive industry and can be disassembled, cleaned and recycled in an easy, standardized and safe way.

Shifting Landscapes in Off-Grid Solar and E-Waste

Photo Credit: Solaris Offgrid

When Solaris Offgrid first entered the distributed energy sector back in 2014, it was still predominantly vertically integrated. There were a few large players but little diversity of companies or products on the market. Many distributors were making their own technologies and software, essentially handling a little bit of everything at once.

As the sector has taken off in recent years, however, it has moved to a more segmented approach. Each business now specializes in one aspect of the value chain, whether developing a technology (as Solaris Offgrid does), driving up and directing financing, or distributing products to last-mile customers. Like the technologies themselves that are starting to become more interoperable, at a macro level, the value chain itself has enhanced its interoperability.

However, while the off-grid solar sector has blossomed, efforts to address growing e-waste issues have responded more slowly.

“The state of the e-waste ecosystem isn’t great, but it’s been improving a lot,” Benjamin reflects. “In 2014, basically nobody was talking about it. E-waste was much more a secondary priority, and it was still new, so we didn’t have as many piles of dead SHSs or lanterns to deal with. But now, even though the infrastructure hasn’t really improved that much, at least companies are aware and are starting to work on strategies to [address it].”

Solaris Offgrid is one such company that started to think about e-waste early on, even before its participation in the Global LEAP Solar E-Waste competition. In fact, Benjamin has been thinking about the impacts of solar e-waste for some time.

“E-waste is something that I like to follow because — as someone who likes technology — I also know that technology is always two-sided, that for the benefits you get, you also have bad side effects. E-waste in particular is a nasty side effect of the large growth we’ve seen in SHSs.”

Photo Credit: Solaris Offgrid

With an eye cast towards resolving the e-waste question, Benjamin began to have some ideas on how to reuse second-life batteries and make them last longer. Without the necessary funds though, the company was unable to allocate resources to a long-term project dedicated to e-waste.

“We knew it was an important project, but as a startup, we need to make sure that the company [continues operating], and since it wasn’t the primary focus on the company, we weren’t able to spend a lot of time and resources on that project.”

Participating in the Global LEAP Challenge, however, has helped catalyze this initial idea into a fully-fledged, workable product.

Global LEAP Awards Solar E-Waste Challenge

Solaris Offgrid’s e-waste project focuses on developing two battery prototypes that cater to the needs of solar product manufacturers and distributors, as well as consumers themselves.

By using old cells obtained from discarded battery-powered products, Solaris Offgrid’s engineers aim to create second-life battery packs that can be easily integrated with a broad range of solar products. When the battery capacity gets old after a few years and no longer functions as well as it used to, an external battery can supplement or replace the old battery, thereby extending the battery capacity of the product. This prevents customers from discarding an entire solar system and having to buy another. Through this single innovation, Solaris Offgrid can help extend the life of the SHS, make battery replacement easy and standardized, reduce waste and eliminate the consumer expense of purchasing a new system.

“[The Global LEAP E-Waste Challenge] helped us move the project forward,” said Benjamin . “We’re now running field trials on much larger scales than we could ever have before. We really improved our technology and we’ll actually be able to start bringing in revenue [for this project] hopefully next year.”

By the end of the Global LEAP Awards project timeline, Solaris Offgrid hopes that manufacturers and distributors of PAYGO products — particularly ones that are distributed in remote areas which are more resource constrained — will adopt their battery technology to ensure that their products are more durable, affordable and environmentally friendly.

Coping with the Effects of the COVID-19 Pandemic

Solaris Offgrid’s project has persevered despite numerous challenges in the past year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Like many companies in the off-grid solar sector, the company experienced significant issues around shipping and manufacturing that resulted in interruptions to the project timeline. Originally, the project had planned to start manufacturing the prototypes for field testing around the time the pandemic hit, in March of 2020.

With factories closed and technology components missing, the pandemic created some delays in getting the battery prototypes into the field. Luckily, however, these field tests were supposed to run in parallel with other activities, so the project was able to continue piecemeal with other projects on the side until they were able to get those other battery units on the ground.

Photo Credit: Solaris Offgrid

Despite these challenges, the project has progressed efficiently, and the company has been pleased with their results. For example, the company has been able to manufacture their battery technology more cheaply than at first anticipated; they were initially expecting a higher premium for the prototypes, but found that the prototypes were well-optimized for manufacturing, resulting in cheaper batteries. By keeping the manufacturing costs low, they ensure that the products themselves, when they reach market, will be affordable for all.

By the end of the year, Solaris Offgrid’s product development team hopes to have trials completed for “version one” of a battery prototype, and to have a working prototype for “version two” of the battery, which will incorporate lessons learned from the former. These efforts will eventually allow for manufacturers to benefit from this technology to further reduce e-waste of their products.

Towards the end of the Global LEAP E-Waste Challenge timeline, which wraps up in March 2022, Solaris Offgrid hopes to start deploying and implementing the technology with manufacturers. These manufacturers can then upgrade their offering from 2022 onward and continue delivering life-changing and environment-saving products to last-mile customers.

Outreach is one of the company’s main objectives for their project, as raising customer awareness is one of the most impactful ways to accelerate responsible e-waste disposal. By pairing their delivery of technology at a regional level with awareness raising efforts, they are also spreading the word on the importance of e-waste management that can have far-reaching consequences.

A Word of Advice to the Off-Grid Solar Sector

As the solar sector continues to grow, and its accompanying, less appealing consequence of end-of-life components trails after it, e-waste becomes a crucial issue to consider and resolve. At all levels, from local consumer awareness to national government initiatives, the issue of e-waste must be addressed.

Photo Credit: Solaris Offgrid

Solaris Offgrid encourages off-grid solar companies to start thinking now about their e-waste policy and how they’re going to manage it in order to prevent worse consequences later down the line.

“For starting companies, like nascent distributors, [it’s] not always a concern. Thinking about it earlier on makes it a lot easier to deal with afterwards.” shares Benjamin.

If manufacturers or distributors working in the off-grid solar space are looking to manage their e-waste in a holistic, sustainable way, Solaris Offgrid is open and ready for partnership.

This article is part of a series of Spotlight Articles on the four Global LEAP Awards Solar E-Waste Challenge finalists. Learn more about the Challenge.

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