The Firefly: A Revolutionary – and Disruptive – Approach to Electrifying Africa

by | Mar 3, 2011

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A recent piece in the New York Times on a $12 solar panel at the heart of an emerging micro-economy in rural parts of Africa caught my eye. The system, called the Firefly, comes with a panel, a four-watt LED lightbulb, and an outlet for a cell phone charger. It is far simpler – and far dinkier – than anything we might consider useful here in the U.S., but its potential in its markets – and beyond – is nothing short of transformational.

Cell phones have revolutionized life around the globe, but in many rural parts of the developing world people have to travel to centralized locations that have electricity to recharge them – and thus maintain connection with the outside world, with markets, with family.

This is understandably inconvenient; one Kenyan woman profiled by the Times had to walk two miles to catch a three hour ride just to drop off her phone to be recharged and then had to repeat the journey three days later to pick it up when it was ready. Furthermore, she, like far too many others in the developing world, didn’t have good options to light her home when darkness fell. She lit her home with kerosene lamps, but they were dangerous, smoky, and their light quality made studying difficult.

These were really strong, really clear, really primary needs – and a simple solar panel outfitted with extension cords to low-cost, long-lasting bulbs and a plug solved them. Students of disruptive innovation know where this tale is headed: this is a terrific human interest story, yes, but it can and should also be the seed of a terrific business opportunity. The Firefly presents a disruptive entry point to a holy grail of economies around the globe, developing or developed: affordable, decentralized, renewable electricity.

A key theme of Clayton Christensen’s research is that disruptive innovations always emerge at the fringes of existing markets in response to the crystal clear needs of people overlooked by the dominant paradigm. These segments are locked out of the benefits enjoyed by mainstream consumers; they need cheaper, more convenient, simpler, or more accessible goods and services. These needs are a breeding ground for fundamentally new business approaches.

Once a business forms that is able to deliver on the need, it tends to take off: it gathers momentum, improves its performance, and ultimately enters mainstream markets and upends leading companies. Inertia is on the side of the disruptors, as the fundamental structures and strategies they’ve created to profitably serve the fringes of a market prove devilishly hard for established companies to replicate. It is far easier to add functionality to a simple product than it is to strip out cost or functionality from a complex solution.

This pattern has played out with airlines, cars, computers, medical devices, newspapers, retailers, steel manufacturers, and countless other industries over the years. It is, in fact, the key to the major breakthroughs that democratize new technologies, expand categories, and fuel long-term growth. The Firefly is proof that disruption is finally happening in renewable energy.

The NYT article also makes the point that despite their transformative impact, micro-generation projects like the Firefly are insufficiently supported by government and NGO renewable energy efforts. Public and private entities pour hundreds of billions of dollars into renewable energy, but disruptive innovations are too often off their radar. They tend to support large scale, top-down efforts; as the Times points out, “A $300 million solar project is much easier to finance and monitor than 10 million home-scale solar systems in mud huts spread across a continent.”

We have written elsewhere about how to make large renewable energy and clean tech bets more effectively, but they still can’t be the only bets. A much larger portion of renewable energy investment should go to small, fringe, disruptive projects like the Firefly.

Josh Suskewicz is a manager at Innosight where he has worked on consulting engagements in numerous industries, specializing in cleantech and healthcare.

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