Fenix launches off-grid power for developing world

Social start-up develops off-grid charging system driven by solar panel or bike generator for people in "frontier markets" who need reliable power for mobile phones, lights, devices.

Martin LaMonica Former Staff writer, CNET News
Martin LaMonica is a senior writer covering green tech and cutting-edge technologies. He joined CNET in 2002 to cover enterprise IT and Web development and was previously executive editor of IT publication InfoWorld.
Martin LaMonica
3 min read

Whereas many Silicon Valley tech entrepreneurs are trying to cook up the next Facebook or cool iPhone app, a group of San Francisco entrepreneurs is designing a brick-shaped battery for poor people.

"Social venture" Fenix International officially launched yesterday with the opening of its Web site, which describes its plans to sell off-grid power systems for people in developing countries.

It plans to start manufacturing its battery pack this fall and is now negotiating with potential distributors in Africa, India, Bangladesh, and Latin America, company executives said today. It plans to first launch its products in four African countries first.

The Fenix ReadySet with bike generator. Five minutes on the bike will supply enough to charge a mobile phone.
The Fenix ReadySet with bike generator. Five minutes on the bike will supply enough to charge a mobile phone. Fenix International

Fenix International, a for-profit company, is trying to reach the 1.6 billion people who live without regular access to electrical power, explained CEO Mike Lin, a former Apple employee and environmental engineering lecturer at Stanford University, who started the company almost two years ago.

The company's core product is a 12-volt lead acid battery designed specifically for frequent charges from a variety of sources, including a solar panel, bicycle generator, the power grid, or eventually hydro and small-wind turbines.

The battery, called the Fenix ReadySet, includes two cigarette-lighter and two USB ports for charging mobile phones, LED lights, fans, or other small electronics. Company engineers created a custom formulation of lead acid battery so it can last for years and adapt to different power sources.

Demand for electric power is soaring in "frontier countries" because of mobile phones, explained Lin. There are now 500 million off-grid mobile phone subscribers around the world right now but growth is being limited because of no power or unreliable power, he said.

The company's strategy is to sell its ReadySet batteries--priced at about $150 with a power source, such as a solar panel--through phone distributors, which are losing potential revenue because customers can't keep phones on.

"This model is largely taking inspiration from the mobile market, which is independent, decentralized, and can be deployed quickly at massive scale," said Lin. Expecting the grid to reach villages of Kenya or Uganda, for example, is unrealistic because of the expense of the centralized model of power delivery.

Using a 15-watt solar panel, the ReadySet battery can be charged in a day. The bicycle generator, which can take advantage of the large number of bicycles in many countries, can produce enough to charge a phone in about five minutes.

These battery packs are not meant for sale to individual households, but for people who can earn income with them. In a pilot in Uganda, Fenix employees said a person could earn about $50 a month with a combination of selling phone charge time and reduced spending on kerosene fuel for lighting.

Fenix International

Right now, people use car and truck batteries, charge them from diesel generators or city mains, and get payment from people who need to charge a phone or other device. But car batteries often die out within a year from frequency deep discharge, explained vice president of operations Brian Warshawsky.

There are already off-grid solar products and back-up battery packs, but Fenix employees say they are too expensive and designed for back-up power.

Lin said that the ReadySet could be used by anybody who wants to attach a small solar panel and charge gadgets. But Fenix is targeting developing countries because of the huge and growing demand.

"We're essentially giving access to new energy options, particularly in frontier markets like India and up-and-coming markets like Kenya," he said. "Rather than try to make cheaper and cheaper products for poor people, the notion is: what if we design a product that may actually generate income?"