People who live in off-grid communities have to find ways to create electrical power to light their homes and charge their phones. In sub-Saharan Africa, the options are often inefficient, dangerous, or toxic — dim flashlights, diesel generators, or open-flame lamps that burn paraffin or kerosene.
Entrepreneurs Mehrdad Arjmand (MSEM ’13, PhDEM ’17), 34, and Aaron Olson (BSME ’12, MSEM ’14, PhDEM ’18), 30, are positively changing this way of life. As cofounders of NovoMoto, a UW–Madison business spinoff, they’re bringing clean energy to these rural villages, starting with customers in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
NovoMoto partners with manufacturers to install solar-powered electrical kits, which include a battery and LED lamps. The kits provide interior and exterior lights, charge mobile phones, and can even run DC-equipped televisions for up to five hours a day.
“As soon as [customers] have our system, they basically toss their kerosene lamp or flashlight,” Arjmand says. “They have no intention of going back to those old ways of using energy.”
These cofounders know people can only adopt alternative energy if they can pay for it. So they’ve designed NovoMoto’s product to be both sustainable and affordable. The kits accept monthly pay-as-you go plans via mobile phone, and they offer rent-to-own plans that help customers manage upfront costs for the equipment.
“For many of the customers that we work with, this is the first time they’ve been able to get any form of financing for an energy solution,” Olson says. “We know, over the lifetime of the product, we’ll be saving our customers money.”
For Olson, bringing clean energy to schools and medical centers isn’t just a professional accomplishment — it gets personal. Olson was born in Kikwit, DRC; he moved to Wisconsin when he was two years old.
“When my mom gave birth to me, all she had in the room was one kerosene lamp,” Olson says. “Children across the country being born in substandard lighting conditions that compromise their own lives, or that of their mothers — it hits home a little more for me.”
Arjmand’s move to study at UW–Madison was the first time he lived outside his native Iran. He’s thankful for the opportunity to study both engineering and business.
“I’m very grateful for the experience I had in Wisconsin — the flexibility to allow students to go and explore their passion,” Arjmand says. “It’s a second home for me.”
NovoMoto isn’t a charity; the cofounders describe it as a social enterprise. The idea grew from their group project for the Weinert Applied Ventures in Entrepreneurship, a course run by Dan Olszewski ’87 in the Wisconsin School of Business. The cofounders are also grateful to UW professors Izabela Szlufarska and Gerald Kulcinski ’61, MS’62, PhD’66, who supported them along the way.
Olson says NovoMoto’s for-profit model is what makes it possible to scale up energy solutions for the future.
“That’s the great thing about our industry,” Olson says. “It’s not only a profitable one, but it’s something that really provides a lot of impact.”
And the impact just keeps growing. In 2018, when Arjmand and Olson won first place in the Wisconsin Governor’s Business Plan Contest, 74 households in Congo were running on NovoMoto power. The company is currently on track to have more than 550 home kits installed. By the end of 2020, with the backing of seed-round capital at wefunder.com/novomoto, Olson says NovoMoto is looking to reach 5,000 installations.
When it comes to quality of life in Congolese communities, Olson and Arjmand say that safe, reliable power makes a big difference. People can be more productive, families can spend more time together at home, and it’s easier for students to study at night.
“Just by providing a simple lighting solution,” Arjmand says, “I think we are making small steps toward having a better future for a lot of children in the Congo.”
This story was originally published by the Wisconsin Alumni Association. The WAA Forward under 40 awards honor exceptional UW grads under the age of 40 who are making an impact on the world by living the Wisconsin Idea.
Author: Wisconsin Alumni Association