Imagine biking 25 miles to reach the nearest electricity source capable of powering your cell phone. According to UN research published in 2005, only 20% of Africans (excluding South Africa and Egypt) have access to reliable grid electricity, and this number falls to 2% in rural areas. Consider that one more time. Only 2% of rural Africans have access to electric lights to scare the night away.
Couple that with the fact that the developing world is the fastest growing market for cell phones by a long shot. Worldwide, there are more than 2.4 billion cellphone users (2006 data) and 59 percent of these 2.4 billion people live in developing countries. This makes cellphones the first telecommunications technology in history to have more users there than in the developed world.
In countries where mobile technology has leapfrogged infrastructure power for mobile devices can be quite difficult to come by.
So while mobile connectivity represents a major opportunity for quality of life for the base of the pyramid the realities of the electric grid present a substantial stumbling block.
That’s where Suntrica comes in. The Finnish company produces wearable solar chargers for charging personal mobility products. While it isn’t the first company to play in this space (CNET recently reviewed Solio’s solar charger as well as several of the hand crank versions on the market), Suntrica has two key differentiators: it uses thin film, solar which means that the product is lightweight and bendy, and it is targeted at base of the pyramid (BoP) users in addition to the REI crowd. Additionally, Suntrica’s price point is about half of the Solio version. At around $50 US dollars, it’s not that much more than the Igo.
We got to meet Kenneth Jönsson, VP of Sales for Suntrica during my recent visit to Finland, and the company’s commitment to sustainable business is clear. The focus on BoP markets is one part do-the-right-thing, one part practical recognition of the intensely crowded market in the developed world, and one part do-what-you-know. The company’s founders recognize that distribution is key and they are focused on utilizing their existing contacts to make sales before expanding the firm. That’s a practical start-up approach if I ever heard one!
The company does face some practical challenges: current technology only allows for the standard lithium battery to be charged, which means that the product is currently being sold with 17 spare adapters to make sure that users can charge their chosen devices. That’s a lot of material waste and expense. Further, the model that we saw and got to take home to sample, the Solar Strap requires about six hours of direct sunlight to charge. The company is actively looking for efficiency improvements there that can lower charge times while keeping the product at its current price point.
What really set Mr. Jönsson apart was that when the rowdy group of bloggers asked a hardball question about the toxicity of the foam in the product, he had a guess, he made a note, and he told us that Suntrica was committed to being as sustainable as possible and that his organization would research alternatives to see if there was something better on the market than the current material. Of course bloggers love to be listened to, but I wouldn’t say that my Jönsson-love comes from being shined on. You can tell if someone is really listening and really cares. Plus Mr. Jönsson joined us for our Arctic swim and if that doesn’t say commitment, I don’t know what does.
Here’s what Sunrica has to say for themselves:
Readers, what do you think? Is an individual’s word an commitment a valid measure of the company’s commitment to sustainability, or do you need facts and figures to make your decision?