The New Brunswick Startup Bringing Sustainable Electricity to Rural Africa

One of Mbissa Energy System‘s turbine prototypes. Image: Submitted

Having lived in Cameroon before moving from New Brunswick with his family at a young age, Caleb Grove saw first-hand the struggles faced by those in the poor communities in rural west Africa, a big one being the lack of electricity.

“The community doesn’t stop as soon as the sun goes down at six. It has to continue until the people are fed, everybody is in bed and the work for the day is done,” Grove says. “People wind their fishing nets by the light of a kerosene lantern. They will eat by a cooking fire and do pretty much everything by a little flame, which also isn’t cheap to pay for the fuel.”

Image: Submitted

One of these communities is the island of Mbissa with a population of around 3000 people. Though the community didn’t have the possibility of grid development, it did have lots of two things: Sun and wind. Grove thought about installing something like wind turbines on the island would be a viable solution, but that seemed like a pipe dream.

But while studying at the University of New Brunswick 2013-2014, Grove discovered that pipe dream could become reality.  

“Around 2013-14 when I started doing work at the Technology Management and Entrepreneurship department at UNB Fredericton, we had classes where we could consider starting a business,” Grove says. “So just for fun, I was throwing the idea around of putting wind turbines on Mbissa. From there I was able to gain a little bit of traction so the idea could officially be pursued and since then it’s grown significantly.”

Today, Grove’s company Mbissa Energy Systems is running a pilot project on the island using solar energy.

“There are about 3,000 people on the island of Mbissa and the thought is that it’s one of the poorest areas in the entire region,” Grove says. “So the idea is if we can find a way to reliably give people electricity on Mbissa, realistically that would apply to pretty much anywhere else in the world that’s poor and hard to reach.”

It works like this: There are several central “hubs” like substations throughout the island. They are at places like clinics, businesses and community centres. Using solar panels, the hubs serve as a battery charging stations. Residents pay a small service fee for a battery which they can take to a hub to charge. Once the battery is charged, residents take the batteries back to their homes where they can provide electricity for several days.   

“It’s based on a very physical model of electricity, you’re carrying it,” Grove says.

Grove says bringing sustainable electricity to Mbissa has the potential to transform the community.

Caleb Grove (left) working on a wind turbine prototype.
Image: Submitted

“That makes a difference if you’re in school. You can study after dark … Businesses find they are able to attract a lot more people, especially after dark to get people to gather in those community centres, so it helps grow business,” he says. “Economically it gets things moving, it gives people a goal to aim for and we found that causes growth in the wealth of the community if people start growing a little more to save up for things like this. It really makes a difference in about every facet of life.”

Providing sustainable electricity also helps lay the foundation on which further development efforts can be built in the region.

“The idea is when you have even just small amount of electricity, then you’re able to do more things,” Grove says. “You can also look at using small computers to keep data, you can look at doing micro business whether you’re running things like a sewing machine or other pieces of equipment you might have to address a need in that area. It acts as a basis for things like health care.”

The goal is for Mbissa Energy to scale-up quickly to bring similar models to other communities in Africa.

“With the pilot, we’ve been able to validate the model so we would like to scale up in Cameroon to be able to meet a wider need. They say there are around 400 to 600 million people in rural sub-Saharan Africa who are in poverty and don’t have access to basic things like light and electricity,” Grove says

“There’s a lot of room for helping more people.”

While they work to do this, Grove says Mbissa Energy Systems is open to partnering with others in different capacities.

“It is possible to do this work and to do it well. We would love for people to come on board with us and to partner with us either financially, through getting updates … materials, expertise or work. We would love to have that sort of partnership with people in Canada,” Grove says.

“The biggest thing for people in Canada to know is we live in a very small world, and being able to make a difference can be done well despite the negative stuff that’s out there. People are diligent. They’re also waiting for something greater and are willing to work for something greater.”