Alan Hurt wants to change the way Kenyans get electricity.
He presented the model for his start-up, Light Up Africa, to students and faculty at the Ford Motor Company Engineering Design Center on Tuesday afternoon.
While he claimed to not be an expert on energy solutions, he did call himself a humanitarian. With years of service work under his belt and a background in engineering, Hurt saw a need to bring electricity to areas he had spent time in, specifically Kenya and East Africa.
His model aims to combine mobile and immobile products that work together to bring electricity to remote areas that suffer from light poverty. It’s a problem that Hurt says limits children’s study time at night, causes people to walk for hours to charge their cells phones and creates a host of other problems.
“Imagine having to walk three hours to take your midterm,” Hurt told students, adding this is often the case for Kenyans wanting to find light to study or charge their cell phones.
According to Hurt, there are more than 50 products currently on the market solve this problem, but they aren’t offering the right solutions. Alternative energy options also present their own problems, from the danger of kerosene lighting to the danger of theft with expensive solar panels.
“We realized a single, stand-alone product won’t solve light poverty," Hurt said. "A system will."
To combat this, Light Up Africa offers The Zoom Box, a two-part product with an immobile docking station and portable pod. The pod stores energy as it is moved around and can charge up while the “movers and shakers” of the community go about their daily lives: driving bike taxis, fishing in boats or farming. The movement associated with these tasks charges the pod, which people can connect to the docking station in their homes to illuminate the lamp in the station or charge their mobile phones.
“We realized everyone is moving,” Hurt said. “Why invent something that doesn’t move with them?”
With a starting price of $68, The Zoom is too pricey for most Kenyans. Light Up Africa is in the works of partnering with NGOs to lease out the devices in order to foster entrepreneurship.
The company has three launch dates when they hope to disburse the product around Kenya for what Hurt calls “instant, on demand energy.” In five years, Hurt said he hopes to bring electricity to 1 million Kenyans.
Despite his plans for expansion of Light Up Africa, Hurt said he would love to see a more permanent solution for light poverty.
“I’d love to be out of business,” he said. “That means people have energy and that’s what we want.”
Students at the lecture said they were intrigued by Hurt’s business model.
“I hope that it can work, but as someone who’s been to that part of the world, there are a lot of limitations to being able to distribute that kind of technology,” McCormick junior Jeremy Geffin said. “But there is so much potential for gain, and as an engineer at Northwestern that’s something we should try to improve.”