Aleutia: From solar classrooms in a box to Africa’s emerging middle class

Wednesday June 29th, 2016 - Smart Villages

Interview with Mike Rosenberg

Founder, Aleutia

Location: pan-Africa

“I’m passionate about what I do. Passion is not optional”.

Mike Rosenberg started his technology career in 2004 at Kelway, a leading UK IT reseller and was fascinated by the falling price of technology and opportunities for social impact in Africa. Given an opportunity to go to Ghana in September 2006 by Kelway founder Phil Doye to set up an ICT classroom, he founded Aleutia just weeks later with a mission to re-invent the desktop and enable solar-powered computing in rural Africa. 

Mike travels to sub-Saharan Africa every four weeks to test his assumptions and is passionate about transforming primary healthcare, primary and secondary education and energy access.

Mike Rosenberg lives by the idea that “the future is already here—it’s just not very evenly distributed”, as the science fiction writer William Gibson said. This idea drives his work to bring cutting-edge technologies to sub-Saharan Africa and beyond. Rosenberg had the opportunity as a volunteer to refurbish computers and set up a classroom with modern technologies. “I was working the City [London’s financial centre] and the managing director donated money to an ICT centre for orphans. He knew I wanted to go to Ghana, so I flew down and bought second hand computers. I saw so much hope. But the PCs kept breaking down and the power kept cutting out. There wasn’t ongoing funding, and I thought ‘there’s got to be a better way’”.

With that in mind, it becomes clearer why at age 25, he left a stable job in London and struck out on his own.  His first customer after creating Aleutia was a school in Ecuador’s Amazon forest. His goal? To make computers more rugged, with pre-loaded content that students could rely on for their studies.

In 2007, Rosenberg and the Aleutia team rolled out high-tech fanless computers that have attracted major clients such as Prêt-à-Manger, General Electric, and British Airways, thanks to “no moving parts” and energy efficiency. Not content to rest on his laurels, however, he sees innovation for energy in the sub-Saharan African market as a way of expanding Aleutia and making an impact not only in schools but also in health clinics.

Ethiopia Kids Sharing

“What about the girl in northern Nigeria coding?”

In schools, the technology of the “solar classroom in a box” has been a breakthrough for many students. In Uganda, 400 children per year use their desktops, and the computers’ reliability means that only the keyboard and mouse need to be replaced regularly. These are designed to run off-grid from solar energy. Students are also able to do virtual labs for chemistry and biology, for geography, the computers come loaded with interactive maps that run offline. Students are also able to work with teachers who are “beamed in” via a simple projector. As Rosenberg comments, “what about the girl in northern Nigeria coding? What are her opportunities?” With distance learning and strides in technology, “the future” could be distributed more evenly.

Health for all

In tandem with Aleutia’s solar classroom in a box, they are also developing innovations for health clinics in sub-Saharan Africa. Rosenberg began this in October 2015, when he visited five rural clinics in Nigeria. He asked the nurses what they would buy for the clinic if they were given US$5,000 and began thinking about their responses. It quickly became clear that lighting was the most crucial. But doctors and nurses do not need basic levels of light—they need strong lights, especially during the night. Many of the nurses he spoke with were still delivering babies with only a paraffin lantern for light—an extra solar panel would solve that. They also need reliable vaccine storage. From these initial ideas, Aleutia has developed solar refrigerators with a 1 kW solar panel for vaccines.

The system that Aleutia provides, the Solar Enabler, has a five-year warranty and a 1000 W battery that can be easily changed when it reaches the end of its life in five years. It also includes a charge controller that allows the clinic to plug in up to 2000 W of solar. It has a 1,200 W AC inverter. It weighs just 16 kilos, costs US$2000, and does not require a special technician to install it.

Solar Classroom Construction Dadaab Kenya - World's Largest Refugee Camp

Africa’s growing middle class

Rosenberg sees the growing middle class of Africa as a market that should not be ignored. While many energy companies have focused on pico solar, which replaces kerosene in households, Rosenberg believes that diesel generators can be phased out, too, as prices of solar panels and lithium batteries drop over time.

The growing middle class offers opportunities for even more advanced solar home systems—especially as the prices of components of the Solar Enabler decrease. Given its plug-and-play technology, it allows a household to run all the appliances that they need. For families using diesel generators, this offers a reliable and less noisy and dirty alternative to diesel. While this may not be within the reach of poor, rural households right now, it shows that solar home systems can go well beyond lighting and cell phone charging, matching the future aspirations of many families.

In terms of making solar home systems affordable, one of the keys is access to capital, given the huge costs of getting a loan. Financing that allows homes to pay 8-10% interest rather than 70% interest will be crucial to making solar home systems and micro-grids more accessible.

Thoughts on entrepreneurship

As someone who became an entrepreneur shortly after finishing his university studies, he said that his father, also an entrepreneur, was one of his greatest mentors: “I used him as a sounding board. I’ve been pitching him ideas since I was 19. He liked the idea of fanless, low-power computers”. Though Rosenberg thinks he would have thrived in a large corporation, too, he believes that people have a short time on earth and should try to make an impact. According to Rosenberg, one of the unsung perks of being an entrepreneur and taking this risk has been able to meet CEOs of larger companies and being on almost equal footing: “if you take a safer route and work your way up to middle management, you’re not going to meet the same caliber of people as if your develop your own brand. Meeting really smart people is a perk”.

—Molly Hurley-Dépret, Storyteller, Smart Villages Initiative