Interview with Jeroen Verschelling, Kamworks

Saturday October 14th, 2017 - Smart Villages

Jeroen Verschelling, Chairman and Co-founder,  Kamworks

Location:  Phnom Penh, Cambodia

“It’s hard to go faster than the market”

Jeroen Verschelling first designed his zero-energy home when he was a consultant for Ecofys, taking notes in the back of a conference room with experts on how to build homes in the tropics. Verschelling spent three years living in the solar-powered home with his family in rural Cambodia. He co-founded Kamworks in 2006 with fellow Dutch solar engineers. Today, the company employs 20 people, and has impacted over 200,000 people.

Verschelling noticed a trend in countries like Africa and Indonesia, where people had scant access to the grid. In Cambodia, over two-thirds of its population of 14.5 million do not have access to grid electricity. “The UNDP and World Bank were parachuting solar systems into villages, but if you went back two years later, nothing worked. We wanted to change that.” Co-founder Arjen Luxwolda, who had spent his summers working in Cambodia as a volunteer, was the first to move; Verschelling moved two years later. “He left his job at Nestle, sold his house and built a workshop in Cambodia.” A production line for solar lanterns was set up. Inventions included Moonlight, a white PV LED light system, following a “co-design method” in collaboration with entrepreneurs in the field and foreign students. The market price was 20 USD – high, compared to a 1 USD kerosene lamp, but the customers understood.

“From a Western perspective, the thought is that people need light,” says Verschelling, about managing expectations of what the needs on the ground were. “People wanted TVs. At 6pm in the countryside, it gets dark, you can’t go out, and people get bored. It’s a window to the world. People get left behind – they have to look after their lands, and can’t move to the cities and where the opportunities are. They become the losers, and it’s not fair.”

Photos courtesy of M. Young/Kamworks.

Photos courtesy of M. Young/Kamworks.

Luck and hard work has been part of the game, says Verschelling. The co-founders invested their own money, and the social enterprise received a “development marketplace” award from the World Bank whilst it was still in the product development stage; followed by some major awards and grants, enabling it to develop its technologies. The company is still to turn a profit, he says, but is close. “We have to live off the margins of the things that we sell.” To date, that includes 14,000 solar home systems, reducing 3,7000 tons of Co2 emissions.

Kamworks has partnerships with prestigious universities around the world, including Stanford and MIT, connecting Khmer students who work with foreign visitors. When Kamworks launched, the onus was on product development, hand in hand with design students from Delft University. Verschelling estimates that one out of ten products, if at all, made it to the development stages. One, a solar electric tricycle-cum-mobile shop, was crafted to improve distribution in rural areas. “It didn’t really work, but a lot of people wanted the tricycle – they have been asking us about it for years afterwards!” The most ambitious, he remembers, was a solar television prototype, made out of recycled computer screens. “It proved hard to scale up the production,” he says. “It’s hard to go faster than the market.” If he could, he says, he would invent a solar toilet. “So much data is literally going down the drain!” he laughs.

The next move at Kamworks was to develop solar home systems, which led to the launch of rental and credit schemes, as well as microfinance (MFI). A lot has changed in 12 years, “People didn’t know solar back then, which was the first hurdle,” says Verschelling. “Affordability was the next biggest hurdle. But now solar panels have become commoditised.” The company developed a ‘PAYGO’ system, keeping track of mobile payments via a keyboard which is attached to the product. A more advanced product has a GSM signal, allowing Kamworks to use the data connection to investigate the system, which is one solution to the problem of logistics in getting to remote locations. One useful manoeuvre allows Kamworks to switch off any customers who are not paying. “We’ve also integrated preventative maintenance and compare the performance of different systems in a village,” he adds, and will be expanding this model to other countries. A few years ago in 2014, when the Cambodian government announced that all villages would be electrified by 2020 , Verschelling admits he was surprised. It’s all progress from here.

Nabeelah Shabbir @lahnabee