These MBAs Want To Give Refugees Electricity

“The situation in one camp is different than the situation in another,” says Ivan Leis of ESADE. “In one camp they might have four hours of energy generated from solar panels, in another camp they have eight hours of energy generated by a combination of diesel generators and solar panels. The situation in a camp in Greece may be very different from the situation in a camp in Africa. Maybe in Africa they don’t have energy at all. That’s why we were adamant in terms of making our solution modular, to keep it adaptable to each of the different landscapes that we might find in different camps. That was one of our most important features.”

The world is full of persecution and those fleeing it. Thousands are uprooted every day from their homes and lives by violence in the Mideast, in Africa, in Asia. Millions more in India, Africa, and elsewhere are locked in poverty by a simple lack of access to basic necessities: food, water, shelter — and electricity. And it’s this last resource, electrical power, that Lalitha Kakulapathi and Ivan Leis want to bring to populations that need it most.

Recently graduated MBAs from ESADE in Barcelona, Spain, Kakulapathi, from India, and Leis, from Argentina, are part of a team that formed for an international competition that challenged participants to innovate their way to a solution for a major world problem. But even after the competition ended, their team — which includes engineers and designers from other schools in Spain and Italy — is sticking together to make their solution a reality: providing power to Syrian war refugee encampments.

“This is not something that we can just build and deploy and let it just be,” Kakulapathi tells Poets&Quants. “It’s something that we need to pour our hearts into for I don’t know how many years.”

A SIMPLE, LOW-COST, MODULAR POWER GRID

Lalitha Kakulapathi. Courtesy photo

The United Nations estimates there are more than 65 million refugees in the world, those leaving their home countries because of war, famine, disease, or some form of persecution. Wide-scale refugee resettlement is almost always attended by humanitarian crises, exacerbated by a want of resources — clean water, healthy food, decent and reliable shelter.

The greatest humanitarian crisis in the world today is the six-year civil war in Syria, from which 4.8 million have fled to neighboring countries in the Mideast and Europe. Some half a million have settled in semi-permanent camps, including huge encampments in southern Europe — mostly Greece and Macedonia. The camps differ widely in quality but one thing they all have in common: a lack of steady, available electricity.

With electricity comes lighting, productivity, sanitation, security. But how to solve the problem of a consistent electricity supply for massive, often remote encampments of temporary structures? That’s the problem a group of engineering and business students are trying to tackle, and their solution is a startup that makes a low-cost, simple, and modular power grid.

NEW TECH APPLICATIONS TO ADDRESS SOCIAL CHALLENGES

Ivan Gabriel Leis. Courtesy photo

The Challenge-based Innovation (CBI) course is a 12-week, multiple-team course created by CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research near Geneva, Switzerland. The course’s fourth iteration last fall was its most successful, attracting more attention from investors than ever and going a long way toward fulfilling CERN’s mission to produce — or at least give a platform to — a slate of useful technologies.

“Three years ago at CERN they were thinking about running courses in calibration with universities, with the goal of finding applications for technologies that they have developed and researched,” says Lotta Hassi, ESADE lecturer in innovation and data sciences and coordinator, with Kyriaki Papageorgiou, of the CBI course with CERN. “At ESADE we felt this was a good opportunity for us to partner up with a design school and engineering school locally. It’s not just finding applications for new technologies, it’s also addressing social challenges with those technologies. It’s about bringing these aspects together.”

The course is treated “like one of CERN’s experiments,” Hassi says with a laugh. Five teams are each given a broad-stroke challenge — for example, “How can we create a system for replicating human sensory experience over distance?” — then set loose to conduct research, provide technological solutions, oversee and ensure the feasibility of the project, and facilitate the usability and experience of the product or service. CERN opens its facilities for their use, Papageorgiou notes, and mentors and groups offer expertise and counsel.

“The whole objective of this is trying to bring the technologies or the knowledge at CERN to serve the humanity at large,” Hassi tells Poets&Quants. “This is the real objective behind it.”

NEXT STEP: FINANCING 

Of the many fascinating student projects that have emerged from the CBI course at CERN, only one has been picked up by investors: ElecTree, the brainchild of Kakulapathi, Reis, and their seven teammates — a pair of designers from Barcelona’s IED design school, two engineers from Polytechnic University of Catalonia, and three engineering students from Italy. The ElecTree team — Team Bohr, named for the Danish physicist and Nobel Prize winner — was challenged to use technology to “improve the living conditions of refugees, displaced and other people in need of emergency temporary sheltering.” Their solution: a modular, extendable, plug-n-play intelligent grid solution that “optimizes electricity allocation by prioritizing critical needs like those of hospitals, schools, and administrative buildings while addressing needs of individual shelters,” according to ElecTree’s website.

ElecTree’s grid allows the addition of multiple sources of electricity, and it is flexible and affordable, costing the equivalent of less than $6 per refugee — about the cost of a Starbucks latte. It is also “as safe and easy as plugging in an extension cord in a regular building,” according to the company’s website. No wonder, then, that Global Humanitarian Labs, a partnership of leading humanitarian organizations, and other investors have expressed interest in ElecTree’s product.

“We are currently making efforts to raise enough money to test our prototype and make it into an actual sales-ready product,” Kakulapathi says. “We have a prototype that demonstrates how it works and we also have an online interactive simulation on our website that allows you to see how the logic is supposed to work when you actually connect it.

“So our next step is to raise enough funds over the next year and develop it into a product and then deploy that in our first refugee camp. ESADE is giving us the space to work as soon as we are set up for it, and hopefully we should be able to start working in the next couple of months.”

NO TWO CAMPS THE SAME 

In studying the refugee problem, Team Bohr discovered fascinating — and sometimes dispiriting — facts. They learned, foremost, that the conditions in one camp are invariably different than conditions in another. After a team member visited a camp on the island of Lesbos, Greece, Team Bohr realized that underlying all the worst problems of the encampments was a lack of consistent electricity. At a camp level, essential services — chiefly hospitals — must be prioritized, even amid blackouts or overloads; yet this prioritization often leaves individual shelters without power for long periods, severely impacting quality of life.

According to the UN, only 10% of displaced persons worldwide have reliable access to electricity. Fires are common, because refugees use wood fires for cooking — and for illumination. Darkness, after all, provides cover for rape and other violence.

“The situation in one camp is different than the situation in another,” says Leis, whose background before enrolling at ESADE was in marketing and real estate. “In one camp they might have four hours of energy generated from solar panels, in another camp they have eight hours of energy generated by a combination of diesel generators and solar panels. The situation in a camp in Greece may be very different from the situation in a camp in Africa. Maybe in Africa they don’t have energy at all.

“That’s why we were adamant in terms of making our solution modular, to keep it adaptable to each of the different landscapes that we might find in different camps. That was one of our most important features.”

‘FOR WOMEN AND CHILDREN ESPECIALLY’

Team Bohr met with NGOs, UN agencies (including the UN Refugee Agency), energy experts, the Global Humanitarian Lab, and others, says Kakulapathi, a chemical engineer with an IT background. “And through all of this we learned that the refugees have issues in a lot of areas, like productivity, basic food and hygiene, water, security, education and all of these things,” she says, “but we could solve a lot of these issues — or at least make their life better in multiple respects — if we improve the refugees’ access to electricity in the camps.”

Kakulapathi had perhaps the most experience on Team Bohr in the realm of humanitarian aid: In 2015, she was caught in the aftermath of the Nepal earthquake, and rather than evacuate at the earliest opportunity, she stayed and volunteered and helped. So for her, the team’s efforts had a personal element, too.

“For women and children especially, there are a lot of safety issues because of lack of lighting during night, and quite a number of fires that break out in these camps as refugees use more fires for cooking and even lighting and warmth at night,” she says. “Sometimes the hospital tents don’t have enough electricity to conduct surgeries.

“So then we started looking at how we could solve this problem, how we could improve the access to electricity, and we found that there are a lot of existing initiatives to bring more sources of energy to the camps, like solar panels and diesel generators and things like that. But how the electricity gets to the shelters, there’s not much being done there — mainly because refugee camps are supposed to be temporary in nature, though some of them are existing for decades.

“So what we came up with is a modular smart grid that is especially adapted for situations where you have a scarcity in supply of electricity as well as a very sporadic supply. And that is ElecTree.”

LOOKING BEYOND REFUGEES

As ElecTree refines its prototype and explores collaborations with UNHCR, NGOs, and, possibly, corporations, ESADE has offered work space, and the scope of the work ahead has actually expanded. The need for steady electricity, after all, is not unique to stateless persons, Leis says.

“ESADE has been really supportive during this period, and they are going to actually provide us with space for work and access to their labs and their incubator as well,” he says. “So we will have plenty of help from ESADE.

“Beyond refugees, in Africa and India there are are more than 600 million people who don’t have access to electricity, so a product like ours can be used to bring electricity to those communities. We want to make it sustainable. The only way to make it sustainable is to make a profit. And that’s one of the objectives — but it’s not the only one.”