Madison startup completing 100 solar setups in rural Africa

Some NovoMoto customers in the Congo. PHOTO COURTESY OF NOVOMOTO

NovoMoto, a spinoff from the University of Wisconsin–Madison, is finishing its first 100 solar lighting installations in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

NovoMoto LLC distributes the systems on a rent-to-own basis on a plateau about 80 kilometers from the capital, Kinshasa. After a $10 down payment and three years of paying $2.15 a week, the customer owns the system.

If you take electric lighting for granted, you have not lived in the Democratic Republic of Congo, says company co-founder Aaron Olson. In rural villages, he says, lighting options come down to kerosene (dim and dangerous), candles (dim and short-lived) or flashlights with single-use batteries (dim, short-lived and expensive).

Lighting in rural Congo comes down to kerosene, candles and flashlights.

None of these sources are adequate, he says, yet they cost about one-third of the average family’s income.

Olson and his fellow co-founder, Mehrdad Arjmand, have a better idea: small electric systems equipped with a solar panel, battery and controller.

The company’s secret sauce is a digital code that unlocks the system, sent via text message after it receives each weekly payment. After the last payment, the final code unlocks it permanently.

Another 100 NovoMoto systems will reach the capital, Kinshasa, within three weeks or so, says Olson. NovoMoto has obtained financing for another 450 systems to be assembled and shipped later this year.

NovoMoto would not exist without UW–Madison, says Olson, who is completing a Ph.D. in engineering mechanics at UW–Madison.  Arjmand recently earned a Ph.D. in the field.

The germ of the idea arose in 2015 as Olson and Arjmand prepared for the Weinert Applied Venture in Entrepreneurship class in the school of business. Talking with Selam Zewdie, a native of Ethiopia, they narrowed their focus to a business involving solar electricity for underserved third world locations.

“As we started the class, we were thinking about Sub-Saharan Africa and India, where people were starting to sell pay-as-you-go solar electricity kits,” Olson says.

The rent-to-own solar lighting system was greeted with a smile recently in the Democratic Republic of Congo. PHOTO COURTESY OF NOVOMOTO

Congo was a natural focus, he adds, since he was born there and a cousin of his was trained in solar installation in Kinshasa. Rural parts of the nation of about 80 million were also severely underserved with electricity.

Olson left Congo with his parents shortly after his second birthday and returned to his father’s native Wisconsin. In January, 2015, Olson made his first visit as an adult. His father, a UW–Madison alum who had been in Congo in the Peace Corps and then worked in international agriculture, had passed away by then, so Aaron traveled for several weeks with his mother, Agnes, and brothers Amisi and Alvin.

“Visiting gave me a different perspective,” he says, and lighting seemed a particularly acute need – and business opportunity. “I knew that people were succeeding in the rent-to-own model for solar lighting in other places, and I had just seen a place that could benefit, a place where I had family ties. All of this molded how I thought about what we’d been talking about in class, and made it seem much more realistic.”

The original idea, designing their own equipment, was quickly pushed aside when they looked at existing equipment. “Do we spend money on product development at this point or work with an established solar kit supplier?” Olson says. “It was a matter of funds and time.”

Raising money is always difficult for startups, but by mid- 2016 NovoMoto had raised $110,000 from two U.S. Department of Energy grants, and an investment from the Clean Energy Trust of Chicago.

By May 17, 2017, NovoMoto was serving eight pilot customers in Mboka Paul, a village northeast of Kinshasa. Building on lessons from the pilot, they began planning the first 100 installations.

The company’s entry-level package can store 20 watt-hours even on a cloudy day. That is enough to charge a mobile phone, and power six hours each on two indoor lamps, plus 12 hours for one outdoor lamp.

Combined, these three bulbs emit as much light as a 40-watt incandescent bulb.  “This may not sound like much to those in a developed country, who get electricity from a utility, but it’s a stellar improvement over candles, batteries or kerosene. The response in Mboka Paul confirms this,” says Olson.

The larger package adds several hours of television usage to the mix.

This school for orphans in Mboka Paul now has a solar lighting system, donated by NovoMoto LLC. In blue shirts are founder Aaron Olson (center-left) and his brother, Alex Olson. PHOTO COURTESY OF NOVOMOTO

Although homeowners are the primary market, NovoMoto has done free installations in a school and a clinic in each village it serves, Olson says. NovoMoto is also developing packages tailored to larger business needs like refrigeration and electric bike charging.

The young spinoff has made an auspicious start, says Dan Olszewski, director of the Weinert Center for Entrepreneurship in the School of Business. “They went there for two reasons. Aaron is a Badger, a Wisconsin guy, but he has family there, and they are involved in the business. And though it’s a tough environment, they have opportunities as well. The fact is that many villages are off the grid and don’t have any power coming in, and don’t even have a real plan to get it. With entire cities off the grid, there is a large opportunity.”

NovoMoto is prepared for rapid growth, and is aiming for 2,000 customers at the end 2018 and 20,000 by the end of 2019. That expansion includes a gradual transition – already under way — to a “mobile money payment system that can eliminate the problem of having to go out and collect cash,” Olson says.

This story originally appeared at news.wisc.edu.

By David Tenenbaum

Green spaces in cities help control floods, store carbon

This story originally appeared at news.wisc.edu.

By Adam Hinterthuer

Carly Ziter conducts field work in a restored urban prairie in Turville Point Conservation Park in Madison. PHOTO BY ERIC PEDERSEN

For many ecologists, fieldwork involves majestic mountains or rushing rivers or large tracts of wilderness. At the very least, it means exploring natural areas that aren’t defined by human development.

But for Carly Ziter, a research site can be a lot closer to home. In fact, it can be right out your back door.

In a study published March 6 in the journal Ecosystem Applications, Ziter, a graduate student in integrative biology professor Monica Turner’s lab at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, finds that urban green spaces like backyards, city parks and golf courses contribute substantially to the ecological fabric of our cities — and the wider landscape — and they need to be added to the data ecologists currently use when exploring big questions about our natural world.

“Often when we’re doing regional studies of ecosystem services, or the ways that nature benefits us, we ignore the cities,” Ziter says. “We treat the city as this kind of gray box; quite literally on maps it’s often a gray box. And what we’ve discovered here is that … we need to be thinking about the city as part of the landscape.”

Carly Ziter collects soil samples from the front yard of a study participant in Madison to determine the benefits provided by different types of urban green space. PHOTO BY LAUREN JENSEN

To get a sense of how urban areas fit into bigger landscape dynamics, Ziter took soil samples from 100 sites around the city of Madison, Wisconsin. She surveyed cemeteries, the UW Arboretum, public parks — and lots and lots of backyards.  Each sample was then analyzed for three ecosystem services: carbon storage, water quality regulation and flood mitigation. The results indicate that urban green spaces play a significant role in providing some ecosystem services.

For example, Ziter found that more developed areas like public parks and people’s yards store substantially more carbon in their soils than urban forests or grasslands. Urban soils even stored more carbon on average than the agricultural soils that dominate Madison’s surrounding landscape.

Despite this large carbon sink, many regional or even national assessments of carbon storage “count urban areas as zero,” Ziter says.

Everywhere she looked in her research sites, Ziter found examples of ecosystem services. Urban forests and grasslands had a big impact on flood control, allowing water to infiltrate into the soil instead of simply running off into streets or storm sewers. And the kind and magnitude of service being provided varied from site to site.

“My front yard and my backyard can be more different in terms of their ecology than two houses across the city from one another,” Ziter says. “And that’s really fascinating from a management perspective, because it’s these small decisions people are making as individuals that are shaping the ecology of these landscapes.”

According to a 2016 report by the United States Census Bureau, more than 80 percent of Americans live in urban areas, which means that individual decisions can add up to big impacts on carbon storage, flood control or water quality — whether it’s planting turf grass or setting up a garden bed or putting in a driveway.

But these aren’t the only ecosystem services provided by the “urban wild.”

“If you’re out gardening, you’re interacting with the natural world. If you’re going out for a walk along the lake, you’re interacting with the natural world. We often think of nature as being in these big wild spaces, but there are a lot of smaller day-to-day interactions that we don’t realize are fostering a connection to our environment,” Ziter says. And these interactions promote physical health, mental well-being and overall quality of life in a city, she adds.

Ziter hopes her study can help highlight the importance of urban green spaces and encourage more ecologists to start studying these urban environments. However, she cautions, the job may not be for everyone.

“I had to get permission for every single one of my hundred sites within the city,” she says. “And that meant speaking one-on-one with upwards of 100 people, and that’s everyone from Joe Next Door to the golf course superintendent to a church group that manages a prairie restoration.”

While she didn’t mind fielding questions from curious homeowners or passerby, Ziter says, she realizes that “that type of social interaction is not in the tool kit of many ecologists!”

This work was supported in part by the National Science Foundation Long-term Ecological Research (grant DEB-1440297) and Water, Sustainability and Climate (grant DEB-1038759) programs, the University of Wisconsin–Madison Vilas Trust, the Natural Science and Engineering Research Council of Canada doctoral fellowship, and a PEO Scholar Award.