Sunday, 29 August 2010

Rwandan Expo: 150 and counting

BBOXX today sold its 150th unit at the 2010 Kigali Expo on its third full day of trading. The BB5 product has been extremely well received by the general public, with many customers wanting more than just one!

An interested customer checks out the BB5 at the 2010 Rwandan Expo
Employees John-Claude, Pacifique and Claver have been working hard to demonstrate the potential of the BB5 in powering lights, mobile phones, shavers and radios. At times the small stall has been swamped with customers interested to learn more about how the product can benefit their lives and give businesses and individuals access to electric power.

Tomorrow BBOXX will be continuing production of the BB5 and putting the finishing touches to its new factory outlet in Kigali. The Rwandan Expo goes on until Monday Septemebr 6th in Kigali - if you're in the country, why not check us out?!

BBOXX employee Claver demonstrating the potential of the BB5

Thursday, 26 August 2010

BBOXX at the 2010 Rwandan Expo

Our small stand at the 2010 Rwandan Expo
BBOXX opened our small demonstration stall at the 2010 Rwandan Expo in Kigali today. From the minute we opened the stand at 10am, the crowds were flocking to the stand to see the BB5 powering radios, mobile phones, lights and shavers. Our two local employees, John-Claud and Pacifique, used all their sales charm to convince customers to sign-up for our pre-order scheme, whereby customers can pay a 2000 RWF deposit to reserve their very own BB5.

BBOXX employee John-Claude talking to potential customers
Customers will be able to pick up their items from the 1st October onwards from BBOXX's shop in the centre of Kigali (see below for more details about the shop). At the close of business, BBOXX had sold pre-orders on boxes worth nearly 1500 USD - and an even greater number of people had promised to "return later with money."

The inital response to the product was very successful and we hope over the weekend to sell a significant proportion of our inital stock. We'll keep you updated with our progress at the Kigali Expo over the next 10 days.

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

BBOXX gets a shop!

On Friday BBOXX signed the contracts on our new home for the next 3 months, a shop/production facility in the centre of Kigali. BBOXX intends to use this location to assemble the BB5 and sell it to individuals and larger distributors.

Our brand new shop in Kigali, freshly painted in BBOXX colours.
Although a little bare at the moment, BBOXX will be furnishing the shop over the coming weeks in preparation for our opening sometime in September. Already the team has painted the front of the shop in BBOXX colours and started to put up an internal wall to seperate the production and sales facilities. The shop will be our main distribution point in Rwanda and hence its location in the centre of Kigali is ideal for getting our products out into the hands of the population.

Over the next few weeks BBOXX will be attending the Kigali Expo from the 26th August to the 6th September. Stay tuned to the blog for more news and updates from the event over the coming weeks.

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

The Team Expands

Today the team added two new members! 

After having a talk with our friend Justus Mucyo, an e.quinox partner of the first hour and recent KIST graduate, he agreed to supervise production for BBOXX once the current team has left Rwanda in September. 

He is now officially Director of Production and Quality Control for Rwanda. Which basically means that he will be  BBOXX's main representative in the country, and will have to handle the difficult task of getting BB5 parts out of customs, of employing and supervising local workers, of making sure assembly lines run smoothly, and of handling any production defects that might (fingers crossed) arise once the first thousand batteries are sold.

 Justus Joins BBOXX!

Chris and Justus Going Over the First Technical Details
Hubert Rutage Ruzibiza, whom we met by chance during BBOXX's early bank-related operations, is now Associate Partner in Rwanda. After studying in West Africa, in France and graduating from Temple University in Philadelphia, USA, he has come back to Rwanda to work for Bank of Kigali, but his real interest lies in starting businesses and making new ideas blossom. Which is why, he told us, he would be willing to give us some of his time, with, for now, little guarantee of any financial return. His business intelligence and many contacts here will be extremely useful in supervising contracts with various retailers and government organizations.

Completely unrelated: this morning we asked Sylvie to take us with her to the market where she buys all the delicious meats and vegetables she cooks for us every day. It was an overwhelming site: rows upon cramped rows of fruits and legumes of every kind, a bustling crowd, and an ocean of smells and textures. Dizzying. 

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Elections Interlude

At five yesterday morning, loud music started playing somewhere in the neighborhood. Dance-y, uplifting tunes, probably in Kinyarwanda (?), from which our tired ears could sometimes distinguish a single word: "tora," or "vote". Yesterday was presidential election day here in Rwanda, and at four thirty in the afternoon, the powerful stereo still hadn't stopped playing in the nearby secondary school where, as far as we could tell, all the inhabitants from our hill and the one across had been congregating to vote. 

Earlier yesterday morning we went to have a quick look in the school-turned-voting-station (we didn't dare take pictures), and the atmosphere was festive enough: families in Sunday dress chatting with each other, loud, cheerful music, kids playing (very impressive) soccer in the dirt field below the school... And long, long lines of men and women apparently eager to place their vote. We couldn't tell you how well the scene represents Rwanda's democratic system, though - but there are plenty of knowledgeable analysts for that.

At night, celebratory gunshots kept some of us awake, but most of us were tired from a hard game of tennis and a filling Chinese meal. 

On a less politically sensitive note, yesterday we also met a street-seller so eager to purchase the BB5 that he was ready to trade his 40,000 RWF (about 65 USD) mobile phone for it. We politely declined his offer, because the BB5 we were carrying with us (for marketing purposes) is our only working prototype. But his dedication was encouraging, and we promised he would be the first to know once the BB5 hits the market.   

Friday, 6 August 2010

A Day in Minazi

Early last morning the team left for the North for a one-day expedition to Minazi. It was a somewhat emotional trip for Mansoor, Chris and Laurent: a year ago, almost to the day, they had first arrived in Rwanda as part of e.quinox to set up an experimental, non-profit energy kiosk in the most remote and unequipped village they could find. That village was Minazi. 

We packed in a large jeep with Simon, a student from the Kigali Institute of Science and Technology (KIST) involved with the e.quinox project, and Clara and Okito, both members of the Belgian Technical Corporation (BTC). After a quick hour's drive on paved roads, the car branched off into a meandering dirt track that seemed to plunge down into the trees. The three of us who had to sit in the trunk were in for an uncomfortable ride: the second half of the drive to Minazi was bumpy, winding, and often bruise-inducing (not to mention the clouds of dust that swirled in the car each time we took a turn or crossed paths with another vehicle). It took us another hour to reach Minazi. 

The trip was worth it, though. If only because, at 2400 meters of altitude, Minazi is a beautiful location, a summit from which one can admire a 360° panorama of Rwanda's thousand hills. The village itself is barely more than a loose cluster of houses, with a primary school, a large church, and, well, the energy kiosk. The former e.quinox members couldn't help noticing, however, that a "guest house" had opened in Minazi since their last visit - probably in the hope that more "muzungus" (the Kinyarwanda term for "white" and "rich") would soon come to pursue e.quinox's initial work.

We weren't in Minazi to do that, exactly. Laurent, Mansoor and Chris's task, in visiting the energy kiosk, was more to gather data about its functioning - and thus about rural energy consumption patterns and needs - than to fix whatever problems were found onsite. In the end, we did both: Chris and Laurent fixed the data-logger (which registers a certain number of parameters every day - solar radiation, current, temperature... - and sends e.quinox a daily e-mail with the information), William cleaned the solar panels on the roof, and Mansoor took two deficient batteries back with us to fix by early September. 

For those who are completely lost, an energy kiosk is a solar-powered charging station where batteries can be rented and charged by local users, who then use these batteries to power low-energy lamps - pretty useful in a village where no one has any home access to electricity. Last year, e.quinox built such a station in Minazi, equipped it with 60 batteries, available to the local population for a 5000 RWF (Rwandan Francs) deposit and a 1000 RWF fee for each charge (equivalent to less than two dollars). The operation was a success: the kiosk is entirely self-sustainable financially, and with a 200-people waiting list to use its batteries, it could easily start generating profit with the 140 new batteries BBOXX is planning to supply the kiosk with at the end of September. 
(UPDATE: read the article WIRED recently posted about e.quinox!) 

Old vs. New: The e.quinox Battery and the Newer, Lighter, and Cheaper BB5 
BBOXX also briefly surveyed Minazi for a potential market for its BB5. We visited a few houses, and after Simon had detailed the BB5's technical capabilities to an excited crowd (which included the schoolteacher, a few construction workers, and the village drunk, aka "Crazy Dude"), it became clear that most people would be willing to pay the price BBOXX has envisioned for its product (around 25 000 RWF, or 45 dollars). We reached the same conclusion later when we visited a nearby barber shop. 

The Interior of Erique's Home in Minazi (Notice the e.quinox Battery and Lamp)

Simon Explains Everything about the BB5
The BB5 Powering a Shaver in a Local Barbershop

At lunchtime we all returned to the car and headed back to Kigali. On the way, we stopped in a village slightly bigger than Minazi, where Laurent, Mansoor and Chris took the rest of us to a small, hole-in-the-wall bar/restaurant that served, according to their memory, the best goat brochettes in the world. Our reluctance was soon beat: the brochettes were indeed delicious (even the ones made up of pieces of intestine...), and dirt cheap at that. After such a hearty meal, even the three unlucky riders in the trunk managed to fall asleep peacefully until we reached Kigali again. 

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Surveying the Streets of Kigali

This morning, the BBOXX team divided its efforts between finalizing a patent application for its BB5 (Mansoor), negotiating the final parts for its upcoming BB25 with various Chinese industrials (William), overseeing production of electrical circuits (Chris), and seeking out marketing/printing outlets in Kigali in the hope, one day, of boasting a billboard on one of the city's main arteries (Laurent and Fabien). 

After lunch, we decided the time had come to begin our very own marketing research on Rwandan soil. Statistics about Rwanda's energy and cell-phone markets are very difficult to come by, as Laurent and Fabien experienced after talking with Kigali's Bureau of Statistics. We have yet to find the right contacts with Rwanda's two main cell-phone operators, MTN and Tigo. Similarly, enquiries at Rwanda's electricity and water provider have, so far, yielded little results. 

At 3 PM, William, Laurent and Fabien thus set out with a list of questions regarding cell-phone and energy use in Rwanda in the hope of reaching Kigali's marketplace to survey the local population. They were accompanied by Sylvie, BBOXX's maid, cook and good friend, and by her sister Clémence, both of whom served as much-needed translators (Kinyarwanda being the local language) in this expedition. 

The first hiccup came from our car: about three hundred yards out, at the nearest roundabout, smoke started billowing from underneath the hood and even - to our horror - inside the car, from behind the steering wheel. After we'd stopped, the car would not start again. So while Laurent and William waited for help, Fabien, Sylvie and Clémence walked over to the nearby strip mall and began asking around for participants. 

Very soon, a compact crowd had formed around them, and everyone - men, mostly, with only two or three women - seemed more than eager to participate. In less than an hour, we interviewed 25 people (our goal being a sample of 150). The truth came out later, however: Sylvie and Clémence had been telling participants that BBOXX, in return for survey answers, would soon offer free electricity, and even mobile phones. A bold lie, that we agreed not to use again.

Our initial results confirm what we'd heard all along: out of 25 participants, only 3 did not own mobile phones. Yet 11 interviewees did not have electricity at home and relied, to charge their phones, on neighbors and communal charging stations. This discrepancy between cell-phone usage and access to electricity, mind you, was registered in Kigali: it is without a doubt much higher outside of the capital. Which is why tomorrow BBOXX will survey a rural village in the Minazi sector (North); next week Fabien, Sylvie and Clémence will be hitting the Kigali suburbs. Expect a full account of our findings soon! 

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Welcome to the BBOXX Office

Early activity this morning: the Rwandan Development Board (RDB) and the Rwandan Revenue Authority (RRA) are coming over to visit BBOXX's Kigali office. Their aim is to make sure the company meets the minimum requirements to be classified as a foreign investor in the country (one of which involves a necessary investment of 250 000 dollars over the next 12 months...). Hopefully, our last-minute cleaning and tidying will pay off. 

But what does our office look like? The first thing to say is that we could certainly be worse off: the "office" is in fact a two-story villa, with five bedrooms, a large living room, a dining room that we turned into a printing station, a roomy kitchen, and a long, covered patio. 

A View from the Garden

William Working in the Living Room

 The Central Office
The patio, which overlooks a small garden and, beyond the walls, one of Kigali's many hills (if you lean over, you can make out the golf course), is probably everyone's favorite spot. Sun-splashed in the morning, it offers cool shade in the afternoon to eat and work (it serves both as an office and an assembly line) and relax in, until the sun sets at 7 PM and the mosquitos reclaim their ground. The birds that populate the trees in the garden are remarkably colorful and vocal; besides their chirps, the only other sounds to occasionally disturb the peace and quiet of the place are the (terrific) drums and chants from the nearby art school. 

 Official Business on the Patio

We are also lucky enough to be neighbors with members of the Swiss Development Agency: not only to they pay for the guards who watch our gate night and day, but they give us access to their impressive swimming pool. 

The Neighbors' Pool

Do not ask for our address, however, for we would be incapable of giving it to you: the dirt road that leads to our office does not have a name, nor do we have a house number. If you ever want to find us, look for the Novotel. From there, it's only a ten-minute walk...

 Rolling on a Nameless Street

Monday, 2 August 2010

Back to Busy: BBOXX is Starting Production

The weekend is over, and the BBOXX team is back in business. Today, August 2, is an important day for the company: we are currently starting production for the BB5, BBOXX's signature, solar- and grid-powered portable battery. 

The BB5

The BB5 will be BBOXX's entry point into the Rwandan market, offering an affordable energy solution to a population whose use of cell-phones (30% of the population owns a mobile phone), portable radios, electric razors, sewing machines and other small electronic appliances far exceeds its access to the electricity network (for cost and infrastructure reasons, only 6% of the Rwandan population has access to the grid from their home). 

The BB5 will aim to replace less sustainable and more polluting solutions like small, disposable batteries - for which there is currently no recycling facility in Rwanda - and car batteries. Enthusiastic discussions with local businessmen, retailers, and even the Ministers of Education and Infrastructure, have given BBOXX an optimistic outlook on the possible success of its product. 

Example of Communal Mobile-Phone Charging Stations in Kigali

With its battery fully loaded, a BB5 can charge up to 20 mobile phones, can power a low-energy lamp for 10 hours, and a radio for 8. Although the solar panel on top of the box will only charge it up to 20% in a day, that percentage very often makes up for the average daily energy consumption of a Rwandan citizen - usually around the 10 Wh range. (For the sake of comparison, an average U.K. citizen uses about 16 kWh per day; a Rwandan citizen will use in a year what a U.K. citizen consumes in a day, according to the World FactBook...). 
In any case, the BB5 can be quickly and fully charged on the grid (or on one of BBOXX's upcoming projects, the solar-powered Energy Kiosk), and then brought back to areas where electricity is unavailable. To use a basic example: instead of traveling two hours to charge his/her mobile phone, a villager will now be able to charge the BB5 itself, and, coming back with a fully loaded battery, offer about a week of electricity to those around him/her.   

The BB5 will be completely assembled in Rwanda. J. Claude Bizimana and Pacifique Karangwa, both students in local university, are BBOXX's first employees. They will be putting together the BB5's internal circuit in the coming months, with the first boxes expected to be sold in September. From there, BBOXX hopes to grow and expand its operations... All in good time.


Meet the Team # 2: Corporate Retreat at Lake Kivu

BBOXX is a hard-working team. But after a busy last week, with the company successfully registered in Rwanda, and with our shipment of parts finally delivered (Friday night at 10 PM) after several hours spent waiting at customs, we decided it was time for a break. 
And besides, what better way to launch our blog than with pictures of the BBOXX team at its most happy and relaxed, amidst Lake Kivu's gorgeous sceneries? 

On Saturday morning at 9 all five of us crammed into the company car, and set off to the West, towards Kibuye, one of the two main towns on Lake Kivu's long Rwandan shore. The first question on everyone's mind: would the car - a 1994 Rav4, which you could easily mistake for a large, moving piece of scrap metal - make it to Kibuye, and back? 
After a few minor scares, involving reckless overtaking, getting lost, unnatural noises from the wheels and motor, and randomly blinking indicators, we are happy to say that we did indeed make it safely to the lake and back. 
The Team Arrives in Kibuye: From Left to Right, Fabien, Laurent, Mansoor and Chris

Lake Kivu is, as Mansoor poetically put it, "Heaven on Earth": at more than 1400 meters of altitude, it is a seemingly endless stretch of water, lined on each side by rust-colored hills, all the way to an empty horizon over which lies the Democratic Republic of Congo. The charming hotel in which we spent the night offered an unbeatable view of the lake and of the dozens of islands - sharp outbursts of rocky land - scattered over what we could see of the water.

Our two days of freedom were spent traveling (very, very slowly) by boat from one island to the next, diving from time to time in the lake's deep and clear water, and enjoying Kibuye's local specialties. The tilapia fish from the lake, for example, was judged delicious by those of us who are not vegetarians. 

From Right to Left: William, Laurent, Mansoor, Chris and Fabien

 Lazy Boat Ride

Fishing Boats Resting Before Nightfall
There was some debate amongst the team, however, over the weekend's highlight. For William, Laurent and Fabien, Napoleon Island - also known as "Bat Island" - was without a doubt a summit of excitement: after a steep, slippery climb, the view from the top of the island was breathtaking, and the way down, through clouds of screeching fruit bats, was memorable. 

For Mansoor and Chris, who had already experienced Bat Island on a previous expedition, Peace Island's quiet beach bar and lovely lagoon beat everything else on Lake Kivu. It is difficult to disagree... 

 Enjoying the Sunset on Peace Island