Sunna Design — Solar & Energy Leadership In Developing Countries, 2018 ZFEP Winner (#CleanTechnica Interview)


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Published on October 28th, 2018 |
by Cynthia Shahan

October 28th, 2018 by  


Zachary Shahan, Director & Chief Editor at CleanTechnica, recently interviewed Thomas Samuel, founder of Sunna Design, a 2018 Zayed Future Energy Prize (ZFEP) winner. Every prize is a sweet acknowledgment of leadership in sustainable development and deep humanitarian efforts. Sunna is a kind business that brings light to undeveloped countries. It brings not only streetlights but also “nano grids” where energy is nonexistent or scarce.

The interview is a fresh exchange between two young, inspired fathers who are successfully supporting sustainability goals in different ways.

Zachary smiles, “So, congratulations on winning. It’s a very hard prize to win. I was on the Zayed Future Energy Prize Review Committee this year. So, we cut it down from 20 in your category to 10. And your category is very frickin’ competitive. There’s a lot of great, great companies doing tremendous work all over the world. What do you think, what stands out in your mind about what you do that makes you feel like you deserve such a big prize?”

Thomas Samuel explains, “I think what differentiates us is the fact that we are a pure technology company. We have also reserved many years apparently, many patents, a lot of money invested in better innovation that is now impacting the lives of millions of people, in Africa mostly. But we do solar streetlights that are established in the US and Australia, so it is a technology that creates impact in countries where there is no power, where solar streetlights are the only option, and we’re in countries where the government or municipality want to save power. So, it’s an interesting combination about technology and impact. “

Zachary continues, “And I know when we were evaluating there are a lot of companies that do solar-powered streetlights but one thing that stood out is that you’ve, first of all, designed your system, and it seems to be quite high quality and reliable and safe. You’ve designed security into it a lot so they’re not stolen or what not. Can you speak a little more about that, about why you designed it in and when you saw the need for that?”

Thomas responds, “Actually solar streetlights is a pretty straightforward application of solar, storage, and digital. But making it work in a harsh environment condition is a very big challenge. We worked a lot on the battery for making sure it’s heat resistant, on the electronics for making sure there is no blackout and is lighting the streets every night for 10 years without interruption, and also on the architecture itself — we sell plug and play products; complete, finished, industrialized that are safely screwed in the town, vandal-proof.”

Zach wonders, “But, did you see this from previous work in the field — ‘oh, shoot, we can’t just put streetlights in, we have to make them vandal-proof, we have to make them secure.’… ?”

Thomas explains, “When I started in that business, I had seen with my eyes thousands and thousands of products in Africa and India which were installed in the ground but not working. Not working because it was not technologically sound, and when it was turned off, people will go and grab what they can… .”

Zach asks, “What were you doing at that time?”

Thomas says, “I was volunteering for an NGO in India which had won a large public light solar tender and they were in a very bad position because what they had in hand wasn’t working.”

Zach goes on, “So you were on the ground just as a kind of worker, and you saw, ‘Hey, this is not working. This is not what was envisioned here.’… ?”

Thomas — “Exactly. There is a need, there was a technology avenue for improving the systems that were available at the time. And we invented a nice concept of a plug-and-play solar streetlight which looks good, lasts long, doesn’t cost much, and it is possibly industrialized in the target country.”

Zach shares, “I think another thing that stood out to us in the review committee was that you had started offering community, community-scale solutions, right?”

“Yeah,” Thomas nods.

Zach goes on, “So, not just individual products, but whole — can you speak a little more about these and where the idea…?”

Thomas explains, “From solar streetlights, we have started to look for revenue generating business models. Because we need to finance, municipalities around the world are struggling for financing for infrastructure. And interesting enough in Africa, sub-Saharan African where we found our first business model that was sustainable. From the streetlight we power surrounding homes, and we sell — it’s pay-as-you-go, pre-sales actually power that also helps us pay and contribute to reimburse infrastructure. We call that nano grid.”

Zach — “Yeah, So the inspiration came from this financial need.”

Thomas explains, “The inspiration came from two things. We needed to find a business model for proving that products were financially viable. And communities in Africa didn’t have the power. And they are more than willing to pay for renewable energy when you provide them a pre-financing infrastructure and they pay you back little by little, in installments.”

Zach wonders, “Do you see a potential or opportunity to diversify even further, beyond what you do with these nano grids?”

“Yeah, basically we are now prioritizing smart cities application. It is the same idea of the solar streetlight becoming the backbone of the smart city in places where the infrastructure is, uh …”

Zachary continues, “Lacking?”

Thomas: “The idea of the solar streetlight becoming the backbone of the smart city in places where the infrastructure is lacking is very promising. And from this mesh network … you can do remote monitoring for IOT measurements of level water, of meters, and all that. And this creates an additional revenue stream for the municipality to finance and expand their solar streetlight projects.”

Zach: “It sounds like you’re sort of growing into a form of creating a town- or city-wide modernizing solutions, where you just come in and modernize a town or a city through a distributed but private …”

Thomas jumps in — “I have witnessed that in many countries city centers are quite well served with street lighting but, with galloping urbanization, there are many suburbs that are growing very fast and where infrastructure is not following the extension of sites — people coming — and this is where the solar streetlight is a perfect fit.”

Zach interjects, “And my understanding is a lot of times politicians are, they promise, ‘hey, the grid will go to you,’ but the promise is, like, never-ending. … This idea that the grid is going to go to everyone is, is …”

Thomas explains, “Today technology enables smarter solutions than grid extension, and solar streetlights is a great illustration. Thanks to technology trend — reduced costs of PV, of storage, and now solar streetlight is absolutely competitive with grid and that’s enabled to expand where grid has not reached yet.”

Zach inquires, “So, what are your target countries, markets?”

Thomas smiles, laughs, “Basically, where there is sun and wish.”

Zach says, “Say it again! Where there is sun and wind?”

Thomas responds, “No, where there is sun and wish. …”

Zach says, “But, anywhere around the globe?

Thomas agrees, “Yeah, we are distributed by majors, and we’ve been doing projects quite everywhere.”

Zach jumps in, “You have a strong connection with Schneider Electric, right?”

Thomas; “Yeah, Schneider Electric is distributing our product in Africa and we have very strong partner in many different places, in Brazil, in Mexico, in Australia.”

Zach says, “I forgot about this, but this stood out as well to us, that you had such a strong connection where you could get — you know, impact is one of the five key categories and the ability to impact so much, so many people, because of these strong partnerships with global corporations seemed really important and powerful to us. So, was that related to your need for financing and a business model or was that related to your …”

Thomas continues, “No we decided to partner with large corporations because we wanted to maximize our impact on the field, and using all technical resources, mean, and financing for developing the product, industrializing the product, and the partner[ships] with corporations that could do the distribution, the installation, and the maintenance. Its a win-win partnership because … [it helps us to] concentrate on our core competence.”

Zach wonders, “And does that today basically open you up to markets all over the world, or you still have some markets where you need …”

Thomas explains, “Our commercial strategy is to look for partners and to look for projects. … We want to empower local partners that are able to acquire the technology, to industrialize the product locally, and do first what is absolutely needed — it’s after-sales, maintenance, and long-term follow-up of the projects.”

Zach asks, “So what are your key development plans, new opportunities that you’re pursuing in the next three to five years or so?”

Thomas: “We are very excited with the GCC market, with the Middle East, where we have seen a very strong momentum for sustainability — and solar street lighting will become mainstream.”

Zachary laughs, “Well, this is a good prize to win to get into this market. It is a big prize globally but in this region, it is especially.”

Thomas continues, “And we are venturing now in the US and the Americas in general — from Brazil to the US.”

Zachary smiles, “Awesome. Well, thank you for what you’re doing. It’s humbling and an honor to chat with you about this great work. And where are you from?”

Thomas smiles appreciatively, “From France, Bordeaux.”

Zachary repeats, “And how much time do you spend there now?”

Thomas smiles shares, “In Bordeaux? Not enough, I do not spend enough time, especially that I have a newborn that was born last week.” Thomas smiles ever so sweetly, “So, she’s one week old.”

Zach shares, “Oh, I’ve got a one-year-old and a three-year-old. Two girls. Your life changes.”

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About the Author

Cynthia Shahan started writing by doing research as a social cultural and sometimes medical anthropology thinker. She studied and practiced both Waldorf education, and Montessori education. Eventually becoming an organic farmer, licensed AP, anthropologist, and mother of four unconditionally loving spirits, teachers, and environmentally conscious beings born with spiritual insights and ethics beyond this world. (She was able to advance more in this way led by her children.)




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