New Aussie solar start-up empowering rural farming villages

Australian solar entrepreneur Stewart Craine has launched a new social venture, that provides rural farming communities in developing countries around the globe with lease agreements for solar power solutions.
The UK-based company, called Village Infrastructure Angels, invests in “poverty alleviating infrastructure in villages in developing countries,” as Craine puts it in this 2015 video. And while the company specialises in remote solar electrification, it is lately turning its focus to solar-powered “agro-processing” equipment, in an effort to cut dependence on fossil fuels, improve agricultural productivity and empower communities.

Through a range of pilot projects in Vanuatu, Indonesia, and Honduras among others, VIA has found that its solar solutions allow women, in particular in these communities, to save time through solar powered equipment such as rice hullers, corn sheller and flour grinders.
“In our first target villages that reached 1000 households, women spend up to 1 hour every day processing these staple crops into food by hand, a job that the solar powered 24V mills can do in just 5 minutes,” the company said. Often, Craine notes, this frees up time for women to undertake other paid work.
Having passed the 1000-pilot mark, the company is on track to reach 10,000 households by 2018, with plans to reach 200,000 households by 2020.
Craine, a former Hydro Tasmania employee, was – in 2005 – one of the founders of solar lighting group Barefoot Power, which in 2012 had delivered affordable power to 2 million people across 20 countries, in areas without electrification via its solar lighting and phone charging products.
Already, his new venture is attracting attention and investor interest. Last week, it was one of four start-ups to compete in the final round of the Fire Awards, a business “pitch” competition staged at the Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) Future of Energy Summit in New York on Tuesday.
Interestingly, VIA was up against fellow Australian outfit, SunSHIFT, which – as we reported here last week – is the developer of a now ARENA-backed mobile solar hybrid solution that aims to tackle the dominance of diesel fuelled generators in the temporary power market. SunSHIFT won the Fire Awards comp, alongside US-based electric bus maker, Proterra.
But Craine says the opportunity to pitch to a room full of investors – from the extensive BNEF network to CEOs from First Solar and other major players – still counts as a win for VIA, which has based itself in the UK to maximise investor exposure.
“Investment for emerging market off-grid renewables still tough to find in Australia,” he said in an email.
According to VIA’s website, the business has had early support from Rotary (Melbourne and Arlington), the International Renewable Energy Agency, the Asian Development Bank, the World Bank, Hivos and a dozen angel investors.
The company says its pilot projects have so far proved that local teams could quickly generate sufficient revenue from a modest number of solar power projects in rural villages to cover their daily operating costs, and additional revenue which accumulates in the bank to repay investors.
“The first projects focused on 5-10W of solar per house for lighting and phone charging services at the household level, then later projects installed 125-500W solar for 20-50 households to share a solar powered agro-processing mill, such as a rice huller, corn sheller, flour grinder, or coconut/cassava grater,” VIA says.

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