In developing countries around the world, many light their homes with kerosene lanterns which is considered as expensive and dangerous source of lighting. The cloudy, open flame and smoke seriously impact indoor air quality and cause countless fires. In fact, more children die from fire-related injuries than from tuberculosis or malaria in Africa. But a small Australian company is changing that.
Stewart and Harry developed the idea for Barefoot Power while working together in Papua New Guinea on a large rural electrification project. They came across many examples of the jungle reclaiming energy infrastructure after falling into disrepair and decay. Further, new electricity generation projects tended to transmit electricity over hundreds of kilometres to urban centres while leaving those living under the transmission lines to burn kerosene for lighting. New rural electrification connections were not even keeping up with population growth and those that were implemented were failing due to a lack of clear asset ownership and sustainable revenue models. Having written their consultant’s report and seeing only a fraction of their recommendations implemented, Harry and Stewart left their jobs and set up Barefoot Power in 2005 as a for profit social enterprise.
At this time, the viability of white light emitting diodes (LEDs) as an ultra-efficient home lighting option was in its infancy but improving and the price of photovoltaic solar panels were decreasing due to a ramp up of global production capacity. This cross-over provided the impetus for a whole new market segment; what is known today as the pico-solar market. These small solar home lighting systems, with a 3-6 month payback period for those living off-grid, had the potential to be extremely disruptive to the incumbent lighting product: kerosene.
After some initial trials in Papua New Guinea and Fiji, Harry and Stewart left for Europe to raise investment via a business plan competition in the Netherlands called the Business in Development Challenge. There was a clear preference from potential investors in Europe for action to be focused in sub-Saharan Africa. After securing seed capital Harry packed his bags for East Africa to set up distribution and Stewart, along with Harry’s brother Sam, left for China to build production capacity. Stewart later moved to India to set up local distribution.
Alongside Stewart, Harry and Sam were half a dozen western professionals who moved into our distribution offices, with rates of remuneration so low that they need to be called ‘volunteers’, to help build the capacity of our local employees. This objective, to get professional services and exceptional products to the grassroots level, was a large influence for our name: “Barefoot Power”. This name drew on the idea of spreading self-sufficiency and sustainability that was evident in the ‘barefoot doctors’ of China and ‘barefoot engineers’ in India.
Barefoot Power has come a long way from these early days. None of this, however, would have been possible without the inspiration of the Founders, the dedication of our initial team, and the financial support from our early angel investors.