For a growing number of companies, cleantech promises innovations and opportunities at the base of the pyramid

After driving taxis in New York City for 10 years, 58-year-old Julio Francois returned to his hometown of Les Anglais, Haiti to open a mill. He processes corn, rice, sorghum and some coffee for the small and isolated agricultural town on the country’s southwest coast, thanks to a diesel-generated microgrid. Business is good: locals line up out of his door every Wednesday on market day.
But Francois wants to switch to solar power – and he’s not alone. Over the past few years, solar has been increasingly adopted in developing countries such as India, Mali, Nicaragua and Tanzania, where many rural villages without grid access have leapfrogged to solar.
While decentralized energy solutions like solar offer promise for far-flung villages, there are pitfalls on the road to adoption. “Land and energy resources for agriculture will need to be used more efficiently,” says Jeremy Foster, an energy advisor with the U.S. Agency for International Development. “Solutions will need to be low cost and able to get around the high overall upfront costs for renewable energy.”
But while the challenges are steep, so are the rewards: resolving energy and agriculture problems could result in increased farm productivity, less food spoilage, and a better quality of life for farming communities. Not surprisingly, numerous entrepreneurs, business leaders and nonprofits are seeking creative and robust cleantech solutions to the energy and agriculture nexus.
Irrigation and pumping
One of the most common problems is access to water. Farmers in developing countries commonly use diesel-powered pumps: in India alone, there are about 26m of them in operation. Yet, as Paul Polak, a Golden, CO-based social entrepreneur points out, rising diesel costs, motors that are prone to breakdown and the loss of government subsidies in many countries has created a need for cost-effective electric pumps.
Solar pumps could be a solution, but they cost $7,000, far more than diesel pumps. Polak’s company, SunWater, has partnered with Ball Aerospace to develop a model that uses flat plate mirrors to concentrate the sunlight’s reflection onto one solar panel. Polak estimates the design cuts down costs by 80%.
Polak’s solar pump also includes a hand crank that can be adjusted throughout the day to track the sun. “The manual tracking allows you to operate the pump nine to 10 hours a day rather than four or five,” says Polak. This month, he’ll be beta testing the pumps in the Indian state of Gujurat at 10 different farms. If they are a success, SunWater plans to use a leasing model to reduce upfront costs.
Cold storage and refrigeration
Dairy farmers in rural India, like other farmers and food producers around the developing world, see a lot of their product spoil because they don’t have access to a reliable source of electricity, and can’t chill their milk shortly after production.
“By the time they reach the dairy processor, it’s almost spoiled,” says Sam White, co-founder of Boston-based Promethean Power Systems, a company that’s aiming to fill the industry’s cold chain gap in India. Using thermal battery storage, Promethean’s rapid milk chiller can refrigerate the milk of several villages – up to 1,500 L.
After testing 50 of these chillers, the company found that villages which receive at least eight hours of intermittent power from the grid – 25% to 30% of villages – are able to power the coolers, without the help of solar power or diesel fuel.
For the remaining 70% of villages that are off-grid, Promethean is currently refining a solar-powered chiller, and plans to install its first system soon.
Chilling milk adds to its value by enabling processors to make it into products such as cheese and baby formula; because of this, the coolers help farmers get paid more. However, since Promethean’s chiller costs $10,000, the company is mainly targeting dairy processors, says White.
Houston-based GreenRig Co is producing another cold storage solution that meets the need for refrigerated transport in developing countries. Their product, a solar and battery-powered tricycle cart, has a 50-60 gallon built-in chiller and can refrigerate over 330lbs (13.6kg) of food for 11 hours, or almost 50 miles.
Though the product was initially developed in 2012 for ice cream vendors in developing countries, the company modified it to fill gaps in the cold chain. “During a trip to rural India, I found out that the country produces enough food to feed the entire population, but somewhere between 35% and 55% of food perishes on the supply chain because of not enough refrigeration,” says Lindsay David, GreenRig Co co-founder.
Off-grid electricity production
Remember Julio Francois and his diesel-generated microgrid in Haiti? Set up by nonprofit EarthSpark International in 2012, it was the country’s first microgrid that enabled users to pre-pay for services. If the organization meets its goal to expand and convert the microgrid to solar this fall, Francois might just get his wish for a solar-powered mill.
“We’re trying to prove that this model can be replicated and scaled to other towns because it is a cost effective way to provide small towns with power,” says Alison Archambault, EarthSpark’s president.
Part of that model involves using large facilities in Les Anglais, such as Francois’ mill, as a way to make grid construction financially feasible. Local residents could then purchase the larger customers’ excess energy through a pre-paid model. According to Archambault, residents would save over 80% of what they used to spend on kerosene and phone charging.
Another anchor customer will be a breadfruit processing facility that EarthSpark is planning to set up. In addition to creating jobs and providing income for the energy company, the facility would also help to address food security in Haiti, which imports 60% of its food. “All breadfruit becomes ripe at the same time and so there’s a glut in the market,” Archambault says. “It’s highly nutritious, but a lot of it just ends of rotting on the ground.”
The facility will process breadfruit into flour or chips, Archimbault says. This could increase the shelf life of the fruit from two to three days to up to a year and a half.
The project will be funded through a Powering Agriculture grant, which in turn is funded by USAID, the German and Swedish governments, Duke Energy and the Overseas Private Investment Corporation. Last fall, Powering Agriculture gave 12 entrepreneurs, including Promethean Power Systems and EarthSpark International, between $1m to $1.5m over three years to test or develop technology, implement new projects or find new markets.
Risks and challenges
One of the challenges most common to the Powering Agriculture winners, according to USAID’s Foster, is shaving high upfront costs down to a price that’s affordable for the target market.
Amanda Faulkner, Cleantech Group analyst, points out that, in contrast to companies focusing on agriculture in developed countries, entrepreneurs working in developing countries need more customers before the business can scale and become profitable. Startups targeting giant food and agriculture companies, such as Monsanto, might only need just one customer, but those developing products to help small farmers have to hustle quite a bit more to scale the business, as there are more single-family farmers who operate independently.
Given the increased need for agriculture production in the coming decades, Dallas Kachan, the principal of Kachan & Co., a San Francisco-based cleantech research and consulting firm, argues that market opportunities are tremendous: “We believe that the market opportunities are so profound and inevitable that there will be fortunes to be made for the brave.”