Hybrid Social Solutions Inc. (HSSi)
Social Enterprise: Hybrid Social Solutions Inc. (HSSi)
Social Entrepreneur(s): Jim Ayala
Sector(s): Energy, Rural Development
Develop practical applications for existing technologies by understanding localized conditions and co-developing new product lines with customers.
The Innovation Explained
Distinct from most solar energy businesses, Hybrid Social Solutions Inc. (HSSi) is neither a product manufacturer nor purely a distributor. Instead, it specializes in developing practical new applications for a range of rural user segments by engaging deeply with rural villages in Solar User Forums to understand localized energy poverty challenges and co-develop solar products.
For example, because some rural villagers were using their household solar lamps to drive away fruit bats and wild animals getting into their crops, HSSi introduced solar powered spotlights that enabled farmers to spot pests from up to 50 metres away, which reduced crop losses up to 30%. Fishermen, on the other hand, typically place two kerosene lamps close to the water to attract fish when they go out to sea at night, but the nightly refills of kerosene fuel can cost up to 40% of their revenue. “We found that particular solar lights work well for attracting the fish, provided they have a certain level of brightness and a certain colour spectrum,” said Jim Ayala. “So we incorporated this into the design, along with tough weatherization. And for the fishermen, these lamps only require a two-month payback.”
HSSi has also created a solar energy network, the Stiftung Solarenegie (Solar Energy Foundation Network for Rural Development) with member organizations in Kenya, Ethiopia and the Philippines. As a bloc, they can negotiate with suppliers to get exclusive distribution rights for certain products in their respective countries. The network’s negotiating and sourcing partner is SunTransfer, which works with suppliers to tailor products for rural villages while negotiating the lowest prices. This allows HSSi to maintain its core focus on understanding the needs and operating environments of customers. “It’s very time consuming and expensive to figure out which suppliers make the products we are looking for at the quality and price point we want,” said Ayala. “We give SunTransfer the technical specifications and they work with suppliers, especially on product modifications.”
Lastly, HSSi places significant emphasis on educating customers on how to increase the product lifespan and get the most out of these technologies. “Education is a key component of our service because a lot of users don’t use the products correctly,” says Jim Ayala. “We set up the solar user forums to be like a game. People come up with troubleshooting techniques based on their own initial experiences and the group with the best idea wins a prize. We make it fun and practical at the same time.”
HSSi’s livelihood applications have been found to increase the household cash flow of its customers by 25%, while dramatically improving health and safety conditions by eliminating kerosene fumes, fires and accidental ingestion.
Why This Matters
More than 1.5 billion people worldwide are living in regions off the grid. While renewable energy through solar lighting technology is not a new innovation, the trick is to distribute it effectively. “Last mile access” entails far more than simply getting a product from source to destination.
“It’s not really about the technology per se, because there are a lot of solar technologies out there,” said founder Ayala. “We go and see what people are currently using, what their problems are, and then we figure out how our product line can help them. It’s really about how you understand the challenges facing the end users and help them identify their needs.”
Balance geographical expansion with service depth. Have your core model in place, and anticipate some variation along the way in adapting to different community needs. “At the beginning, we went to many places very quickly, but we were not able to properly support the communities,” said Ayala. They decided to slow down, go deeper and better develop the model, especially by investing more time to train local partners to support product servicing.
Develop an understanding of the micro-level challenges. “It’s not so much the macro issues, but it’s lots of little things – the small barriers and discontinuities – that make it very challenging for the poor to have access to the equipment they need.” Market access, import issues and poor design or usability can all add up for customers in remote areas.