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New Brunswick Entrepreneur Brings Sustainable Energy to Rural Africa

Caleb Grove grew up in Africa, living in Cameroon for nearly a decade. During his time there he conceived a renewable energy solution that would become the basis of his startup, Mbissa Energy Systems. His goal is to bring electricity to regions of rural Africa that had never seen power before.

Returning to Canada he was able to bring his idea to life with the help of New Brunswick’s strong entrepreneurial network. Grove has already launched a pilot project on the island of Mbissa, and is ready to move forward with growth.

ONB spoke to Grove to learn more.

ONB: Tell us about the status of the pilot project.

Grove: We now have the infrastructure needed to connect Mbissa’s 3,000 people to electricity. I returned home to complete my Master’s, and now have three Cameroonians doing the work needed to get everyone connected; homes are going up as we speak. We’re starting slowly to see how the model plays out, looking at what works and what needs tweaking. We will then take what we’ve learned from the island and scale from there.

ONB: What is the main source of power generation? 

Grove: Solar is the primary resource, but we’ve been looking at wind for some time, hydro as well. The thing is, they are so close to the equator that their capacity to harness solar power is unparalleled. Solar was also a quick way to jump start the project and validate our model. We hope to implement wind and hydro solutions in 2017. We have gone through four prototypes of the wind turbine and now have one that is spinning pretty well; it’s very close to being the one we can take to market.

ONB: The implications of bringing power to regions that have never had electricity must be huge. 

Grove: Immediately you have lights where you had none. You get used to buying kerosene for lanterns, and the family gathers at night around a cook fire. Kerosene is expensive, and unhealthy given that you’re breathing fumes. We can provide better, healthier, more affordable light. We’ve been able to take those costs and put them on the businesses that have the infrastructure, so costs are kept low for the people of West Africa. For a small amount of money they’ll be able to replace a constant need to buy kerosene with something cheaper and healthier, and far brighter.

No longer do you simply sleep and get up with the sun, you have the ability to work when you need to work. For students this will be huge. They live in areas relying on subsistence farming and fishing. They can go work the fields and lakes during the day as usual, but can now come home and get studying done at night with ample light. Education is key for moving communities forward so students coming from Bambalang (the village where Mbissa is located) will have real advantages.

I have tons of stories from my time in Africa that would be different if electricity were available. From the guy bitten by a snake he couldn’t see while walking home at night to the person who couldn’t get business done because making a simple phone call was tough. Electricity changes everything.

ONB: Tell us about your experience with New Brunswick’s entrepreneurial ecosystem.

Grove: I’ve been involved with the University of New Brunswick’s (UNB) Technology Management & Entrepreneurship (TME) program for years. I’m now doing my Master’s degree via that program. TME is what allowed this to go from idea to reality. Dr. Dhirendra Shukla in particular has been instrumental in getting Mbissa Energy off the ground.

New Brunswick isn’t a large place so you’re able to leverage your network to get further here than you could in major centres. Through people like Dr. Shukla for example it’s been easy to make connections across the board; he really cares about the entrepreneurs coming out of the TME and New Brunswick.

I encourage my peers, and young people thinking about school, to consider looking at the resources available here, specifically through the TME. I came from Africa with an idea, and now we’re putting it into practice in Africa. If you have an idea with a global reach, it can still become a reality in a place like New Brunswick. That foundation was built here.

There have been times when people told me it’s ridiculous to try to run a business in Africa, one that can be sustained with this unproven model. Whatever the next big startup will be, they’re going to have people say that it can’t be done. However, this has made our success all the more encouraging. By taking risks and leaving our comfort zones it is possible to be a part of amazing things.

ONB: What’s next?

Grove: We’re involved with the newly-launched Energia Ventures accelerator in Fredericton. I will be busy this year between that and finishing my Master’s.

I’m trying to reach the point where we can return to Cameroon and expand at the end of 2017 or early 2018. My team there will finish connecting Mbissa residents to our infrastructure; this would mean we had successfully given electricity to the hardest place to reach in that region. From there it’s about refining the technology; there’s a lot of potential for growth, I’m just trying to decide the best way to do it in a scalable way. It’s going to be an exciting year, no doubt.

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Images via Caleb Grove