Power:On, a power-generating social enterprise, is tackling the energy problem in Igbere, a village in West Africa.
by Portia Ladrido
Whilst being in business school in France, Tristan Kochoyan felt he had a lot of free time to do something more meaningful with his schedule. One fateful break, he went to Benin, a French-speaking country in Africa, to volunteer for a small scale NGO that focused on micro-finance and education. He quickly loved the lushness of the place, the collective high spirits of the communities, and the warmth of the people.
After graduating from business school, he got involved with the energy sector but he already knew at the back of his mind that working for a corporation wasn’t his calling. Not being able to shake off his experience in Benin, he resolved to use his skills in energy to build his own social enterprise, Power:ON.
Now working with his co-founder, Louise, a local of Benin, Tristan shares his journey with INKLINE.
INKLINE: Why Benin of all places and why focus on electricity and power as opposed to say, health or education?
Tristan Kochoyan: Why Benin? Because the NGO I worked with was going to Benin. I didn’t know Benin before working with that NGO but I found it to be a really nice country. The people I met there were really friendly, very nice, and it was also very safe as compared to other countries in the region like Nigeria for example. I decided to go back to Benin because I still had connections there.
Why energy? Because I visited the country and saw the villages were completely cut off from the grid and that was very shocking because Louise, my co-founder, took me to these villages because she had been working with some of them in the past and that was a bit shocking. I was really surprised that people could live like that whereas we, in France or wherever, would use electricity without even thinking about it. I mean we just flip a switch and light comes up.
I thought that would be something interesting to work on and to try to solve because that was incredible to me that so many people would live without the most basic thing. Also, I did an internship later in the energy field and so that’s how I got to learn a little bit more about the field. I graduated from business school in 2012, I came to Louise and said, ‘Do you want to help me launch something in Benin to solve that problem?’ and she said yes and that’s how we began.
I: When did you launch Power:On exactly?
T: I’ve been working on it since 2012 but the first village we electrified is active since September 2015.
I: It took you 3 years to get your first village electrified. What challenges did you have to face when you were pursuing this?
It’s mainly money because it costs quite a bit to bring electricity to a whole village. Initially, I was looking for 200,000 euros to build a perfect electric mini grid with solar panels, batteries and diesel generator set, and this would have allowed us to get electricity 24/7 to that village, mainly from solar power. But that was expensive so I spent a lot of time trying to get funding from countless private and public corporations.
I spent a lot of time filling out forms and giving presentations to convince people that this was a good project and that they could help me start it. But in the end, nothing really worked because they always had a reason not to continue. Sometimes it was because it was a first project and they were looking for something that already had something on the ground. Some were looking for NGOs and I’m not an NGO, so that was a problem for some organisations because they couldn’t get a tax discount if they invested in my company but they could if it was an NGO.
It took me a lot of time to actually understand that nobody was going to give me money for this project and so that’s when I decided to start it purely on my own since nobody is going to give me the money to build the perfect project from scratch. I said I’m going to start on my own, do my best, start smaller, and keep going so as to have a little momentum and to prove that it wasn’t just all Powerpoint presentations but really be on the ground and be with real people, getting access to electricity.
That’s what we did and that’s why it’s not the perfect project still because it’s not 24/7, it’s only from 7pm to midnight everyday. We do not have any solar power because it’s really expensive to invest in solar but that would be the best option because it’s cleaner and it’s cheaper in the long run.
I: As of now, what are the significant changes that Power:On has contributed to Benin?
T: As I told you, we are only operating for 5 hours a day, from 7pm to midnight. That’s good because for now the conception in the village is mainly at night. During the day people are not at home and they don’t use electricity that much so it’s a good start. A couple of local entrepreneurs have also already started their businesses at night but they know that they can expand the hours they are working if they had electricity during the day. They know they can double or triple their revenue by ten.
I: Do you plan on expanding it to other parts of the world?
T: Yeah, our goal is to really design a model that will be expandable and applicable to every isolated village on the planet because the problem is the same if it’s in Benin or in Asia or wherever. There are some villages that are so remote from everything that the national electricity grid cannot reach them and so what we are trying to design is a model that can be replicated everywhere it’s needed.
We also want to prove that the people that live inside those villages actually care about accessing electricity. Today, they can’t pay for electricity because it’s not available but they still pay for small batteries, for kerosene lamps, for coal and traditional fuels that are also very expensive. They spend up to 30% of their daily budget just to get light or to cook food or to get access to energy and so by building a local solution, a shared solution like an electricity grid, that can be beneficial to an entire community that can actually be sustainable and profitable.
Our plan is to expand in the region where we already are in Benin because there are neighbouring villages that are expecting us already since they know it’s working in the village we’re in but eventually, yeah, if we can expand to other countries, that would be the goal.
I: Why did you go into social entrepreneurship rather than a traditional business model?
T: I think that [traditional business] wasn’t for me. Throughout my years at business school, there are some classes that you have to take like accounting but there’s also some classes that you can follow based on your interests. There are more and more classes about social entrepreneurship and we were kind of the first generation in my business school to actually get access to those kinds of classes – social entrepreneurship, sustainable development.
I took all the classes that were related to that topic because I already knew that I didn’t want to work for a big corporation without any purpose. I was already interested with stuff with a real purpose, so that’s why when I graduated I figured I will not go back to consulting or to working within big corporations and instead try and create my own thing which is something that I really believe in and do everything i can to make it work.
I: Why do you think that social entrepreneurship is important? And why should more people integrate this in their businesses?
T: I think it’s the only way to go, really. When you look at most businesses today, they all must be concerned about what impact they have on society and on the environment, etc . It started out as a communication strategy; companies saying, ‘we’re not that bad, look at what we’re doing’ but as people get more and more aware of the consequences of big business and climate change and inequalities, they are getting more concerned about the impact of their jobs and of the product that they buy.
I really believe that, in the future, it will be less communication strategies and more actual benefits and impacts. Today, somebody launching a business without being careful about the impacts on the planet and the people, is doomed to fail, in my opinion. I hope that people launching businesses are trying to do it in the most virtuous way possible. I’m a big believer in the sustainability movement and I think it’s happening right now. We need to keep pushing it.
Portia Ladrido is a multimedia journalist specialising in social justice, culture, and the arts. She is a human rights journalism fellow at the Philippine Human Rights Information Center and the Metro Manila hub coordinator of the Solutions Journalism Network. She currently writes speeches for the Philippines’ first female socialist senator. Previously, she worked as an editor and writer at CNN Philippines.