Once again, proof that students can and do make a difference. Now in its sixth year running, the BBC World Challenge is a competition that endeavours for people from all over the world to come up with their own solutions to the pressing, socioeconomic issues of today. The lucky reward for one of these entrants is $ 20, 000 worth of funding, but the processes itself introduces worldwide governments to a new wave of bright and innovative ideas. The current competition has now been whittled down to twelve finalists and one group that should be of particular interest to us is e.quinox, the brainchild of a young, talented bunch of Imperial College students. I got to ask their Vice Chairman, Daniel Choudhury, some questions, and this is what he had to say….

First off, to anyone who hasn’t heard of you guys, could you explain to them who and what e.quinox is?

e.quinox is a student-led charitable organisation, conceived at Imperial College in 2008. e.quinox aims to develop and provide sustainable, scalable and economically viable solutions for rural electrification in developing countries. We are a non-profit organisation, but endeavour to build the concept of a “social business” that is financially sustainable.

e.quinox’s projects are entirely student run — from the technical solution through business modelling to building an image for their organisation — everything is handled by students.

When did e.quinox come about and is there anyone in particular that can be credited for the organisation’s inception?

e.quinox, as I mentioned before was formed in 2008, by a group undergraduate students from the Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering at Imperial College. The project started off, simply as an idea with a group of students led by Mansoor Hamayun (then starting his third year at college) wanting to apply the knowledge they gained from their degrees in a practical manner, to solve a real word issue. The enormous support from the EEE department, and e.quinox’s partners and sponsors, helped transition e.quinox from paper to building their first energy kiosk in September 2009.

The “Energy Kiosk” is an amazing idea and I hope it does get implemented. Could you explain to us, in layman’s terms, how it works and how you thought of its design?

Rural electrification is a challenging modern world issue — the solution to which is complex due to socioeconomic factors influencing the expansion of an electrical infrastructure in a country. e.quinox’s system makes use of a central charging station, known as a  “Energy Kiosk”, which contains portable battery boxes for people to take away. The boxes are charged using an off-the-grid source such as Solar panels to provide the source of energy. Other forms of renewable energy are constantly being explored, and the energy kiosk concept can be extended to support almost any form of energy – hydro, solar, grid or hybrids.

A team recently returned from Rwanda, having implemented two of the kiosks, and upgrading the current battery boxes to provide a 240V, AC power supply, with a continental plug. This allows the e.quinox battery boxes to be used as a “virtual grid” connection — to connect any generally low power device. The business model, which is under constant evaluation, tries to adopt the concept of financial sustainability, making e.quinox’s kiosks a “social business” — the money the kiosk generates by renting out batteries, is reinvested into them or more kiosks.

The idea of the system is based around kerosene and its pricing — a major source of energy in these rural areas where connection to the grid is unaffordable to almost everyone. Rwanda’s grid does not extend to very remote villages, such as in Minazi. The high investment cost of an extending the grid, combined with people’s low incomes required that a low-cost local source of energy is developed — hence the concept of the e.quinox Energy Kiosk.

What made you decide to aim this technology specifically at Rwandan villages?

Our decision for the location was based largely on Rwanda’s climate and political stability. With only about 6% of the country electrified, it is also one of the Rwandan government’s goals to give a higher proportion of it’s population access to electricity — e.quinox’s project falls very well in place with this.

Have you attracted the interest and/or investments of any professional companies yet? How do you go about finding your sponsors?

A large part of our funds for the expedition this year came from awards that we received from various organisations — this included the JP Morgan Good Venture Award, the Professor John Lever Award from Imperial college, and the IEEE Change the World Supreme humanitarian award.

Our partners and sponsors also provide grants, that help cover the various costs that build up. These include the Belgian Technical Corp., IEEE, Imperial College, Imperial EnVision and The OC Trust.

This year, we will be looking to find long-term sponsors for our project. It is difficult to find sponsors when you are “students with an idea”— but with the three kiosks, 360 households being served, multiple international recognitions and a steadily growing team, I believe we have much more credibility this year.

Lastly, I hear that you are finalists in the BBC World Challenge and are thus in the race for the $ 20,000 prize. Why do you think we should vote for you in particular and what do you have to say to anyone who is having doubts about the viability of your idea?

There are so many reasons I can give you to vote for us! First, we are the only students from around the globe to have made it to the BBC World Challenge 2010 finals. Second, we are different from most charities because the core concept in e.quinox’s work is financial sustainability — we are trying to build a system that supports itself. It is the same kind of concept of a ‘social business’ that the Noble Peace Prize winner and the founder of micro-credit, Dr Mohammed Yunus, endorses.

And finally, the project’s many aspects allow students to apply their skills — from their degree or otherwise – in a way furthering education. e.quinox’s projects tackles the challenging issue of rural electrification with a resource that could otherwise be left unused — students. It isn’t just about electrifying Rwanda, but to find a complete solution to rural electrification that is scalable, sustainable and replicable in developing countries and remote communities around the world.

To people who doubt the idea — fact of the matter is — it is a very difficult problem to solve, and something that has no definite solution. We are not claiming that we have found the perfect solution, but we are certainly pushing our knowledge and our skills to the limit, to try and formulate one.

Eric John

Editor’s Note: Amazing stuff. If you are as inspired by their idea as I am, or at least have a heart, please go and vote for e.quinox at:

http://www.theworldchallenge.co.uk/2010-finalists-project11.php or e.quinox.org/vote, under “Charge of the Light Brigade — Rwanda”.

The deadline is on the 12th November 2010, so time is running out! Unlike a certain general election, your vote would actually count for something this time. Also, please check out their facebook group: e.quinox.org/facebook.

Now, start voting!

(image courtesy of e.quinox)

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