Dr. Aaron Olson Brings Affordable Electricity to
Bringing Light to the Congo
|Dr. Aaron Olson recently earned his Ph.D. in
engineering mechanics from UW-Madison this past fall.
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By Jonathan Gramling
For almost the past decade, Aaron Olson who recently received his Ph.D. in engineering mechanics
from UW-Madison, has been pursuing his dreams about space, working on a Mars Desert Research
Station Program on his way to obtaining his master’s degree and then on an experimental program to
extract helium3 out of lunar soil for his Ph.D.
But on his way to obtaining his doctorate, Olson decided to do something closer to home.
Olson’s people come from the Democratic Republic of the Congo where many rural areas are devoid of
electricity. Olson teamed up with a classmate, Mehrdad Arjmand, to form NovoMoto, an off-grid solar
energy company that is working exclusively in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to bring clean and
affordable energy to rural households. They currently have 200 customers and hope to grow the
company to 5,000 customers by the end of 2019.
“We offer solar packages using a pay-as-you-go approach, which means that customers of our company get the chance to have an electricity system in their home
where they only have to pay a small amount up front for the installation and then pay off the rest of the system over a three-year period,” Olson said. “We control their
access to the system using a pay-as-you-go technology where they have to enter codes every time they pay to be able to use the system for a given period of time.
Otherwise after 30 days, if you haven’t paid and entered the codes, the system turns off.”
The beauty of the project is that in almost all cases, it doesn’t require the household to spend more on their energy needs. In fact, they may save money as they
switch from inefficient and unhealthy fossil fuel sources to the clean solar power.
“We actually save most of our customers money,” Olson emphasized. “The reason for that is a lot of people are spending money right now on kerosene, candles and
flashlights with disposable batteries. Our offering saves them money relative to what they are getting with those other services. To give you an example, our entry-
level system costs customers $10 to get the installment inside their home to start with and then they pay us $2.15 per week after that. We found in the survey that
we conducted just outside on Kinshasa that homes were spending about $20 per month to be able to keep their homes lit and also charge the phones inside the
home. Our system does both for only $9.30 for a 30-day period. The panels are conventional. The systems are individual to homes. For the entry-level system, we
install a 15-watt panel and then there is a lithium-iron-phosphate battery pack that is mounted directly inside their home. We provide the system to the customer with
three LED-efficient modern-technology lamps that go inside their home. What a customer actually gets with the ability to have with the entry-level system is two
lamps inside their home and a third lamp that is used as a security light outside of their home. The security light will run for 12 hours on one day’s charge. The other
two lamps inside the home will run for five hours each. On top of that, they have the ability to charge one standard phone per day.”
With families now able to rely on an affordable and reliable source of energy, it may lead to a more rapid social development of these rural communities, an indirect
benefit of the technology.
“One of the things that our customers get the chance to do is to provide lighting inside their homes at night to give the kids a chance to study,” Olson said. “I think
that is one thing that we need to do another job of evaluating just how many extra hours of studying these kids are getting. It certainly is a big boost. You can
imagine how different it is, studying next to a lamp that is emitting all kinds of toxins and trying to concentrate on doing your math homework as opposed to having a
light inside your home where you can clearly see what you are working on and for a longer period of time. We estimate that when people switch over to our system,
they are getting light that is at least four times brighter and lasts 3-4 times longer depending on what they have already been using before. Who knows what the
children have been breathing in?”
In many ways, NovoMoto is an international company. Its headquarters are in Madison. Its customer base is in the Congo where the units are assembled. And its
unit components are produced in Asia.
“We have two partners whom we have worked with so far for the technology,” Olson said. “One is a German company that produces the systems in Thailand and
directly ships them to Congo either by air freight or sea freight, depending on which we choose. We also have another partner, which is an American company
called Amped Innovation, which produces their systems in Hong Kong and then either ship them by air or by sea. We work with local companies in Congo to handle
the importation logistics.”
While NovoMoto operates in the Congo, Olson has only been there once since they began operations, spending about a month there in November and December.
Olson and his co-founder feel they have the right components in place for the business to experience tremendous growth.
“Our plan, as a company, is to reach out to a million customers within a 10-year window,” Olson said. “We’re going to stay aggressive in trying to grow as fast as
we can. I don’t necessarily need to be involved in all of the day-to-day details for NovoMoto indefinitely. I think if we are able to set up a strong team, of which we
already have a portion of with three managers in Congo and four technicians who work full-time in the company. And then there are the two co-founders, myself and
Mehrdad Arjmand. But with a strong team in place, I think it becomes less and less that I may need to be involved on a day-to-day basis.”
While Olson is now focused on doing something for his home country, an incredible opportunity to assist in the modernization of the Democratic Republic of the
Congo, it doesn’t mean that he doesn’t still gaze at the stars.
“From a personal perspective, I don’t plan on giving up on my ambitions in terms of being a part of the development of space,” Olson said. “I think that people can
do multiple things and do them well as long as they have the right teams in place. That opens up the opportunity to continue on research, whether it is in an
academic setting or in a more corporate setting or a private institution. I definitely still have an interest in the development of space in general, not only related to
the surface of the moon, but also maybe other areas in space as well. At this point, it’s just a matter of focusing for most of 2019 on making sure that NovoMoto
grows like we need it to. But I think there are plenty of opportunities to do something in space in the future as well.”
Next issue: Helium3 and beyond