In studying the refugee problem, Team Bohr discovered fascinating — and sometimes dispiriting — facts. They learned, foremost, that the conditions in one camp are invariably different than conditions in another. After a team member visited a camp on the island of Lesbos, Greece, Team Bohr realized that underlying all the worst problems of the encampments was a lack of consistent electricity. At a camp level, essential services — chiefly hospitals — must be prioritized, even amid blackouts or overloads; yet this prioritization often leaves individual shelters without power for long periods, severely impacting quality of life.
According to the UN, only 10% of displaced persons worldwide have reliable access to electricity. Fires are common, because refugees use wood fires for cooking — and for illumination. Darkness, after all, provides cover for rape and other violence.
“The situation in one camp is different than the situation in another,” says Leis, whose background before enrolling at ESADE was in marketing and real estate. “In one camp they might have four hours of energy generated from solar panels, in another camp they have eight hours of energy generated by a combination of diesel generators and solar panels. The situation in a camp in Greece may be very different from the situation in a camp in Africa. Maybe in Africa they don’t have energy at all.
“That’s why we were adamant in terms of making our solution modular, to keep it adaptable to each of the different landscapes that we might find in different camps. That was one of our most important features.”
‘FOR WOMEN AND CHILDREN ESPECIALLY’
Team Bohr met with NGOs, UN agencies (including the UN Refugee Agency), energy experts, the Global Humanitarian Lab, and others, says Kakulapati, a chemical engineer with an IT background. “And through all of this we learned that the refugees have issues in a lot of areas, like productivity, basic food and hygiene, water, security, education and all of these things,” she says, “but we could solve a lot of these issues — or at least make their life better in multiple respects — if we improve the refugees’ access to electricity in the camps.”
Kakulapati had perhaps the most experience on Team Bohr in the realm of humanitarian aid: In 2015, she was caught in the aftermath of the Nepal earthquake, and rather than evacuate at the earliest opportunity, she stayed and volunteered and helped. So for her, the team’s efforts had a personal element, too.
“For women and children especially, there are a lot of safety issues because of lack of lighting during night, and quite a number of fires that break out in these camps as refugees use more fires for cooking and even lighting and warmth at night,” she says. “Sometimes the hospital tents don’t have enough electricity to conduct surgeries.
“So then we started looking at how we could solve this problem, how we could improve the access to electricity, and we found that there are a lot of existing initiatives to bring more sources of energy to the camps, like solar panels and diesel generators and things like that. But how the electricity gets to the shelters, there’s not much being done there — mainly because refugee camps are supposed to be temporary in nature, though some of them are existing for decades.
“So what we came up with is a modular smart grid that is especially adapted for situations where you have a scarcity in supply of electricity as well as a very sporadic supply. And that is ElecTree.”
LOOKING BEYOND REFUGEES
As ElecTree refines its prototype and explores collaborations with UNHCR, NGOs, and, possibly, corporations, ESADE has offered work space, and the scope of the work ahead has actually expanded. The need for steady electricity, after all, is not unique to stateless persons, Leis says.
“ESADE has been really supportive during this period, and they are going to actually provide us with space for work and access to their labs and their incubator as well,” he says. “So we will have plenty of help from ESADE.
“Beyond refugees, in Africa and India there are are more than 600 million people who don’t have access to electricity, so a product like ours can be used to bring electricity to those communities. We want to make it sustainable. The only way to make it sustainable is to make a profit. And that’s one of the objectives — but it’s not the only one.”