2023 Most Disruptive MBA Startups: Earthbond, Harvard Business School

Earthbond

Harvard Business School

Industry: Cleantech x Fintech

Founding Student Name(s): Chidalu Onyenso

Brief Description of Solution: Earthbond is a climate tech company on a mission to bring resilience to African small and medium enterprises (SMEs). Today, we solve for Nigeria’s 22 billion USD and growing spend on fuel generators and a public energy grid that plagues SMEs with 16-18 hours of daily blackouts.

Earthbond leverages carbon-accounting to offer a digital one-stop-shop that prequalifies and audits SMEs for fully financed, lower cost solar energy solutions that can replace their expensive, carbon-emitting diesel and petrol generators and augment their unreliable grid access.

Funding Dollars: $150K

What led you to launch this venture? I’ve had the pleasure of being Nigerian-American and being forced to think about these two contexts at every turn of my life. When we talk about sustainability, decarbonization, and climate adaptation by 2050, how are we not talking about Africa and its energy transition? Twenty-five percent of the world will be African, 60 percent of the world’s available arable land—the source of our food supply—will be in Africa, and seven out of the top 10 most climate-vulnerable countries are in Africa. So in pursuing my MBA, and knowing I’d only be a founder if I could solve a problem that was compelling enough for me to spend the next decade of my life on, it made sense to start with African SMEs.

What has been your biggest accomplishment so far with venture? Growing the team from one to four people and implementing our first pilot—literally seeing the huge revenue and cost impact of implementing a solar solution that could replace the customer’s petrol-fueled generator. They were able to go from three days of operation to five days of revenue-generating operations.

What has been the most significant challenge you’ve faced in creating your company and how did you solve it? It’s been challenging to face just how many things—conceptually and physically—are not built with Africa in mind. We’re a fintech in some ways—the risk premiums applied to instruments on the continent make sources of capital or assistance, which are available to the rest of the world, completely cut off to us. When it comes to hardware, the quality assurance tests often fail to account for the temperatures, humidity, or even transport to places like Nigeria, leading to otherwise avoidable defects and delays in equipment supply. We’ve had to get really scrappy and truly “do the things that don’t scale” to identify the partners and credit products that would work for our customers and manually test and inspect to shortlist approved brands and installers we would work with.

How has your MBA program helped you further this startup venture? I took a bunch of startup field classes that allowed me to build while still being a student. That way, I could apply a lot of the things we were learning in theory directly to what I was building in practice. Startup Operations let me get critical feedback into streamlining our initial onboarding process, Launching Tech Ventures exposed me to the fundraising tradeoff questions that I have already faced in investor discussions, Climate & Energy Ventures forced us to build the techno-economic analysis model for our customers that has been critical in segmenting and targeting the right businesses.

What founder or entrepreneur inspired you to start your own entrepreneurial journey? How did he or she prove motivational to you? Carmelle Cadet of EmTech saw a huge gap in a core public good—regulation for crypto—and how huge, well-placed financial institutions were passing on the opportunity to capitalize on underserved emerging markets. In response, she built it herself. She left a rather steady and well-respected role to go out on her own and build something that is revolutionizing not just the Web3 space, but also how fintech sustainably and safely brings innovation across emerging markets. I had the chance to work with her closely and it was the way she used her natural risk-aversion to do something so daring that made me realize the plunge into entrepreneurship, especially in Africa, was something I would enjoy.

Which MBA class has been most valuable in building your startup and what was the biggest lesson you gained from it? Social Entrepreneurship and Systems Change helped me think about impact not just as an outcome of my company’s direct actions, but our interactions with the existing ecosystem. Because of this lesson, Earthbond became a platform connecting the existing agents and parties in the market rather than just a single solar provider trying to do and be everything for everyone.

What professor made a significant contribution to your plans and why? Professor Brian Trelstad advised my independent project in my second year, which focused on building the system map for Nigeria’s solar ecosystem. It helped us validate and invalidate a lot of my early assumptions on how easy or difficult it would be to launch, and instead forced us to just set targets and aim to accomplish them. Trelstad’s background in impact as well as his experience in finance for emerging markets was a wealth of knowledge on all the different models that have been tried, tested, and implemented across the space.

How has your local startup ecosystem contributed to your venture’s development and success? Between Lagos and Cambridge, Earthbond gets to enjoy being a part of two amazing startup communities. Founders have become some of our early customers and pilot testers. We’ve been invited to speak on panels as a way to create more awareness and reach more business owners, and the ecosystems have led to new partnerships across our platform.

What is your long-term goal with your startup? I want to grow Earthbond into a complete climate-resilience platform for African SMEs. Energy is the biggest and most demanding need, and as climate risks become more common and more severe in these markets, the same businesses that are investing in sustainable energy for the long run will also be the ones needing to purchase energy efficient cooling systems in the face of extreme heat, and be flood resilient.

Questions about this article? Email us or leave a comment below.