Innovation at BSL: Going solar with shacks – Improving living conditions in developing countries

Edited by Dr. Aileen Ionescu-Somers

Blog Post by GFW Group 4 BSL students: Abdullah Albawardi, Christopher Palermo, Eduard Mazhinov, Emma Chang, Eric Illick, Guan-Quan Tan, Stefany Solorzano, Tomy Ndakana, Victor Semenov

Living conditions all around the world have been consistently improving since the 20th century. However, many people in developing countries have not yet attained anything like the relatively luxurious standard of living of citizens in more developed countries. For this reason, our group dedicated its efforts towards a solution aimed at correcting and changing some aspects of the quality of life of people in developing countries, while tackling no less than FOUR Sustainable Development Goals (see illustration). Click HERE for our fun video showing our fantastic team moving through the prototyping steps during the Gap Frame innovation week. And if you are in the mood to discover more, read on:

Poor people in developing countries, whether in urban or rural settings often live in squalid conditions, in what are commonly termed “shacks”. A shack is a roughly built hut or cabin that is usually extremely flimsy, increasing the vulnerability of people, especially under severe climatic conditions, or earthquakes. Playfully adapting this term to our concept idea, we came up with the idea of the “Solar Shack”. We chose to focus our efforts specifically on prototyping cheap and sustainable housing for underprivileged, poverty-stricken people in areas where shacks are the most common form of housing.

To achieve this, we felt that whatever we designed needed to be self-sustaining (or self-maintaining, if you will). Thus, we focused on the provision of solar powered houses, with water filtering capabilities. Additionally, because of the limitations of available cash resources in the target countries concerned, the price and feasibility of the houses were a priority focus in our prototyping. We considered that having an individual house price of <$1,500 would be optimum, assuming that every unit can hold and sustain five people. Furthermore, such a low price could make the house proposition far more attractive to, for example, sponsoring or donor organizations.

We then expanded our idea to a concept of complexes of approximately six shacks, to form a solar compound within which a community could live. Each unit in the compound would have a chargeable battery of its own that would require minimum maintenance. Each house would also have a water collection and filtration system with a water tank. Furthermore, every compound would have a central battery and tank that will function as a backup charging and filtering system that all houses would draw from and contribute to when not in use.

We then brought the concept to yet another level with the idea of connecting compounds. We envisaged a solution whereby compounds are connected to a central battery and tank that all can draw from but also contribute to when not in need. The goal is to have layers of redundancies so that even if an entire compound ran out of water and/or electricity, the outer central tank would be able to support the “needy” compound in emergencies. Then, both the inner compounds and the larger grid would also have windmills generating electricity that would further contribute to actively charging the central batteries.

For our prototype context, we decided to choose a location that was a less obvious choice than most and where we could have significant impact. We thus narrowed our focus location to Madagascar, often a less “popular” choice for developers, and where poverty is extreme. Specifically, we focused on the smaller northern Malagasy town of Antsohihy rather than the capital. One of our own group members was from Madagascar and so we had some level of expertise and knowledge in the team who could report on the country’s complicated affairs.

The climate of Madagascar is quite humid and it rains very frequently. Since it is an island away from the mainland coast, it is frequently exposed to typhoons. As such, we have to design houses that can withstand torrential rain and very high wind speeds that can whip up debris that can possibly damage the houses. With these considerations in mind, we decided against using wood in the construction of the shacks because wood tends to become soggy and weak when continually exposed to strong winds and torrential rain. While possible to reduce the problem with more expensive and higher quality wood, our budgetary restrictions led us to reconsider our choices.

Assembling our materials in Antsohihy would be a logistical challenge but still doable. As Madagascar is an island, acquiring the materials and moving them to where we need them would be a potential challenge because of the geographic isolation of the location. As we decided to source the majority of our equipment from affordable sources from China, it would be extremely costly to have our materials flown in. Mahajanga is the closest port to Antsohihy (6.5 hours by road). As such, it would be the most appropriate location for us to offload our goods. From there, we could use trucks to transport the cargo over land. From there, our local contractors can supervise the transport and subsequent construction of the shacks.

When the group discussed the overall structure of the solar shack, we had a dilemma. We wanted to choose the appropriate material to hold our shack together and possibilities we discussed were to either have the walls made of bricks, or recycled plastic bottles along with concrete to support the structure. We have yet to really resolve this issue.

We went a long way to defining and even designing our prototype (click HERE for a first cut of the cool design). The week involved looking at multiple aspects of our prototype, not all of which can be detailed here. We just wanted to share our exciting idea with you in this blog. The questions are: How feasible is the concept? Can we really develop this into a viable start-up during the next Gap Frame Week from 14-18 May 2018? What transformations will we have to make to the product and business model in order to assure success? Let’s see how we do as we bring the project to the next level!

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