If you’ve been wondering how you can get your hands on one of Fenix International’s portable off-grid battery and solar kits — previously only available to African entrepreneurs — ponder no longer. The San Francisco-based startup has just launched a Kickstarter campaign to sell their battery and solar kits in the U.S. For a $199 pledge, while supplies last (that’s a $100 discount) you can scoop up one of the first Fenix batteries to land stateside.
Disclosure: I just bought one. I’ve wanted one since I first wrote about the company back in 2010. My dream is to spend a full day blogging in the park, using the battery power and the solar panel. But I digress.
Fenix is using Kickstarter to test the waters for a U.S. market. Up to this point the startup has been selling its batteries through African telecom MTN in Uganda. Last month CEO Mike Lin told me that Fenix had shipped 2,000 of its batteries to MTN in Uganda. On Wednesday in an interview Lin told me that MTN Rwanda had also just signed up with Fenix as well to ship its batteries, and the company has pilots in Kenya and Tanzania.
In developing countries where there’s sporadic grid power, entrepreneurs can use the batteries to sell applications like cell phone charging. There’s already entrepreneurs doing this, but mostly they use old car batteries for charging, which can be costly and unsafe.
There’s some really interesting applications emerging around the battery, says Lin. For example, in places where peer-to-peer mobile payments, via SMS, is popular, a job has emerged called a mobile money agent — like a human ATM — and these entrepreneurs have been using Fenix’s off-grid battery to increase the amount of time they can provide that payment exchange service. Other applications include powering things like a refrigerator for vaccines, or lighting at night.
Telecoms in developing countries are interested in promoting off-grid batteries as a way to increase cell phone usage and penetration. In the way that mobile phone networks have leap-frogged wired phone connections in the developing world, off-grid power could eventually one day overcome grid power in these nations. Maybe — we’ll see. For that to happen they need energy storage, like Fenix’s productized lead acid battery.
Fenix sees its battery — and the secret sauce of the software that manages the charging — as a platform for enabling these energy applications. In the U.S., Fenix wants to encourage the creation of a developer community that will use its open hardware API to develop new applications like micro wind and water energy generation. That’s partly who Fenix expects to buy these early ones in the U.S. off of Kickstarter. The other interested customers in the battery could be the recreational types — imagine this on the shelf in REI next to camping equipment and emergency kits.
Beyond the Kickstarter campaign, Fenix is in the process of raising a $10 million Series B round to help it scale up and start cranking out its orders in Africa and potentially the U.S. Fenix will probably only start a big sales push in the U.S. if the Kickstarter campaign shows there’s a big market for it. However, just two days after the campaign was launched, Fenix has already hit close to $15,000 of its $20,000 order goal (with 29 more days to go), so I think it’s safe to say that it’s got some interest here in the U.S.