The interdisciplinary nature of sustainability opens the door to innovators and entrepreneurs from a diverse variety of disciplines. This is the case with Andrew Kent, who serves as the Head of Portfolio Management for BBOXX. Harvard student Andres Triana ‘23 had the privilege of talking with Kent and gaining insight about his journey with sustainability.
The International Energy Agency projects that more than 71% of new electricity connections will either be through off-grid or mini-grid solutions by 2030, aiming to bring power to three billion energy insecure individuals globally. Focusing mainly on the continent of Africa, BBOXX is an enterprise striving to meet such aspirations. Currently, 840 million people live without access to energy, of which 650 million are in Africa. An additional billion people are connected to an unreliable grid. Through a vertically integrated process, BBOXX engineers produce and disperse energy solutions. Essentially, the enterprise takes on the task of accessibly bringing renewable energy to Africa through each and every step of the way.
Andres Triana: After graduating from Harvard, what has been your career trajectory?
Andrew Kent: After graduating with a Social Studies degree, I joined CEB (now part of Gartner Research), a research and consulting firm. After 4 years there, I had an opportunity for a fellowship at a solar lantern company in Uganda. I jumped on the opportunity to get into renewables and have an adventure in a different part of the world. While in Uganda, I met the founders of BBOXX, a UK based solar home system company. I’ve now been at BBOXX for more than 6 years, and have had a variety of different jobs, from business development in South Sudan, to setting up our first payment plans and retail network in Uganda, to designing our after-sales operational processes and software and leading our internal consulting work out of our Africa Headquarters in Kigali, Rwanda. Now we are expanding beyond solar into sustainable cooking (alternatives to charcoal and firewood) and access to finance.
AT: How did you find BBOXX and your positions within the company?
AK: I met the founders of BBOXX in Uganda, and was inspired by their vision for how off-grid solar could be more than a gadget that customers would buy for their houses, but really a distributed utility that transformed lives by putting low-income households on the energy ladder, from which they could grow their energy usage and gain access to other services. For example, a customer’s payment history for solar energy could act as a credit score, allowing subsistence farmers to access credit to improve productivity on their farms.
AT: What do you do for BBOXX, and what’s your favorite part about the role?
Currently my role is Head of Customer Development, which I might describe as the insights-to-action department, and covers all the analysis, operational processes, and software handling the customer journey once a customer has signed up for our services. My team analyzes problems in the business; designs solutions in terms of business process improvements, training, and/or monitoring and evaluation; and translates these solutions into requirements that can be built into software by our development team. We’re also heavily involved with implementation, working with the Expansion/Account Management team to roll out these solutions across our markets in Africa and Asia. My favorite part of the role is really that insights-to-actions aspect. Like a consultant, we get to research many different ideas, ranging from consumer credit to mobile money payment systems to setting up cost-effective customer service in rural Africa. But we don’t stop there – we actually implement these ideas by transforming them into software and tools, and driving change across multiple markets.
AT: How did your time at Harvard prepare you for or lead you to these roles – were there any courses, professors, activities, or events that stand out?
AK: It sounds like a cliché, but it was really in learning how to think. As an undergrad, I remember many people complaining that there was too much focus on liberal arts and not enough practical skills or specialization. But once in the real-world, you realize that you can easily pick up the practical skills on the job. It’s the structured problem-solving and analytical skills that are rare and valuable. Once you have those skills, you can learn and do just about anything. I never thought I would be figuring out optimal ways to build distribution networks or credit score subsistence farmers in rural Africa—much less translating these things into software—but here I am. Writing my senior thesis was definitely the most important experience at Harvard in building these skills: learning to analyze data from a variety of sources, compare those data sources to find inconsistencies and sort out the truth from noise, and synthesizing them into coherent insights. The opportunity to take a variety of classes was also a big part in developing a broad thinking skill set. For example, many of my European colleagues studied nothing, but their field of concentration. By contrast, even though I was a Social Studies concentrator, I also took classes in chemistry, environmental engineering, renewable energy, finance, and statistics. Such a broad range of classes equips you with a broad range of problem-solving methodologies that allows you to seamlessly transition into many fields.
AT: With BBOXX focused on off-grid solar in the developing world, what do you foresee as the path to expanding BBOXX’s outreach and impact?
AK: Three main things. (1) Continuing to make our services more affordable, not only by reducing the product costs, but also by developing innovative financing mechanisms. For example, we will need to secure longer-term, lower-interest debt to extend our payback periods out, allowing us to offer customers lower daily rates and more flexible terms. (2) Providing additional products and services to customers (such as cooking gas and access to financial products) to allow us to serve customers profitably even if margins on the core solar products are squeezed. (3) Expanding into new markets (specifically, Asia) and customer segments (specifically, urban and peri-urban customers who, though not off-grid, have unreliable grid).
AT: What remain some challenges BBOXX hopes to tackle in the future? What are the next steps for both of you and for BBOXX?
AK: Affordability is the main challenge. Our end customers are typically subsistence farmers with low and unstable income, who can’t always afford even $5 a month on electricity – and even when they can afford electricity most of the time, still sometimes fall into short-term trouble that causes them to miss 1-2 months of payment. We’ll need to continue to lower our product costs and secure more favorable financing terms that allows us to meet our payback requirements even when customers can’t always pay.
AT: What advice would you offer to a student hoping to get involved with renewable energy solutions?
AK: Take a variety of classes and don’t limit yourself to your concentration – this will prepare you for the variety of problems you will face in the real world, whatever your careers, in a way that pure specialization cannot. Get involved in projects on campus, especially those that sit at the intersection of science and finance/business. Renewable energy is as much a financial problem as scientific. And if you are a liberal arts concentrator, take at least two science or engineering courses. Even if you don’t become a scientist or engineer, the structured approach to problem solving will be invaluable to any field you go into.