Picture a remote island, populated by many small and medium-sized communities. The local economy largely runs on a fishing industry. Children go to school, markets sell food & goods, but two important things are missing: reliable energy access and connectivity. There's no real cell signal in the village of Maybuuho, Philippines. This means that not only do people lack the ability to communicate outside their village, renewable energy solutions like solar-powered mini-grids or Solar Home Systems aren't very easy to use.
Without any sort of connectivity, modern off-grid energy companies that are operating today end up de-prioritising "zero connectivity" locations, which exist all around the world. Okra is a technology company that manufactures everything needed to set up what they call a "mesh grid" as a kit, and then sell those kits to Energy Access companies (like SHS or Mini-Grid companies) around the world. Their latest innovation is called the Cicada WiFi, an open source communications module, that brings WiFi connectivity to remote areas using VSAT technology.
Tamara Mahoney from EnAccess and Oscar Aitchison from Okra talk about Cicadas - not the insects, but the chip - today on Open Energy Access. They discuss the impact this technology had not only for the company that participated in their pilot, but also potential impact for the village of Maybuuho, who could be offered Internet As A Service for the first time.
More information: https://enaccess.org/materials/okra-cicada/
Hi, my name is Tamara Mahoney, and this is the Open Energy Access web series. We have all the most recent episodes of Open Energy Access on the EnAccess YouTube page and Open Energy Access is also published in a podcast which is available in any podcast player. Open Energy Access is a show that I started to have a place to talk about open innovation projects, development ideas, and generally speaking, open principles within the energy access sector. So today I'm talking with Oscar, a power systems engineer with Okra. We're going to be talking about one of their most recent projects, the Cicada WiFi. This is a communications module that provides internet access to remote communities. I think you will want to watch or to listen to this episode, if you are a similar sort of company like Okra - they create technology that enables affordable and reliable access for anyone in the world.
So if you are a similar sort of company, this is definitely going to be a conversation that you should listen to, or if you're working in a mini grid company or an SHS company in a remote area, or honestly, if you're just a communication technology enthusiast or an open source enthusiast, we really invite everyone to listen. Before we get into the chat, I will do some introductions. So as I mentioned, my name is Tamara and I work at the EnAccess foundation. EnAccess funds open innovation in energy access. And we also promote and educate about open innovation. The goal of EnAccess is to get more people adopting, contributing to, or using open innovation tools. EnAccess has funded the Cicada project, and Oscar was really the main point of contact for that. Oscar, can you tell me a little bit about yourself and what you do with Okra?
Thanks Tamara for having me on the, on the series. Thank you. Looking forward to having this chat. Yeah. So my name is Oscar Aitchison. I am an electrical engineer specializing in energy access. And in microgrids specifically, that's what I've kind of devoted the last five or so years of my life to trying to solve the problem of energy access and the co-founders of Okra, Affy and Damo, had this concept that was based around this kind of fundamental idea how can we make energy access happen faster and more affordably? The idea of, okay, this guy has a solar panel on his roof. It's not being used all of the time. The capacity's not being fully utilized. How do we take some of that spare capacity and use it in the neighbor's house? And that was the fundamental concept that got Okra started. I've now been working with those guys at Okra designing the mesh grid and trying to improve that product, and today we've deployed mesh grids with partners in I think five or six countries, particularly in the Philippines, that's where we've got most of our devices out there at the moment. Yeah, really excited to talk about the next phase of evolution for the mesh grid.
Why don't you start by telling us a little bit about what a mesh grid is, what makes it different than a mini-grid or a microgrid?
A mesh grid- You can think of it as a network of interconnected solar home systems, unlike a mini-grid a centralized mini grid, where there is a power plant in one central location, a whole lot of solar panels and batteries. And you're distributing that power from one place all the way to every single house in the village, a mesh grid is decentralized. So each house typically has its own solar panel, its own battery and cables going in between them and our device that we manufacture - the Okra Pod - is the kind of brains of the system. It's deciding this battery has all the power it needs, here's some spare, solar power available. I'm gonna send it onto the grid where somebody else can receive it. Yeah, it's kind of this dynamic smart grid that's balancing supply and demand throughout the grid as needed.
And really the benefit that we bring by doing it this way is bringing down a lot of the heavy distribution costs that come with a centralized mini grid approach. Generally quite a large percentage of the cost of a mini grid comes from the actual cable distribution poles and wires, that are quite heavy infrastructure running, all throughout a village that makes them quite complex from an engineering perspective. And it also makes them expensive. So we are trying to remove both the complexity and the cost by decentralizing into what we call a mesh grid.
So Okra is sort of the...you guys are manufacturing, you're creating the technology that you then sell to the mini grid company or the SHS company in order for them to distribute the electricity. Am I right?
That's right. We're a technology company. We build hardware, we build software and we package everything that you need to set up a mesh grid into a kit. And we sell those kits to customers around the world, Nigeria, Haiti, Cambodia, Philippines, and others.
Okay. So what we're gonna talk about today, now that we kind of know a little bit more about what Okra does, although I bet a lot of people that would be watching are already familiar with your name. We're gonna be talking specifically about Cicada and that's your name for this communication module? So we're not talking about the insect - which sounds so, at this point sounds so normal to me to be like, yeah, we're talking about Cicada, et cetera, without actually saying ...
We should (laughs) clarify that. Yeah. We're not talking about literal scattered insects.
So you guys have decided to name this communication module. So can you tell me ...
We kind of have that tech startup, apple type mindset of naming things, in what we hope is a memorable way rather than calling it the, IOT WiFi communications module.
Yeah. I like it. I mean, it, it does roll off the tongue a lot easier than everything else you just said.
Yeah, why the insect, I don't really know well, why a lot of people ask us, you know, why, why Okra? We don't really have a great story, to be honest. Yeah.
I mean, it's a really easy word to say in a lot of languages. So that, that is -
Smart actually. Yeah. That has had that benefit.
So I think what a lot of people who may be watching or listening, they probably already know this, but it's kind of good to just sort of set the scene, you know, the types of modern off grid, energy solutions that exist today, they rely on internet connectivity. So there needs to be some sort of connectivity for most of these solutions that we're talking about. So what is Cicada, what does Cicada do?
So, I'm gonna try very hard to not use the words, communication module.
Thank you. I would love to have different words to say!
It is really the device that, allows the - so we can talk about the Okra Pod, which is the device that we manufacture. It needs to communicate with the outside world. it needs to send data on energy consumption on solar panel, production, battery, state of charge, customer billing information, you know, a whole suite of pieces of information that needs to send and receive. So how's it do that? Well, you can communicate over the cellular network, 2G 3G 4G, or you can communicate in some cases over satellite, which is what we're gonna talk about or over WiFi, if there is a WiFi network locally in the community, which we'll also talk about. The Cicada is really simply the chip that facilitates that communication.
So why is it important to have this connectivity? If you're setting up a mini grid in a community or a SHS, you're selling solar home systems to customers, why does this company need to communicate information to where? Again, I think a lot of our listeners or viewers probably know the answer to this question, so we don't have to go too deep into it, but I'm thinking about people who are a little bit outside of our sector who have that question.
Put simply: for an operator to provide some kind of energy service or any kind of service to these really remote communities, they need to be able to see what's happening. And they ideally need to see that remotely because these places can be incredibly difficult and expensive to travel to. It's really become a must in our sector to put as much of that information on the cloud, on the internet as possible. Think about the scale of the problem we're trying to solve, right? Hundreds of millions of people in incredibly remote areas is just never gonna happen if it relies on a bunch of traditional utility methods of employing heaps of staff in every location. We need to be smarter and use what technology has to offer if we're gonna solve the problem.
I'm not sure if you were working with Okra when Cicada was first released. I think you were <Oscar: I was, yeah.> Okay, perfect. So when Cicada was first released, it was with 2G 3G 4G, and then there was kind of a break and now it's being released anew with WiFi capability. Can you tell me why it happened in this way and what is so special about adding WiFi to it ?
For a company like ours, we're trying to develop hardware. So by hardware, I mean, electronic PCBs that perform a specific function in the field to do that. You wanna start by using whatever is already available, right? If they're, off the shelf kits or boards that you can use that fulfill a specific purpose, then you want to try and leverage that. So we were doing that in the initial phases, as in using off the shelf, 2G communications modules. And it really caused us, endless headaches because they weren't designed for what we were trying to do in these, you know, super remote areas. And that prompted the need for, okay, we need a better solution to be out there. And, you know, we are gonna put the effort into developing it, but other hardware companies that are in the same boat will also need access to this.
So hence the first kind of collaboration with you guys within EnAccess that enabled us to get the funding, to actually develop an in-house 2G/3G/4G communication solution, and then open source that so that other companies like us didn't have to go through the pain of using the kind of crappy off the shelf solution. They could have access to all the design files and everything and understand the firmware and tweak it to their own needs, which is really important, right? Cause if you're trying to debug something, you need to understand how it works. You have all the design, all the source code available to you. So that was really the background between behind why for Cicada. Then the next phase, which we've just completed now, the Cicada WiFi. It was something that we had on the horizon for a little while but has become increasingly important for us because we've run into these scenarios more and more where 2G connectivity is less prevalent and less reliable than we had thought.
Honestly, we're running into quite a lot of scenarios with our customers where there's either zero cellular connectivity at all in a site that they want to energize, or they have to, that they've been given to energize, or there is some 2G connectivity, but it's very, very weak or very, very, spotty. So it's only available in this one location in the community, right? There was that need of, okay, we need a solution that's going to be able to cope with these low or no connectivity environments. And WiFi was what we decided to go with to solve that problem. And again, the same needs exist for other companies that are going, going through a similar journey, having access to all the design files and being able to adapt it to their own needs or, but will just save them time and money.
Yeah. And I think the fact that this project is open source is so important for energy access. I mean, by Open Source, we really mean the hardware, the firmware, everything is available on GitHub. Yeah, this is - I'm gonna get back into the pilot project and how it went and for you, and ask you to describe the type of community this was in, but - having made this technology Open Source, have you seen any downside to that? Like if there was a downside to putting it out there, then I'd love to hear about that.
Hmm. no, you know, we've, we've thought about it at various stages. What if competitors use this to kind of get a leg up on us?
I mean, that's the kind of common concern, right? That's - what if that happened? Has that happened?
I don't think so because I think the openness that, we have with other similar companies in this space is something that I really like about our space. You know, we kind of recognize that we're all trying to solve a really, really hard problem and we're doing it for the right reasons. And I find that there's generally a lot more willingness to share information and use that ethically, right. Not using information that you give that you are given by somebody else to kind of take advantage of them or whatever. So, no, in short, I haven't seen any downside to open sourcing this stuff.
Okay. So to go back to the scene where you were talking about making the Cicada WiFi, when you were coming out with this, you wanted to do a pilot, like to do the field testing, to see how it would work. So you picked this village in the Philippines called Maybuuho m-hmm <affirmative>. And, you worked with a company who had kind of operations on the ground there called AteCo. I read your case study and you had written that they had been operatingwith the Okra mesh grid, I think already for a couple years mm-hmm <affirmative>, but they were doing that without any cell signal. So I'd like you, if you can, to kind of paint a picture of what that looked like.
As is often the case with energy access projects, you have to work with the regulators and within local regulations. They don't always necessarily give you total freedom to choose the perfect site for your project. Right. So they had to provide a solution for this specific village, Maybuuho And they did that with Okra mesh grids, even though it is running offline, it still does function. We built it in such a way that it, all of the core grid functions still work autonomously without any kind of signal. But what they were lacking is a, the ability to do any kind of advanced billing system. So, to track consumption and bill people based on their consumption in a prepaid way, at least. And the other thing that they were lacking was any kind of visibility on when things went wrong. Right? So if a battery was degraded and wasn't getting a full charge or anything like that, that wasn't something that they had any visibility on. So if there was a problem, they would have to physically send somebody to go out and check it out. And that's a lot of time, a lot of money and it's, very, very difficult, right. it's doable, and they did it for a couple of years, but, yeah, it's, it's difficult and operating an off grid energy business is already difficult enough. So <laugh>,
I think that's a nice, that's a nice summary - It's like, well, what is it like to work without any connectivity? It's difficult enough, let's solve the connectivity solution. Yeah. I also encourage anyone watching or listening - you've, you've really gotta read the case study that Oscar authored because, you talk about just in order for the person working in the village to have any communication with AteCo, it's like a hike up a mountain to get any kind of signal and yeah. You can kind of feel yourself there, that you kind of had this simple problem to solve and it might take days just to communicate the simple problem.
And this is the, the case, not just in Maybuuho, but there are many, many communities in the Philippines and around the world. Yeah. But specifically the Philippines has this, this issue of so many islands, thousands and thousands of islands that make up the Philippines and lots of fishing communities that live on those islands that are yeah. Really quite isolated from any sort of infrastructure communicating with the outside world is, is a real challenge.
Like in the beginning you were saying that you had been seeing this more and more because, as energy access works to electrify everybody mm-hmm <affirmative>, we're starting to get into this - this kind of section where there's still so many people left that don't have connectivity and they've been deprioritized and you can see why, I guess.
Yeah. You know, if you have the ability to choose, to have your pick of sites, you are going to try and choose ones that are gonna be easier to operate. They're closer to where a regional center or mainland or whatever. There may be very good candidates for electrification. Otherwise, you know, it could be a, in the case of the Philippines, there are hell of a lot of large off grid communities that have a reasonably steady income from their fishing that makes them quite good candidates from an economics point of view, as in they have the ability to pay for energy relatively consistently. You know, it is still off grid we're talking about. So of course they have seasonal incomes just like everyone. But, generally speaking, these Filipino fishing communities can be really, really good candidates for these off grid energy systems ...they can pay for them, but, yeah, if they lack any way to communicate, it makes operations really difficult.
So why don't you get a bit technical for a moment and tell me, how does this work? How and what is the VSAT technology? How do you bring WiFi into an unconnected community?
VSAT satellite internet is something that has been around for quite a while. It's not something that we invented and it's not something that Elon Musk invented either with starlink, but it is basically the same principle at Starlink it's using satellites to set up a base station in a location and use that, that signal to then set up a communications network throughout the site. So VSAT is the way that we communicate with the outside world. And WiFi is the way that we take that signal and distribute it around the site, which is what we did in Maybuuho. The costs are actually fully laid out, in the case study that you mentioned, at least in the case of the Philippines, it really is getting to the point where it's quite affordable. We're only talking about a few thousand dollars for the actual CapEx of the, satellite dish and all the various, communications equipment routers, et cetera. The most expensive part is really the ongoing fees that you would pay, right to the VSAT, provider.
And EnAccess funded this project because it's open source mm-hmm <affirmative>. So, because we hope this has this kind of ripple effect it can help other companies scale more quickly, you know, contributions, like there's so many, ways to grow quicker, to get energy to communities quicker. Yeah. The fact that you guys laid out all the costs and everything is there in the, in the case study for people to read. And, I kind of wanna talk about what happens in the community when you did the field testing. So you went out, you tested it, it was successful. It worked. And what sort of impact did you see and was it what you expected? And when I'm asking about what it was you expected, I know that when you set up a project like this, you know, you kind of have, okay, like, here's my expectation. This is sort of my mark of success. So did you reach that mm-hmm <affirmative> and did anything happen that was kind of, um, unplanned?
Always, yes, it's always unplanned things that happen. Um, but thankfully the implementation was smoother than expected and the devices performed better than expected. So we thought we were gonna have real trouble getting all of the pods in every single house to communicate with the, the outdoor access points, WiFi access points that we set up around the, the community. Thankfully they performed very well. And we actually feel like we kind of overdid it and we didn't need as much equipment as we bought, which was nice. I feel confident that there's room to optimize the costs and the design even further that part of it went smoothly. The impact, the immediate impact to, AteCo and their business is that they're able to see these households on our software platform Harvest for the first time. so they're actually able to start getting some information about their operations for the first time, how much energy are people consuming from these systems?
Okay, can we start looking at things like appliance financing? Now we can do that because, you know, that's a feature that, that we have that, allows you to kind of bundle appliance financing in with people's energy bills. So now they can look at that and go, okay, yeah, this customer, maybe we can offer them a freezer on finance and have them have the payments be tracked on our platform. That's really the, the short term impact that we were kind of going for with this implementation. But the perhaps more significant question that we were trying to answer that we haven't yet answered. it'll take another few months of, of kind of monitoring to get there is can AteCo comfortably cover the costs, the ongoing costs of the VSAT service by offering internet as a service to this community, in addition to the energy service, because if they can do that efficiently and consistently then that makes the fundamental business case for installing the VSAT viable. And it means they can replicate that to all of their sites. And they've got quite a number of these sites that don't have any kind activity. Yeah. It's a great thing for the communities themselves and for AteCo scaling their impact.
So the idea is, you know, the Cicada WiFi was kind of bought in to give these very obvious and very important benefits for the company. Right. So to be able to monitor everything is fantastic, but now you're kind of mentioning, there's also this idea that WiFi could be offered as a service basically. So that just people in the community would now have access to the Internet?
That's right. Yeah. Because you're, you're bringing this, you're bringing an internet connection to the site and that internet connection is only a very tiny fraction of the bandwidth that you're purchasing is actually being used for transmitting this IOT device data, you know, energy consumption and things like that. it's in the order of megabytes per month, right? So if you can make use of that by offering it to the community, you're giving the community a very valuable service, and you're also bringing in another revenue stream. That's making the entire model more economically viable. And interesting funders are increasingly starting to look at this multi-service or multi utility model as a way forward to improve the unit economics of,mini grids. So, yeah, I think it's this pilot for us has been a way to kind of try and demonstrate that you can actually offer these multiple services and it can not only cover its own costs, but it can also provide all these additional benefits.
If it works and if people can afford it, it just sounds like such a win-win. I'm gonna be looking forward to kind of catching up with you guys maybe in six months time kind and say, okay, really like end of 2022, did we get there? Is this going to work? it seems optimistic right now.
Yeah. That's exciting. I mean, you know, I never want to be too optimistic maybe is the wrong word, but, I don't, I don't want to portray our impact much greater than it is. So I'm always cautious of saying, oh, you know, it's gonna transform people's lives and things like that. I am genuinely really excited to see the benefits that the community gets from having this access for the first time, because all of the activities that are made so much more difficult by a lack of telecommunications, it seems so obvious that there should be massive improvements in those areas. So whether it's the ability to do business, you know, you catch a bunch of fish, you, you need to call people up buyers, et cetera. You don't have to, you know, go climb a nearby mountain to do that anymore.
There are all these kids going to school who don't have the ability to Google something or access educational materials that now will have that. So, yeah, these are all kind of more long range impacts. And then I think one of the most potentially impactful things, in my opinion, is the ability for people to communicate during, kind of a crisis or a disaster situation, right? So there are a lot of typhoon strength storms in the Philippines every single year, even if it's not actually a typhoon, like just a severe tropical storm. It's still for these communities really impactful to have some, some ability to communicate with the outside world, because past a certain point, the, the coast guard basically says, you're not allowed to have any boat travel because it's too dangerous. We'll have to come and rescue...so yeah, all these communities during these tropical storm events that happen like 20 times a year are completely cut off from the outside world.
It's the most basic, the most basic need - just the ability to communicate with the outside world. It doesn't have to go much more than that before you can start to imagine all the other ways, everything that means, you're absolutely right. You know, just opening that up starts everything. And I understand where you're coming from in terms that you don't wanna predict, and you don't wanna promise,
I don't wanna say I'm the cause of, you know, or Okra, right? We are doing all these things, but -
Yeah, well the idea is there, right. I'm sure that - I don't think Okra is the only company in the world that's working on this problem. <No, absolutely not.> But it is open sourced for anyone else to look at and for anyone else to do better, if, it didn't work out for one reason or another. You've laid it out there so that if this didn't work out well, if the plan needed to be tweaked, everything is there and that is already tremendously helpful. So that's what EnAccess is excited about. And again, I'm just speaking for myself here, but that's why we all do this, right?
Yeah, absolutely. I would, I would just encourage like, anybody who is currently doing microgrids or deploying energy access solutions to think about, is it also possible to offer these, these other services, be it internet, or be it water or something like that? I know it's, it's an additional layer of complexity, but I guess my hope from the outcomes of this project is that we can show that it doesn't have to be that complex, you know, and hopefully we've helped some other companies look at this and go, oh yeah, that there's enough information here that I can, I can take to my decision makers and try this out for myself.
So what do you think is, is next for Cicada WiFi? Where do you plan to go with it after the successful pilot and everything? What do you see happening in the near future?
Like I said earlier, I really want to see the data come through on willingness to pay for an internet service in the community consistently. And if that is, easily covering the costs, um, then that's the justification that, companies like AteCo need to roll this out into many more communities, without any connectivity. So that's my hope of where we get to from a technological standpoint, we're also looking into the future and trying to think about, okay, we've kind of done this first pass at a telecommunication solution that's not based on cellular. How can we improve it? How can we make it easier and simpler? So we're looking at different communications protocols. We're also looking at ways to extend the range, to make it easier so that there are fewer devices, fewer gateways, I suppose, required for a larger site. So our aim is to keep innovating on that and trying it in our other markets where we have customers. So in Haiti, we've got, a customer who's looking at this right now. That's really exciting. and we'd like to do the same in Nigeria, similar needs, not on islands this time, but still, plenty of zero connectivity areas that need a solution. So, yeah, that's where we'd like to get to is proving this out in all of the markets where we have customers.
Well, thank you so much for chatting with me about this today. Is there anything that you'd like to add?
Yeah, I guess we should mention that if you're interested in using the WiFi Cicada in your product prototypes, you're developing a product that you want to add WiFi capability to, obviously we already mentioned the design files are all in GitHub, but we also have manufactured a number of boards, physical boards on a marketplace called, Seed Studio that they're facilitating the whole shipping and everything. So, you're able to just go onto that website and click, add to cart and have it shipped out to you. And you can have a WiFi Cicada for you to prototype and play with, as a development tool. If you're interested in trying to use this, feel free to jump on there, buy a prototype, look at the design files. And if you've got any questions, reach out to our team and we'll happy to answer any questions.
Yeah. That was a really, a really cool part of this project is being able to order the board directly, it's ready to go. And everything that you need to use Cicada is on enaccess.org/okra-cicada - you're going to get to the GitHub, you're gonna get to the seed studio. You're gonna get to Okras website. You're going to get to the case study. Everything you need to get started is on enaccess.org. And of course on Cicada's homepage, you have, I'm sorry, on Okras homepage, <laugh> you have everything you need to learn more and to get in contact with everyone at Okra. Who has been a fantastic partner to work with on this project! We love the way that you guys write your documentation. And I think that is something that not enough people get praised for. So thank you for doing excellent documentation and for bringing Cicada out there and to open sourcing it and being open to do that. And for just being so transparent with everything that you've been transparent with so far. So this is definitelywhat we believe is going to help achieve universal energy access faster. So thanks for working with us.
Yeah, no problem. Thanks to EnAccess for the support. I think you guys perform a really useful function in the industry. That's kind of hard to define, but it's kind of the catalyst for projects like this that otherwise wouldn't happen. You might have a lot of companies out there who are willing to open source stuff, but to get the buy in and spend the time to, like you said, put documentation around it and everything, you kind of need some extra support and some justification for that. So having the funding available from EnAccess was great for us to internally get the buy-in, like, okay, let's do this, let's open source it. And I think that's a really useful function in the industry. So yeah. Thank you.
Yeah. And I encourage anyone who's listening who's in energy access -if you have an idea for a project that you're working on - you know, for us, your project has to have value for more than just your company. So we want the project to be successful, and we want you to grow and have lots of success both professionally and maybe even make a profit on it, that's great. But the idea is that the projects that we fund have the potential for much bigger impact than that, that they could have this ripple effect. So if you're working on something like that in energy access and you need funding, then head over to our website and see, go through our FAQs, check out our funding limits and send your application. We don't have deadlines. So we are open to receiving applications pretty much anytime. And thanks again, Oscar. It was a really nice conversation with you today and thank you everyone who's watching or listening. Subscribe, either on YouTube or in your podcast player and send it to a friend. Have a great day. See you later. Bye.