Interview with Benjamin David, Forbes 30 under 30 - Social entrepreneurs 2020
Benjamin David, CTO and Cofounder at Solaris Offgrid has been nominated among the prestigious Forbes 30 under 30 Europe Class of 2020. A great achievement and recognition of 6 years of dedicated work towards social impact! Read his interview below.
- Benjamin David, CTO and Co-Founder, Solaris Offgrid -
Tell us about yourself Benjamin. How did you choose a “social entrepreneur” career path?
Benjamin: My name is Benjamin David, I am 29 years old and I am CTO and cofounder at Solaris Offgrid.
I’ve known for a long time that I wanted to dedicate myself to solving social and environmental challenges but I initially thought my involvement would be more on the sciences or political side. I actually started my career in politics but quickly fell into a more technical path. I’ve always loved building things and programming since I was a kid and I was investigating alternatives and exploring different career options that could have a more direct and practical approach to tackle these issues. That’s when I met Siten Mandalia (actual CEO and cofounder at Solaris Offgrid). After exchanging a little about what he had in mind for Solaris Offgrid, I got really excited and offered to get onboard as an intern.
How was it to be selected among Forbes 30 under 30? What does that mean to you and how was the journey to get there in your opinion?
Benjamin: I had never really thought about the Forbes 30 under 30 list before, so I can say that it was quite a surprise when I got the news of my nomination! And it was a happy surprise! I was also able to connect with people on the list and several of them happen to also be working on solutions for rural regions of developing countries. I look forward to pursuing these conversations and see how we could build synergies.
I think that being selected among Forbes’ 30 under 30 is a validation of part of what we’ve been doing and a form of recognition of the impact companies are having to drive social change. Even though we’re clearly less exposed as last-mile distributors, it really shows that having great IT infrastures can really have an impact. Hopefully it will also be a way for people to get to know our business and for more impact-focused talents to join our ranks!
I don’t know if there is a typical journey to such a recognition. When I first decided to join Solaris Offgrid, I didn’t expect it to become my full time job for as long as it did and to turn into what it is now. I was just overly excited to work on such an incredible project and be able to spend my days building products and software that would have a real impact on people’s life. In the end the more you dig into something, the higher are the chances you’ll overcome the challenges of first starting a project and eventually you’ll realize that you have built something that actually works!
Can you tell us more about Solaris Offgrid?
Benjamin: Solaris Offgrid started in 2014 to develop technology to scale up promising energy access solutions such as Pay-as-you-go solar - Paygo solar in particular - with a focus on the customers needs and sustainable business models. When we started, myself and co-founders Thibault and Siten asked ourselves what the world would lose if the business would fail - so we made sure the aims were relevant and impactful. We were focused on understanding the customers needs and sustainable business models in order to share these learnings with the wider industry through our products. We started with our own last-mile operations in Tanzania with one employee, and a few solar home systems we had put together ourselves in a Hackerspace. We quickly understood that the main challenges a distributor could face to be successful in scaling its operations and become profitable was the lack of proper tools and infrastructure. So we decided to focus on the technology itself, to help existing companies distribute solar energy at scale and tackle those energy access issues. And that’s when we built and launched PaygOps, our software designed to help manufacturers and distributors in developing countries in building strong customer traction and more efficient last-mile operations through flexible Paygo solutions.
What is unique in the service you are building? How does it play an essential role in paygo operations?
Benjamin: I think that what actually makes our business different is our bottom-up approach in the design of our technologies, thanks to a strong field knowledge coming from our experience built over the years of being involved with distribution ourselves in Tanzania. I’ve spent months and months on the field with distributors, and helped install some of the first few clients. Still now, I go at least 1 month a year to spend time with field agents and understand how they use our technology. This close relationship with the field helps us improve our products as well as help our partners improve their offering whether they are distributors, manufacturers or financing partners. Altogether we’re supporting an interoperable and open ecosystem that can provide the best possible technology for use by the field operators and provide the best solutions for customers.
The Paygo market is critical in bringing life-changing services to the Bottom-of-the-Pyramid (BoP). Getting access to this type of infrastructure such as health, energy, transportation or even communication services would take years to implement in some developing countries and we come in with a quick and affordable solution to deliver those services to people in need. While being critical, the Paygo market in emerging countries is also a difficult market to be in with small margins, difficult operations to run with a lack of infrastructures (roads, telcos, maps…), so it is very difficult to succeed. Because of that, they need very robust IT infrastructures and software solutions that can support them to manage, analyse and improve their operations. PaygOps is here for that, bringing new technologies in the Paygo market to make that market profitable. I really see the difference now when I go visit distributors, operations are much more digitized than they used to be. You don’t see as often agents taking notes on little pieces of papers that they then bring back to the office. Overall it’s a lot more efficient and working more smoothly.
Any significant social driven achievement you wish to share?
Benjamin: I don’t know if this is our greatest achievement, but what has moved me most these past few months is how quickly we started seeing adoptions of the OpenPAYGO Token. We expected it to be a technical solution to help manufacturers but it turned out to have a lot of impact on opening up that part of the Pay-as-you-go process and make manufacturers more independent on the paygo side, and thus able to increase their reach.
Another great achievement was receiving a consequent investment from Acumen specially because it is another major market validation that we have a solid business case that proves to be socially impactful. Acumen invests it in companies and change makers whose products and services enable the poor to transform their lives. It is 100% focused on impact and holds an incredible portfolio of companies that create sustainable solutions to tackle poverty challenges at scale. And it is a great honor to be part of that….
What do you expect your business to be 5 years from now?
Benjamin: I would say that the Paygo market is going to extend to other essential services beyond solar and distributors will be diversifying their products to answer those needs. The Paygo business model might become the new norm to provide essential services to the BoP which can be faster and more efficient in reaching a larger number of people than through traditional channels. I truly believe that PaygOps can play a big role in this, by providing innovative technologies to find a way to distribute more and more products to the people that want them.
What piece of advice would you share with young professionals/entrepreneurs out there looking to make a social impact?
Do not get stuck on one specific solution, but rather focus on the larger problem you are trying to solve. At Solaris Offgrid, we’ve always tried to emphasize what we are good at to build efficient solutions. When it didn't work, we tried to find different ways to approach the initial problem. Which is why we pivoted our business multiple times, still trying to solve the initial problem but through different solutions.
Just get started and try: It might not always work but you can figure out the details along the way.
Surround yourself with the right people: It’s critical to launch a project or get in business with people with whom you share the same goal: tackling a specific problem. Even though you’re very different you can still work together around a common goal.
Who is Benjamin David outside the office?
Benjamin: I am a very curious person. I like to develop new skills and build little things. Yesterday for example I built a drying rack for my kitchen. You might ask why a drying rack… Well because I needed one and I had the time! We're all in lockdown! I think finding ways to relax is quite important. So I like having some kind of rituals to relax, like a yoga session in the morning, and at night cooking listening to a sociology podcast or doing something manual like pottery to let go of the pressure a bit. I read a lot as well which definitely helps in escaping our busy life and having a quiet moment, but it also stimulates me with a lot of new ideas to create!