2022 has been a dark summer for Bangladesh.
The country (which I’m proud to say is my mother’s home country) considered itself past a history of widespread blackouts. The government’s mission to provide 100% electrification to all citizens appeared to be a success.
But this summer, crippling blackouts have returned to Bangladesh. Consumers in Dhaka, the capital city, struggle to keep their homes cool on five to six hours of electricity per day. Businesses are forced to limit their hours. Power cuts are occurring nationwide.
In the 1990s in Bangladesh, power failure was common and usually caused by load shedding—an attempt to reduce excessive demands on centralized power plants. In cities, blackouts would last six to eight hours. In rural areas, life would stall at sunset, with many regions lacking access to power at all.
From 2009 to 2022, the country made tremendous progress, going from 47% of the population having access to electricity up to 96%. Power generation capacity increased almost five-fold—from 4,942 megawatts (MW) per year to 25,514. Even the 2014 Bangladesh blackout, one of the largest ever, which left the entire population without power for 10 hours, was looked on as a relic of the past. Until now.
Today, Bangladesh faces new issues powering its communities. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has led to global fuel shortages. Countries in Europe that can better afford to pay double the price are grabbing up the limited supply, and there is not much left over to support emerging economies like Bangladesh’s. If the country cannot secure a new long-term supply of fuel, it is set to face rolling blackouts until 2026.
But an energy-focused industrial company called Rahimafrooz may have a better solution.
Rahimafrooz’s user-centric business models
In 1947, Abdur Rahim arrived in the city of Chittagong, Bangladesh, with very little capital. Described as a pious man and “a dreamer who thought nothing impossible,” by 1950 Rahim had established Rahimafrooz & Co., a small trading concern that specialized in automobile batteries.
At a time when Bangladesh was one of the poorest and most neglected parts of the world, Rahimafrooz grew to become one of the largest and most reputable businesses in the country. Rather than sticking to a single business model of manufacturing automobile batteries, it did this by listening to the needs of citizens that would eventually shape new, innovative business models.
In the 1990s, when blackouts were common, Rahimafrooz shifted its focus to deep cycle battery applications. Deep cycle batteries, when applied to power plants, railways, and telecommunications systems, offer standby power. If a power plant trips for a few minutes, the batteries keep the minimum parts working and provide two to three hours of backup. This offered a band-aid solution to prevent long-running blackouts in cities.
This solution worked pretty well for people living in cities, who were already accustomed to having power. What if it could also solve a more complex problem by bringing electricity to people in rural areas?
The power of a “fourth option”
The world’s most disruptive innovators have one thing in common—they look past known solutions to discover “fourth options” that others don’t expect and are either unable or unwilling to copy. Most companies, when pressed to come up with a new way of doing things, will generate a number of potential options and stop there.
What we call the “fourth option” is beyond that step. It’s the option you haven’t considered yet but that will revolutionize your business.
At Rahimafrooz, the fourth option was just beyond deep cycle battery applications. The company figured out that connecting a solar panel on top of the deep cycle battery could store enough power to provide rural households with a few hours of solar energy at night. Imagine—families might see each other over dinner; children might read books or study after dark; life could go on later into the night.
Moreover, these distributed solar energy systems generate power that can self-consume—excess energy can be redistributed back to the microgrid and recycled, removing any need for load shedding blackouts.
Implications of solar energy in Bangladesh
In 2014, Rahimafrooz, now the largest energy and battery provider in Bangladesh, was awarded the Green Business title for its focus on a triple bottom line: people, planet, and profit. The company, which received one of Nobel Prize winner Dr. Muhammad Yunus’ micro-finance loans, has generated more than 25 MW of solar photovoltaic solutions and brought the benefits of electricity to more than 200,000 households in rural Bangladesh.
That’s not all. We spoke to Munawar Misbah Moin, Rahimafrooz’s group director, who says the implications for the future are profound. The company’s local solar solutions have convinced a huge population that solar works and that it can be more reliable than centralized electricity generated in cities. It may prove to be a real solution to the global fuel shortages the country faces today.
According to Moin, the future looks bright for Rahimafrooz to combine distributed solar energy, digital technologies, infrastructure, and connectivity. For example, mass transit in rural areas is made up of tuk-tuks carrying six to eight passengers. Rahimafrooz is working to solarize their charging points. If connected, this network of vehicles might do more than carry passengers. They could deliver packages, move supplies, or facilitate ecommerce.
Fourth option ideas continue to present themselves, and Rahimafrooz is at the forefront of powering their possibility.
To apply the lessons from Rahimafrooz to find a “fourth option,” explore four sequential questions:
- Where do current norms result in social issues? Example: Rural households without power.
- In that space, what might a future in which the production and provision of value moves to the point of demand in time and space (we call this trend proximity)? Example: Energy is produced at the homes of rural households at the time it’s needed.
- Would such a proximate scenario lead to a more positive and fairer social outcome? Example: Yes. Rural homes would have electricity.
- If so, what is missing that, if it were there, would allow the industry to take a meaningful next step toward proximity? Example: Providing batteries.