It’s a sunny summer day when we meet Linnea Bergman at the offices of Solar Bora in the Collegium building in Linköping Science Park. Only three years ago she was a student on the LiU Master’s Programme in Energy – Environment – Management. She had a summer job that she had obtained through LiU Innovation and was starting to plan her degree project.
“I dreamed of working with solar cells in Africa, and I mentioned this to LiU Innovation. The person I was talking to fell suddenly silent, and then asked: ‘Have you discussed this with your supervisor?’.”
Alumna of the year in front of a laboratory cupboard. Photo credit THOR BALKHED
It turned out that her supervisor had just started Solar Bora, a company building solar cell systems for Africa. Linnea carried out her degree project, an investigation of the markets in three African countries, for Solar Bora. Eighteen months later she was managing director.
What’s important is to make a difference
Much of the work Linnea Bergman carries out concerns technical aspects of the solar cell systems and how to construct viable payment models, but several times during the interview she emphasises that her strongest driving force is not technology or business.
“I have a master’s in engineering, and, of course, I enjoy working with technology, but what’s important to me is to make a difference.”
And it’s in sub-Saharan Africa that she wants to make a difference, although she can’t say exactly when her interest in Africa started. She was planning a long visit after completing upper secondary school, but it turned out not to be possible. After two years studying at LiU, she took a year off and travelled to Tanzania and Zanzibar as a volunteer.
“The main thing about volunteer work is not that you leave here and help them there, but that you leave here, learn things there, and bring what you’ve learned home with you.” She taught English in Tanzania in a village without electricity.
“The village elders often talked about how much they wanted to have electricity. They wanted to charge their mobiles: everyone had a mobile but no one could charge it. They wanted lights, and the next step would be to cook food.”
She came to realise that cooking food over an open fire was not only expensive in time and energy: it also has some very harmful health effects.
“Four million people die every year from diseases caused by the smoke they inhale when cooking over an open fire. That’s more than die from malaria and HIV/AIDS together. This is a huge problem that I want to do something about.”.
Linnea Bergman in Bamako, Mali testing an induction hob.
Will reduce is poverty
A further problem that she hopes that the company’s products will reduce is poverty. The Solar Bora system can be used not only to charge mobile phones and power an induction hob, but also to drive tools.
“Several ‘solar home systems’ are already commercially available, and can be used to charge mobiles, listen to the radio, and so on. But you can’t use the electricity from these to do anything productive. They deliver only 12 volts DC, while our system gives 230 volts AC, the same as from a mains electrical supply.”
This makes it possible to run a sewing machine, refrigerator or freezer, such that it can be used when starting a microbusiness.
“This means that the users can earn money and leave poverty behind. Poverty is a major problem, particularly in Mali.”
The Solar Bora system is available in two models, one smaller than the other. The small model is intended for use in a household, while the large one – which looks like a refrigerator – is intended for schools, hospitals and small enterprises in locations that completely lack electricity or have an unreliable supply.
“At the moment, our large system is being used at a girls’ boarding school in Kenya. They do have mains electricity, but the supply is often interrupted. Our system means that they can run the computer room, lighting, and other appliances.”
Linnea Bergman describes the need for electricity as enormous in Africa, but many families are too poor to buy a solar cell system on their own. So Solar Bora has decided to concentrate for the time being on the large units. One way of getting them installed at remote villages is through collaboration. In Kenya, the regional authorities are interested in purchasing their system as an alternative to a mains electricity supply.
“The authorities have concluded that it’s not possible for them to build an electrical supply that reaches everybody, but they want everybody to have access to electricity. This is where we offer a solution.”
Optimistic about the future
Even if it is complicated to find paying customers, she believes that it is possible, and that the key to success is listening to the people who live there.
“It’s important to understand their needs, and that we solve the true problems. We mustn’t come in and decree what we consider to be the right or wrong solution.”
At the Solar Bora office in Linköping Science Park. Photo credit Thor Balkhed
She is optimistic about the future.
“I believe that in 10-15 years we will have established ourselves in Kenya and Mali, and that we have been able to reproduce our model in other countries. There is a huge need in many places.”
The corona pandemic has affected Solar Bora’s plans for 2020. Linnea Bergman was planning to spend a large part of the year in Kenya and Mali. She has instead investigated whether there is a market for the system in Europe.
“There is a small market for summer cottages in Sweden, and we have also looked at Portugal. At the moment many people are interested in becoming self-sufficient, maybe because what is known as the ‘prepper’ culture has become more popular.”
It was recently announced that Kenya has opened its borders, and Linnea Bergman plans to travel there as soon as possible. She describes how she has missed being where the action is and installing the systems.
“Down there, there’s a lot of carrying, connecting and testing. How much work we do in the laboratory at home is not what’s important: only when we are on site can we see if it actually works. That’s when we make a difference.”
Linnea Bergman, reflected in an induction hob. Photo credit Thor Balkhed
Translated by George Farrants