In rural areas of Haiti, residents have trouble accessing cheap and reliable electricity. Limyè Pa w – founded by three social entrepreneurs – is trying to change that by setting up an electrical grid that uses discarded corn cobs as its fuel source. Ben Shell, one of the company’s co-founders, talks about the technology, the Haitian people and the challenges of building a sustainable enterprise in one of the poorest countries in the world. 

Below is an edited transcript of the conversation. 

Knowledge at Wharton: Our guest today is Ben Shell, co-founder of Limyè Pa w — a rural electrification social business startup in Haiti. Ben, thank you so much for joining us today.

Ben Shell: My pleasure.

Knowledge at Wharton: What does Limyè Pa w mean?

Shell: In Haitian Creole, it means “your light.” We wanted to give our business a name that people would understand immediately. Light is probably the most important use of electricity in rural areas of Haiti.

Knowledge at Wharton: Can you tell me a little bit about the rural electrification situation in Haiti and how that led to the genesis of your project?

Shell: Sure. Three of us co-founded the business — myself, another American named Dan Bierenbaum and a Haitian American named Duquesne Fednard. Duquesne grew up in a rural area of Haiti, went to the United States, became a U.S. citizen, and worked and went to school there. But after the earthquake, he came back to Haiti [in order to] help develop – and heal — the country. He had a vision of access to energy as a really important way for that to happen.

Haiti has the lowest rate of electricity use per capita in the western Hemisphere. It’s estimated – it’s very difficult to get good statistics – that less than 10% of people in rural areas in Haiti actually have access to a grid. So there’s a huge, huge need there, a need that Duquesne was looking for ways to meet. A couple years ago, Dan, who went to grad school with Duquesne, started talking to him about some emerging technology that could contribute to this. I actually knew Dan from before, so he brought me in, and we started our business.

Knowledge at Wharton: What is your business trying to accomplish?

It’s estimated that less than 10% of people in rural areas in Haiti actually have access to an [electrical] grid.

Shell: Our goal is to electrify rural areas of Haiti using renewable energy. It’s that simple. We think that this can bring a lot of benefits to people, starting with light, which can help kids study at night and thereby improve education, and help [families] generate additional income because they will have good light to work with. Kerosene lamps right now are really difficult to read by, much less to do any other kind of work.

That’s where we start. And then we hope that as people can use more electricity and we can generate more per household and per business, that they can actually use new appliances and equipment to start new businesses or expand existing ones. Looking at the local economy, [it could mean] importing less from the outside … making more local products and even starting to export them, and so generating more wealth that way.

When people can use electricity to run cooking appliances and potentially washing machines, they can save a tremendous amount of time on household chores. This will, I hope, really affect the free time that Haitian women and girls have and help them achieve more equal opportunity.

Knowledge at Wharton: I think that’s a really laudable set of objectives. I know in other parts of the world, such as Africa, some of the risks of kerosene lamps, etc., have been dealt with by people trying to use solar power to address their needs. Can you explain your technology and how it differs from say, using LED lighting and solar energy to solve the same problem?

Shell: Sure. We are using gasification technology, which is not a new technology. It’s been around for a hundred years or so, but there are new versions of small scale gasifiers coming out which make it economical for us to deploy them in a rural area and create a business around generating and selling electricity. How that works is you take bio-mass — and we’re using, well actually I have one right here — we’re using corn cobs. Here’s a corn cob from rural Haiti, where it is basically treated as trash. After farmers take the kernels off, they will just throw it away or they will burn it when they run out of charcoal for stoves.

Using this, you put it into our system which creates charcoal out of it. And then eventually, through combustion and another process called “reduction,” it creates a gas or two types of gases, carbon monoxide and hydrogen gas, H2 — which are both combustible. You can run [them] through an engine and burn [them], just like you can run propane or another kind of gas through engines.

Emerging technology will allow us to make a business that is sustainable and that can grow and serve the huge need that exists in Haiti and in other countries as well.

We are really excited about this because it’s a lot cheaper to deploy than solar. If you want to have a standalone solar system, you need batteries. You need inverters. You need solar panels. And the batteries, especially, are very expensive and difficult to maintain. A solar system of a similar size as our gasifier would cost two to four times as much. So, we’re really excited about this new technology. It will allow us to make a business that is sustainable and that can grow and serve the huge need that exists in Haiti and in other countries as well.

Knowledge at Wharton: How many people would this technology serve initially? And how would you plan to scale it?

Shell: We have one system now which we’re planning to launch as a pilot this summer. That system can serve anywhere from 100 to 200 households. It really depends on how much energy each household uses. But we’re talking about pretty small amounts — between 60 and 300 watts per household. So, that system should serve as our pilot. But then we can add more systems onto that. We can add bigger systems. Our goal really is to make this pilot successful and prove that people will be willing to pay for electricity at a price that allows us to grow, make a profit and pay back our investment costs – and also attract investors who are probably not hedge funds or anybody looking for 20% or 30% returns. We would like to attract social investors who want to make money but who will really care about how they do it and are really interested in helping the millions of people in rural Haiti and the billions of people throughout the world who don’t have access to electricity now.

Knowledge at Wharton: So, speaking of investors, what is your source of funding at the moment, and how sustainable is it?

Shell: Right now we’re funding ourselves through the co-founders. We’re putting in our own time and effort and money. And we’ve also won some business plan competitions, which have given us some grant money that’s designed to get us to the point where we can launch the pilot…. And then once we have a model that works, we can take that to investors and see if they can help us grow.

Knowledge at Wharton: Haiti is one of the poorest countries in the world. How does that affect your aspirations?

Shell: Haiti is a really difficult place to do business. But I think we have a great team, especially with Duquesne and his knowledge and connections in the country. So I think we’re well positioned, as well positioned as anybody in that country to get things done. I think we see so much need in Haiti so that’s really where we want to be — in Haiti or places like Haiti because that is where need and difficulty correspond to opportunity. So, we see it as a [country] with a lot of opportunity.

Knowledge at Wharton: How important is it to have a local partner?

Farmers in rural areas, especially in the village where we’re planning to do the pilot … are an inspiration in terms of how hard they work and the vision they have for their own community.

Shell: Duquesne is a Haitian American so he’s not 100% local, and he’s not 100% foreign. He’s a mix between the two. But he’s the reason why I’m involved in this business. It’s because I met him and was inspired by his vision and the work that he had already done in Haiti. I thought he’d be a great partner. And so far, we’ve done a lot together.

Knowledge at Wharton: Can you tell us a little bit about what have been your toughest challenges so far? And what have you done to address those challenges?

Shell: Sure. So, there’s been a number of challenges. Getting things done in rural Haiti has been just slower than I would have expected. I’ve worked in developing countries basically my whole career but it’s a little bit — it’s slower than it has been in other countries and more difficult in some senses. But on the flip side, it has been really surprising in terms of how open and excited the government has been for us [and how they have been] supporting our pilot launch. The legal framework around it is quite flexible, too; they are interpreting it in a way which is really encouraging.

I think that’s been surprising and been great. The technology itself we’re sourcing from the United States, and it’s actually taken longer than we thought to adapt it to the reality that we see in rural Haiti. So, that’s also been a challenge.

Knowledge at Wharton: Where would you say you need help the most?

Shell: I think where we’re really going to need help is in the future, once we’ve gotten our pilot up and running — getting the funding and finding the right partners that can provide funding for us to grow. I think we’re very business minded, but we also have a very strong commitment to making sure that electrification really helps people and creates new opportunities for them. It’s not just about electricity. It’s also about creating new opportunities and economic growth and social change in rural Haiti. So I think finding the right partner that also has that vision is probably the most important thing for us. 

Knowledge at Wharton: What’s been your most inspirational moment so far?

Shell: I think working with farmers in rural areas, especially in the village where we’re planning to do the pilot…. They really, really want electricity to come, and they’ve been really supportive. And they are an inspiration in terms of how hard they work and the vision they have just for their own community. So, we’re just trying to form a strong partnership with them. And together I think we can do a lot of great things.

Knowledge at Wharton: One final question, what do you see happening in the next six months?

Shell: Launching the pilot is the biggest thing in the next six months. So, after six months, we should have [done that] and be working out the kinks in terms of the operational model and starting to raise money to expand.

Knowledge at Wharton: Ben, thanks a lot. And all the best to you and Limyè Pa w.

Shell: Thank you very much, Mukul. I appreciate the time.