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Winner Spotlight: Strauss Energy Wants to Put Solar-Panel Roofs Over People’s Heads

Dena Levitz Headshot

Dena Levitz

Challenge Cup Reporting Fellow, 1776

Everyone needs a roof over their heads—so they might as well use these roofs to generate energy. That’s especially true in nations such as Kenya, where 70 percent of residents lack reliable power.

That’s the premise on which Strauss Energy was founded. The five-person Nairobi startup has developed specialized solar roof tiles that are patent-pending and that have the potential to change the energy game in East Africa. Strauss Energy also recently won a spot at 1776’s Challenge Festival as a People’s Choice winner.

Ahead of the competition in D.C. next month, company cofounders Charity Wanjiku and Tony Nyagah chatted with 1776 and broke down the major energy deficiencies in their homeland they’re trying to solve and how customers can eventually make money off of their roof tiles.

What is the need in Kenya for solar panel roofs? What’s going on energy-wise that caused you to develop his technology?

Nyagah: We’re looking for sources of energy. First, only 30 percent of the population has reliable energy, and they’re frequented by blackouts. I’ll get to my house and not know if I’ll have power.

Then, the problem is fluctuating energy prices. I don’t have control of my own electricity. And number two, we have a gap. In the next 28 months we have a gap of 5,000 megawatts in Kenya. We need to up that to 7,000. The irony is that it took us 50 years to generate 2,000 megawatts. It’s impossible, so we have to come up with another way to make everybody a small stakeholder to generate a little bit of electricity and support this problem of energy sufficiency.

We have to encourage every house to support this initiative to have energy sufficiency. The only way we can do this is to enable everybody to generate a few kilowatts from their own house.

We have a problem with wind energy, which is supposed to generate 300 megawatts—but it takes 10 years for someone to benefit. So this (Strauss Energy’s product) is instead of waiting for 10 years.

So how do your panels solve this, and who do you see your customers being?

Nyagah: We want to be as accessible as possible, as basic as possible. The idea is that we’re not selling someone else’s technology. It’s pretty simple because it’s really a roof with a solar panel on it. You don’t need to just have power for your house; you can actually make a little extra money based on the energy you generate.

Everybody needs a roof over their head. A typical person who gets solar panels over their roof, that will cost them. With our tech, this person saves 40 percent of the cost immediately. That’s our first category of customer.

The other categories are the ones who cannot afford expensive roofs, and the last category that we’re considering is someone who cannot afford a roof or solar panel. Our retailing price is $50 apiece, but we don’t want to deny the opportunity to have the roof tile. We want to lower that to as low as $5 from $50, which would be the cheapest roofing tile available.

For that first customer, within 24 to 36 months they will have made back the return on their roof—and from there they make money back from the extra power generated.

So what exactly do the panels look like? How big are they and what are they made of?

Wanjiku: They’re 600 millimeters by 500 millimeters, so about half a meter by a little more than half a meter. Each can generate up to 35 watts of power at 100 percent efficiency. Our proposal is to have it made of plastics, a plastic substrate and then the solar cells which are integrated and each has a junction box on the back.

How much progress have you made so far? Are you in the marketplace?

Wanjiku: At the moment we don’t have our tiles on any roofs yet. We’re at the proof-of-concept stage. What we’re doing is setting up a model house at Strathmore University. The hope is to simulate how it would work. The model is a one-bedroom unit. What we’re going to do is demonstrate the technology fully, and light it up so everyone understands what it does.

We’ve also had our tiles tested in the lab, and they said they’re as efficient as they come. The model, we think, will give us the boost we need. We already have had a lot of interest though. We have a few customers who’ve asked us to put our tiles on their car parks.

And these car parks and the interest right now is in the U.S. or from Africa?

Nyagah: It’s all in Kenya right now. Home is best; we’ve got to light up our home first.

I’d imagine there are a number of solar roof options. What makes your tiles better?

Wanjiku: It’s a new product in the market actually, so there’s nothing like it in the market. What we’re bringing  to the market is a two-in-one technology, so it’s a first in Kenya and in Africa. Our technology is also cheaper—40 percent more cost effective. Because we are using building integrated photo-voltaic (BIPV) panels, the tiles are not dependent on the heat, as compared to the regular solar panels which are dependent on heat. Ours will just depend on light.

Wanjiku: Solar energy, for us, is a God-given resource. (In Kenya) we have at least 11 months of sunshine and it’s free, so why not use this resource?

Nyagah: With other products you won’t get a roof that meets your return on investment and that gives you an opportunity to make your money back in as little as 24 months.

You’re a People’s Choice winner so you’ll be coming to D.C. for the Challenge Festival next month. What do you want to get out of the experience?

Wanjiku: We are looking to win the money definitely. Apart from winning the money, there will also be great networking and advice and exchanging ideas. And if we can get people interested in energy in Africa, that would be great.

Challenge Festival is also an international platform, so you never know who’s listening in the audience. We know locally we’ve gained a lot of interest. And we’re meeting 70 other companies from all over the world. The exposure will be amazing from that.

Dena Levitz Headshot

Dena Levitz

Challenge Cup Reporting Fellow, 1776

Dena Levitz is traveling to almost all of the Challenge Cup cities to cover the competition and analyze startup ecosystems around the globe. Dena joins 1776 after finishing the first…