MEM Andrew Seelaus Helped Bring Off-Grid Energy to East Africa through Summer Internship

March 10, 2016
Contact:

Tim Lucas, 919/613-8084, tdlucas@duke.edu

By Natalya Ares, MEM ‘17
Nicholas School Communications Assistant

DURHAM, N.C. – Last summer, MEM/MBA student Andrew Seelaus interned with Off Grid Electric, a solar start-up company based in Arusha, Tanzania, which focuses on providing off-grid energy to rural areas in both Tanzania and Rwanda.

“It was an incredible experience working with them,” Seelaus says. “My role was working on their expansion team. They currently have an operation running in Tanzania and they were looking to expand to other countries. I had a lot of experience in Rwanda prior to coming to Duke through my work at (the nonprofit) Bridges to Prosperity so my role in the company was to help set up their business in Rwanda.”

The goal of Off Grid Electric is to bring electricity to 10 million households in Africa by 2022. The company offers modular solar units that can be easily installed on the roof of a home. The unit comes with a plug-and-play box that includes a battery, charge controller and various inputs for lights, phone chargers, and small appliances.

The systems the company sells  can be paid for over a period of time and the user may select the level of service that is best for their own home’s needs.

The flexibility of payment options and the ease of installation have led to enormous growth for the company and to the availability of energy in rural areas, Seelaus says.  “They can create solar systems so small that even people at the bottom of the pyramid can afford them.”

seelaus headshot (fuqua).jpg

  Andrew Seelaus (Photo credit: Fuqua School of Business, Duke Univ.)

Before his internship, Seelaus participated in a class, “Renewables and the World’s Poor,” which was co-taught by Jim Rogers, Rubenstein Fellow at Duke University who is leading the university’s Energy Access Project, and Tim Profeta, director of the Nicholas Institute of Environmental Policy Solutions. Through the class, Seelaus had the opportunity to meet with Off Grid Electric CEO and co-founder, Xavier Helgesen. The two kept in touch and while on Tim Johnson’s clean energy class field trip to California last year, Seelaus met with Helgesen to discuss a project proposal.

With help from the International Internship Fund and various staff members in the Nicholas School, Seelaus was able to accept a position as one of four interns at Off-Grid Electric last summer.  

One of his main roles at the company was setting up meetings with government officials.

“Whether it was getting the company registered in Rwanda, selecting the best regions for launching product pilots, or working with our Rwandan legal counsel to understand import regulations, at times it was challenging to find the avenues to get us to where we needed to be,” he says. “It’s a different culture that you’re working in.”

Seelaus, who is pursuing an MEM concentration in Energy and Environment, credits his interests in issues relating to development and energy to his upbringing and educational background.

“Justice was a really important concept when I was growing up. I wanted to work for Off Grid Electric because they are not only providing electricity in people’s homes, but they’re also creating an avenue for people to be connected. They are spearheading democratization of information technology,” he says.  

Seelaus’ ultimate goal is to use his education to help facilitate sustainable development and environmental justice in regions where people are marginalized.

The next major steps toward achieving those goals, he says, involve improving access to energy and water.

“What I really liked about Off Grid Electric was that it wasn’t a case of simplification or dumbing things down,” he says. “It was a business model that was created by people that were living in Arusha in collaboration with Tanzanians. It is a place that I could see myself building a career.”

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