Read our EXCLUSIVE interview with Power:On founder Tristan Kochoyan below and learn more about this noble initiative!
You are the founder of Power:On, a startup on a mission to bring electricity to the remotest villages in Africa. Could you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Ahah not sure how to answer that question, what do you want to know? I’m 30, born and raised in Paris, France… I like to solve difficult problems, do big things, and a lot of people think I am crazy for doing this. However this feels right because I always wanted to work on something that would help other people get a better life. It’s kind of a personal philosophy, I believe in giving back. I even wrote a Manifesto.
There are many kinds of philanthropy and a lot of philanthropists who has focused their humanitarian work in Africa and elsewhere have concentrated on solving food, water, shelter, education and healthcare initiatives. What made you choose electricity as your project?
When I first came to Benin, I was working in an NGO focused on education and microcredit. This is how I met Louise, I hired her as our employee. I only learnt about the electricity access crisis later, during an internship in a consulting firm in Paris. I felt this was a very big and interesting problem. 1.3 billion people in the world live without electricity. In 2017, this is insane. It’s not just about comfort. Living without electricity has extremely severe consequences, and it’s the root of countless issues that hinder social and economic development. Let’s take a very simple example. When you don’t have electricity, you have to use coal, kerosene lamps, candles to get light. The toxic fumes these fuels emit kill 76,000 people… per WEEK! That’s more than AIDS and malaria combined. This is not just about comfort, it’s life and death. I’m not even talking about the effect on education, poverty, etc. The home page of Power:On’s website is titled “Why Electricity” so you can learn more about that there. I also wrote an editorial to give a broader perspective on this issue.
Tell us how Power:On started/came about. What is your vision and mission?
I started Power:On when I graduated from business school. I decided I did not want to work in a consulting firm or in a big corporation. I wanted to have a purpose, a mission. I had kept in contact with Louise in Benin, and we decided to start Power:On to bring electricity to the poorest and remotest villages in the country. Our core mission is to give power to the people living there. We want them to use electricity to improve their living conditions but most importantly to trigger economic development and fight poverty. What Power:On has done in Igbérè is just a start. We want to build more grids wherever people need them and solve the electricity access issue for good.
What are the difficulties and challenges that you have encountered to get this initiative off the ground?
The biggest challenge by far is funding. Building a grid and electric plant costs money. Power:On’s first grid in Igbérè was funded by my family and friends who believed in me. Without them, nothing would have been possible. It still is our main issue right now, even if we are on the right track to prove that it makes economical sense to do what we do. People living in remote villages are ready to pay for electricity, because they are already paying a lot more for candles, batteries, kerosene, gasoline… Electricity makes their lives incredibly easier, and it’s cheaper! But most people don’t see the big picture. Africa is moving a lot faster than we usually think. This is why I loved Hans Rosling’s TED talks. He really knew how to destroy pre-conceived ideas about the developing world. He passed away recently and I was sad, but I really encourage everyone to watch his talks.
Tell us about some of the key accomplishments of Power:On so far.
Power:On’s biggest accomplishment is of course our first grid in Igbérè, a very remote vilage in Benin, home to 3000 inhabitants. Power:On’s grid has been providing electricity to over 100 families, entrepreneurs and public services for over a year now!
Power:On employs a unique approach of social entrepreneurship. Tell us why you choose this approach and why you think your supporters should get behind your initiative.
When I decided to tackle the electricity access issue, I realized governments and NGOs had been trying to fix it for decades. Yet something was obviously not working. The number of people living without electricity had never decreased. When I first came to Benin, I was chairman of a charity myself. But for this, I thought I should try something else. I also wrote another editorial on this matter.
I believe in the power of entrepreneurship. My bet is that if Power:On can prove that bringing electricity to the poorest people on the planet can be done in a sustainable and profitable way, then the problem will be solved very quickly. I believe in taking advantage of the strength of capitalism to make it work for social good. This is social entrepreneurship. When you go to Africa, even in the remotest places, you can drink a Coca-Cola. In Igbérè, small shops sell Coke! You can be against that, but you have to admit this is incredible. My point is that if Coca-Cola is able to sell Coke in the remotest and poorest villages in the world, then Power:On should be able to do the same for electricity.
The key question is then to find a busines model that will make electricity affordable to the poorest people on the planet and that will guarantee sustainability. Giving out solar panels or building electric grids for free doesn’t work, because when something breaks, what do you do? How do you pay for repair, for the people working for the project, etc? You have to think about these things. If you have a business running, then you can guarantee that you will be able to maintain the system over time, and reinvest your profits to build more and more grids in other villages. If you do a good job, people will be happy to buy your services. If you don’t, you will go bankrupt. It’s as simple as that. I believe it’s good because it puts more responsibility on you and it keeps your interests aligned with your clients.
I really think it’s worth supporting that kind of initiative because it has the potential to snowball into something really big. To start, Power:On has to rely on the support of the public, but once we have gained momentum, we will be able to keep running on our own. It’s not something you woud have to support every year. It’s a one time push to launch a rocket that will never go down!
Your short film documentary with director Antoine Bretillard was narrated by Eva Green. Eva is a known environmentalist and supporter of education and sustainable living through enterprise development so it didn’t come as a surprise that she collaborated with you in this noble project. For a time, you were looking for a “Godmother for Universal Electricity Access”. How did her involvement came about? What’s it like to work with her?
Antoine’s film was ready and we were indeed looking for a “godmother” to narrate it. The film’s ending shows how electricity allows access to light, education, health, but also to culture. I’m not saying more not to spoil it, but we thought it would be a good idea to have a cultural figure to be that godmother. I immediately thought of Eva for this, but without really thinking it would ever be possible. It was just something I said to Antoine as a joke, initially. I had absolutely no connection with her or the cinema industry, it was just a dream.
Then I decided to give it a shot and to contact her agents, whom I found on the Internet. After all, I had nothing to lose! Most agents did not write back. Some replied, telling me she was not available. I was about to give up, but I sent one last message to an agent I had not contacted yet. To my surprise, she replied almost immediately. I could not believe it. The dream was coming true!
I did not get to work directly with Eva as she was quite busy filming. As you can imagine, her schedule is pretty full. But she still managed to find time to record her voice for us, despite all the things she had to do. This was incredibly kind of her. And it was perfect!
The short film documentary focused on your pilot project in Igbérè, Benin. Why did you choose Igbérè to be the place to jumpstart your project?
Louise and I had two main criteria to choose a village to start Power:On. It had to be very far from the national electric grid, and we were looking for a village of around 100 households. Igbérè was the perfect candidate. Plus Louise knew the field pretty well, since she had worked there before we met. She was fighting excision with a local NGO. She won that battle, that should tell you how amazing she is!
Then she brought me in the village with her. This is when I experienced life in the village for the first time, and it was a real shock. It was like I had traveled back in time. I talked to as many people as I could. They were struggling to get the most basic things: water, light, healthcare… Even food sometimes. The people were used to these living conditions, but they knew it was not right. They all had family in bigger cities who had electricity, water, etc. They even had seen our wetern world cities in films and they knew a better, easier life existed. But they were denied this life.
After that, I had no choice but to try and make things right for them. I was going to start with Igbérè, and then go on to every remote village.
You need 20,000 supporters to be able to launch a crowdfunding campaign and continue to change the lives of hundreds of children and families. How can people help and join you in making this happen?
If you like Power:On’s mission, you can support by signing up with your email to our website. If you want to really help us, tell your friends do sign up as well, so they can tell their friends to do the same, and so on. This is how we will build something big that will change the world.
When our community reaches a critical size, we will launch a crowdfunding campaign. Our supporters will be able to contribute if they want to. But there’s no use launching that campaign if we don’t get to that critical size first and if nobody knows about Power:On. If we launched it today, it would fail. This is why we need at least 20,000 supporters signing up for free right now!
What has been the most rewarding aspect of your work on Power:On?
Without hesitation, the stories of the “Humans Of Igbérè”, as I call them. It’s just what the people of Igbérè tell me. What is their life like now that they have electricity, how much it changed, what are their plans for the future now that their village finally has power. I love these stories and they are my motivation. I share them on Power:On’s Facebook, Instagram and Twitter pages.
Once this campaign is off the ground, what can we expect more from you, Eva and Power:On?
The crowdfunding campaign will allow us to upgrade our grid to use solar energy. We will build a hybrid system with solar panels, batteries and our generator as back up. This system will be able to generate 24/7 electricity in Igbérè.
We will inform you of how things are going, as we do for those who are already inside our community. Antoine already told me he will come shoot the sequel of his film when we upgrade! I really hope the first one is a big success so I can ask Eva to narrate again! Who knows, maybe she will even come to Igbérè… It’s a little bit up to you. Make the first film a success and share it with friends!
Lastly, do you have any message or appeal to your supporters or anyone reading this interview?
First, I want to thank the team of Eva Green Web for this interview and the help you are offering to promote this film. I am truly honored.
I also want to thank everyone reading this interview. If you got this far, this means you are interested in Power:On, so I encourage you to go sign up for free to keep posted of our latest news, and tell your friends!
Finally, if Eva is reading this: merci encore infiniment, pour tout. On s’appelle pour la suite!!
Thank you for your time, Tristan. We wish you the very best!