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Red Bull Basement University: Giving wings to tomorrow’s captains of industry

Read time 5min 50sec
Kwanda Jakalas and Randolph Meth, Silicon Energy.
Kwanda Jakalas and Randolph Meth, Silicon Energy.

Red Bull's Basement challenge is a global competition open to university students with ideas to use tech to simplify campus and off-campus life. For some of its participants, the platform provides a springboard for young innovators to not only bring their ideas to life, but get international exposure too.

The four-month-long contest came to a close on Sunday. Normally held as a physical event bringing together participants from all over the world, this year’s final, the Global Workshop, was held both online and at physical, satellite events.

South Africa’s representatives in the Global Workshop, Randolph Meth and Kwanda Jakalase, are 24-year-old Nelson Mandela University students who’ve built themselves a multimillion-rand company that aims to tackle the country’s energy crisis.

The pair, from Mthatha in the Eastern Cape, have known each other for about a decade. They began researching alternative energy sources in 2013 in response to load-shedding but, says Meth, they didn’t realise how big an idea it was until the following year when Eskom introduced longer power cuts through stage three load-shedding

“Our first venture was in biogas. We collected cow dung, extracting the methane, but we saw that there are other ways to generate renewable energy,” he says.

So they began exploring other energy sources and became interested in solar power.

Big picture thinking

Jakalas adds: “When we first thought of this idea, we couldn’t afford the components for solar generation. We only started building the generators last year because the prices of components have come down with the increased demand and production.”

Students in the Basement challenge are encouraged to solve pressing, unmet needs affecting life on campus or in the greater community. Jakalase and Meth’s Mitha Solar Generator beat 94 other applicants to win South Africa’s leg of the Red Bull challenge.

The generator uses PV panels and batteries to power up anything from a house, small business or it can be used for outdoor activities such as camping. The range of six models comes in different sizes, from 120W (powering small appliances, charging phones, running DC fridges) and is priced at R2 500. The 3 000W model costs about R13 000 and can power larger appliances such as a stove or a washing machine. The more expensive models are equipped with WiFi. The generators also come with an expandable battery system and so multiple generators can be used together, connected and synchronised to power a whole house.

The seven-man team behind the project would like to add other features such as data analytics and a batch management system. The analytics will supply information to maximise efficiency and will measure the consumption rate of appliances. The batch management system will provide insights into what the generators are being used for, peak consumption times and will also allow remote system updates.

Jakalase says: “There’s a lot we can do to innovate the generators but we’re still testing features to make sure they are worthwhile investments.”

He adds that with a team of seven and with so many big ideas floating around, “sometimes you have to be the bad guy, knocking ideas down because of the feasibility”.

Path to market

The objective is to distribute the generators through government and its wide reach across different verticals, such as health, small businesses and housing where the generators can be repurposed as pre-paid meters. The company is currently focusing on private home installations.

A demonstration model at the event is a third-generation design, which they hope will be commercialised by the end of 2021. A hardware chain in the Eastern Cape’s approached Silicon Energy with an order of 50 units a month. “When he (the chainstore owner) found us, he said people have been asking for something like this. So he’s been following our progress!” they say.

While Jakalas and Meth would like to focus on electricity generation as their uninterrupted power supply, they have greater ambitions to branch into other sources of renewable energy. They are currently working on a proposal to place electric vehicle (EV) charging stations at strategic spots around the country such as national routes. Jakalas says: “EVs are the future and right now only first world countries supply the equipment for charging stations. We hope we can secure the funding privately and through the public sector to develop a national charging station network. We want to be the first ones to do it, even before the big guys.”

And the winner is...

The UK’s Lava Aqua X won the Basement's “Best Idea of 2020”, and was chosen because of the solution’s innovation, impact, creativity and pitch performance.

Joanna Power and Paramveer Bhachu of London's Brunel University designed Aqua X, aiming to deal with water scarcity. It’s a compact washing machine that uses recycled shower water for laundry. Aqua X is specially targeted at students and has been in development since March this year.

The team’s research showed that the average 18-24-year-old college/university student uses around 180 litres of water a day, mostly from showering.

Aqua X has a detachable water tank. The tank is used as a shower mat (it can support the weight of two men) and collects 8 litres of shower water at a time. Once the tank is reattached to the unit, the machine filters the grey water and washes the clothes in 12 minutes.

The machine is meant to be small enough to fit into a dorm room and has an LED indicator system, a water heater and a dual motor for quicker spin speed and faster washes. The machine’s replaceable carbon filter lasts for 25 washes.

The pair have won a tailored prize-package including mentoring and access to the resources neededto further develop the product.

Second place went to Charging Revolution from Slovakia, for a device that uses muscle power (such as clenching your fist) to charge small gadgets. Third place was awarded to a female duo from Pakistan for UniThink, a platform connecting researchers and varsity students. Students are incentivised to take part in focus-groups, interviews and surveys.

A special community award was given to Kenya's Culture Capture, a digital museum created to preserve the world's dying languages and cultures. The app will also use gamification to teach users.

Joanna Power and Paramveer Bhachu.
Joanna Power and Paramveer Bhachu.
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