Frequent power outages, high costs of buying and running generators, and the relatively high cost of refrigerators prevent many African businesses and households from accessing cooling when it’s needed. What many of these countries have in plenty, however, is sunlight. Koolboks, one of the most promising participant startups in the Smart Cities innovation Programme (SCIP), has developed solar-powered cooling systems that are set to make eco-friendly cooling accessible and affordable for all.
Refrigeration is an integral part of everyday life. The storage and transportation of fresh produce and medications such as insulin, chemotherapy drugs, and vaccines require uninterrupted cold chains. Without constant cooling, these vital medicines go to waste and fail to reach where they are needed most. This is where Koolboks comes in. They set out to make off-grid solar refrigerators accessible in African countries but are now on a global journey to solve these problems.
Koolboks refrigerators store energy in the form of ice, using ice battery technology which guarantees four to seven days of cooling without sunlight. With access to affordable solar cooling solutions, businesses, hospitals, and households will not need to incur wastage or rely on carbon emitting diesel generators which polute the environment.
We spoke to the Nigerian co-founder and CEO Dominic Ayoola about how he came up with the idea behind Koolboks and how he ultimately went from the pharmaceutical industry to becoming an entrepreneur.
How it all started
Ayoola is a pharmacist by profession and has worked in leading international corporations including AstraZeneca. His interest in the field started from a young age: His parents were both medical doctors, so he grew up near a hospital. He experienced first-hand the loss of lives due to limited access to medications and spoilage of readily available medicines, resulting from limited access to refrigeration and electricity.
“As I was growing up, learning that access to medication was a life and death matter, I always thought that there was something that could be done, to ensure people have access to the medication they need.”, says Ayoola describing how the idea behind Koolboks started.
Together with co-founder Deborah Gail, and a small, experienced team, Ayoola launched the first ever decentralized mobile “Pay as you go” cooling company. What makes Koolboks a unicorn, setting them apart from other manufacturers of solar-powered refrigerators, is their aim to make their products as affordable as possible using a pay as you go system.
Growth despite challenges
Koolboks started with Nigeria as their main market, targeting the healthcare sector specifically. With extra insulation and ice batteries, they built more energy efficient pharmacy refrigerators. After some time, they realised that the refrigerators would also be beneficial for domestic and commercial use to serve more customers. They also installed LED lights and USB charging ports on their refrigerators in order to supply light and energy.
For the Nigerian market, they also adapted their strategy to sell cooling as a service. The goal is to enable customers to only pay for the cooling they receive without having to buy the refrigerator. A pay as yougo device is installed on the refrigerator, so customers can pre-pay as they use and in small installments as low as 10 USD. This makes cooling with Koolbox not only eco-friendly but also affordable.
The innovation ecosystem has provided a lot of support for Koolboks owing to their impactful and innovative approach. The Koolboks team has participated in various startup enabling programmes that have been beneficial in growing their network, gaining access to multiple rounds of funding and opportunities.
The innovation ecosystem
Koolboks participated in the Smart Cities Innovation Programme (SCIP). SCIP is our accelerator programme run by the Rwandan Ministry of ICT and Innovation, the GIZ’s Invest for Jobs initiative, and the Digital Transformation Center Kigali, aimed at supporting African startups in the fields of FinTech, mobility, CleanTech and smart housing. It brought together 31 selected startups, experts from various fields, and investors such as Volkswagen, Siemens, Viktoria Ventures, and the African Business Angels Network (ABAN) for individual mentoring and training as well as intensive networking and matchmaking. The highlight of the programme was a one-week live bootcamp that took place in Kigali in November 2021.
Dominic Ayoola sums up the programme as an important chance for Koolboks, especially considering networking with the innovation ecosystem:
“Kigali was a great experience for my two colleagues who attended the SCIP bootcamp. They made a lot of valuable connections and had a great opportunity to engage with other startups and investors.”
The pan-African connections will foster the further growth of Koolbox. Its team currently consists of 45 members. The company has already ventured into further markets and is now selling their products in 18 countries, including 3 outside of Africa: the Philippines, Singapore, and Papua New Guinea. They are meeting the demand for off-grid refrigeration in these countries which is driven by the high costs of electricity. Over 3,000 units have been sold so far and Koolboks is targeting to reach over 10,000 customers in the next two years.
Koolboks aims to expand even further and to offer their solar-powered cooling solutions on a global scale. They are currently working on new products, one of which will enable customers to transform the refrigerators they already have into solar fridges with a single click.
While his colleagues learned a lot from and with other startups and investors, Ayoola has some advice of his own:
“My advice to young entrepreneurs who are getting started, is to stay consistent. It doesn´t matter what background you come from, what color your skin is or your accent, it´s the fight you have in you. Keep going and go hard!”