Carbon Keeper: Open Source Information Management for Clean Energy Entrepreneurs

Carbon Keeper: Open Source Information Management for Clean Energy Entrepreneurs

Uganda
Organization type: 
for profit
Budget: 
$10,000 - $50,000
Project Summary
Elevator Pitch

Concise Summary: Help us pitch this solution! Provide an explanation within 3-4 short sentences.

Nearly half the world's population relies on traditional fuels for cooking, heating and lighting. These low quality energy sources damage the global environment, and have adverse effects on health and livelihood that disproportionately impact women and children.

Modern technologies including efficient cookstoves, water filters and solar lanterns offer affordable, high quality energy, but disseminating them at scale is a challenge. Distribution is typically led by individual entrepreneurs, with sales made via informal arrangements with sellers in remote locations. This approach is hard to manage as businesses grow. Carbon Keeper aims to provide mobile and web-based software, supported by a repository of best practices, to help clean energy entrepreneurs monitor their workforce at scale.

About Project

Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?

Carbon Keeper is designed to serve clean energy entrepreneurs in developing countries, business owners dedicated to providing modern energy services to the communities they work in. They are motivated by economic opportunity as well as an appreciation for the benefits of clean energy to their customers and the environment. Typical users have limited resources and technical ability, but detailed knowledge of local energy needs and preferences, as well as the ability to reach remote areas for direct sales. Carbon Keeper aims to give these entrepreneurs the tools and knowledge they need to manage their sales and workforce at scale. Carbon Keeper connects with business owners through third parties who support them in other ways, usually related to carbon finance or business development. Early prototypes of the software supported projects run by E+Co, a US-based nonprofit that invests in clean energy entrepreneurs. Through E+Co Carbon Keeper was adopted by Arnold Nzali, who owns a small energy business in Arusha, Tanzania. Arnold studied electrical engineering but turned down a position at a large firm to open a shop selling solar power supplies and household cookstoves. He supports his family, has been recognized by the World Bank, and is known as a local authority on renewable energy. In Uganda, Uganda Carbon Bureau and the International Lifeline Fund are implementing Carbon Keeper to support entrepreneurs like Lucy Opio from Lira. Lucy is an uneducated mother who has been able to send 8 children to school, and purchase a home, by selling efficient cookstoves in her community.

Solution: What is the proposed solution? Please be specific!

Most energy entrepreneurs collect data using paper forms. Information from the field is carried to a central office where it is typed into a spreadsheet and, if needed, sent by email to other stakeholders. This can take months, and is a laborious, error-prone process that is burdensome for businesses in remote areas. Carbon Keeper aims to streamline data management by using mobile phones and sensors for monitoring, and automating analysis and reporting over the web. Energy focused entrepreneurs in the developing world typically cannot support software development themselves, and their partners abroad often cannot or will not invest in custom software for data management. Carbon Keeper recognizes that most energy access projects have the same record keeping needs. Regardless of whether they are disseminating household cook stoves, biogas digesters, solar lanterns, water filters, or other products, implementers need to know who their customers are and how to contact them. Carbon Keeper is being developed into a readily customizable suite of open source tools, with technical support and a hosted web-platform offered as a service. The web platform will automate analysis and reporting, and individualized consulting and software customization will be available on an as-needed basis. By coupling open source tools with a supported web backend and collected best practices, Carbon Keeper makes it possible for the smallest businesses to access modern, IT-enabled information management, and scales gracefully to accommodate large, complex organizations.
Impact: How does it Work

Example: Walk us through a specific example(s) of how this solution makes a difference; include its primary activities.

Carbon Keeper is a suite of open source software tools and collected best practices for information management in developing world clean energy businesses. The software enables point of sale data entry via SMS (text messages), and is being expanded to include more rich data. Upcoming versions will link photos, GPS coordinates, and information from follow up surveys to sale records, and incorporate device usage data from electronic sensors where possible. Information collected with mobile phones or paper forms is stored in a central database and made available over the web, giving entrepreneurs and their collaborators abroad real-time insight into workforce and business performance at scale. In addition to enabling detailed sales and supply chain management, Carbon Keeper is designed to help entrepreneurs meet the rigorous monitoring and record keeping demands of the carbon finance process. Modern energy technologies often yield significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions compared to traditional devices. If these reductions are carefully monitored and audited, the emission offsets produced can be sold to organizations in developed countries that wish to mitigate their environmental impact. In many cases this represents a new revenue stream for clean energy business owners, enabling and incentivizing them to serve more, lower income customers. By streamlining monitoring and documentation, Carbon Keeper makes it easier for entrepreneurs to access this important source of capital.
About You
Organization:
Carbon Keeper
About You
First Name

Michael

Last Name

Benedict

Facebook Profile
About Your Organization
Organization Name

Carbon Keeper

Organization Country

, KMP

Country where this project is creating social impact

, KMP

How long has your organization been operating?

1‐5 years

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Innovation
What stage is your project in?

Operating for 1‐5 years

Share the story of the founder and what inspired the founder to start this project

I don't remember how I first became interested in the idea of collecting data over mobile phones, but I do remember my first attempt. I stayed up late one night in 2008 writing an application that let me send reviews of buffalo chicken wings to the web using SMS, and make a chart from the results. It was a silly toy but I was hooked by the possibilities.

I worked for a contractor in Washington DC at the time, supporting online communication for household energy organizations in developing countries. I started talking to some of our more technical partners about whether mobile technology could help improve project monitoring. These discussions led me to E+Co, who needed a way to maintain a database of cookstove owners in a carbon finance project. I wrote the first prototype in nights and weekends and received a small amount of funding from E+Co for a pilot in Ghana in 2009.

Since then I have worked on Carbon Keeper part time and learned a lot about business owners' needs. There is clearly strong demand for information management in household energy projects but rarely a budget to pay for software development. Energy entrepreneurs need to track their sales, employees, and supply chain, and be able to contact customers for follow up monitoring, maintenance, and marketing.

These similarities and the unsustainable nature of custom software deployments led me to the current stage of Carbon Keeper development: offering open source software linked to a supported web service, providing a robust, scalable product with a very low barrier to entry.

Social Impact
Please describe how your project has been successful and how that success is measured

An initial version of Carbon Keeper is currently running in Tanzania. It supports data collection and reporting for a country-wide household cookstove carbon finance project run by E+Co. As of this writing the software has been used by 16 cookstove sellers to register 6,712 uniquely serialized household stoves. The stoves are benefiting approximately 35,000 people in Tanzania, and each stove will offset up to two tons of greenhouse gas emissions annually during its 3 year lifetime.

Carbon Keeper is inherently quantitative and measurement oriented. At a glance, a dashboard shows how many businesses, sellers, and end users are being served, and project staff can view sales records aggregated by region or individually at the household level. In future versions sellers will be able to take pictures, GPS coordinates, and interviews with customers, and attach this rich information to records in the sales database, linked by a unique product serial number.

As projects served by Carbon Keeper mature, the software will also allow detailed reporting on the value of carbon financing returned to entrepreneurs, as well as on gender, health, and environmental indicators tracked through household surveys. Potential applications of Carbon Keeper to health research were recently highlighted on the World Health Care Congress Innovations blog.

The software has been well received by household energy project developers. There are currently three active projects committed to implementing Carbon Keeper in Summer and Fall 2011, and discussions are under way with several more.

How many people have been impacted by your project?

More than 10,000

How many people could be impacted by your project in the next three years?

More than 10,000

How will your project evolve over the next three years?

The core software platform is currently under development, and the next 6 months will be focused on building the platform, hiring one new team member, and gaining experience with field-based implementation in East Africa. It will be critically important to work with projects representing a range of sizes, business models, and products so that the software is developed in an appropriately generic way. Practitioners in carbon finance, medicine, and development will be consulted in the process.

In 2012 Carbon Keeper will be actively marketed in new sectors and geographic regions, especially Asia and Latin America. In parallel we will explore partnerships with national and international household energy programs, including through the UN Foundation and World Bank.

Sustainability
What barriers might hinder the success of your project and how do you plan to overcome them?

Carbon Keeper meets a clearly defined need for data management in energy access projects, but it often takes time for implementers, especially the smallest businesses, to recognize this. With limited human and financial resources, they don't consider the importance of a robust database until they encounter the logistical challenges associated with scale-up, or are beginning to pursue the carbon finance process. Worse, they may lack the information to realize that low quality record keeping is limiting their ability to scale and attract investment.

Carbon Keeper is being designed to create a low barrier to entry for users so they can get started early. The core software will be free and open source, allowing groups with in-house technical expertise to adapt the tools to their needs, with the requirement that they publish modifications so the platform continues to grow. Organizations interested in the paid, hosted platform will be able to begin for free or a low fee, with recurring costs that vary with the quantity of data collected. The pricing structure will be designed as a sliding scale to make the platform accessible for low volume users, but not prohibitively expensive for the largest programs.

In addition to helping reduce hosting costs, the Carbon Keeper website will provide resources to help nontechnical users get started with better information management. These will include case studies, software documentation and training materials, and examples of paper forms that can help smooth the transition to electronic records.

Tell us about your partnerships

Businesses will only adopt Carbon Keeper if it is useful to them, so it must be able to accommodate the logistical, social, and literacy-related challenges associated with rural sales. Partnerships with active energy access projects provide a way for the software to reach entrepreneurs, and opportunities to learn about their detailed needs. Carbon Keeper is currently working with three large household energy projects and is pursuing additional partnerships. Each of these groups has committed financial resources to Carbon Keeper, and is or soon will be using it in the field:

Uganda Carbon Bureau (UCB): UCB is developing a large carbon project that will operate throughout East Africa and South Sudan, focused on household cookstoves. They are committed to returning a fair share of the value from carbon finance to owners of efficient stoves. UCB is investing in further development of Carbon Keeper to help them monitor the entrepreneurs they work with, satisfy carbon auditors, and engage end users.

The Paradigm Project: Paradigm is a US-based low profit limited liability company that is developing household cookstove carbon finance projects, initially in Kenya. They sell over 7,000 stoves per month, and will be deploying Carbon Keeper to monitor their sellers and supply chain.

E+Co: The first version of Carbon Keeper was developed in close collaboration with E+Co, and an updated version of the software is currently being used to track improved cookstove sales in one of their projects in Tanzania. Over 6700 sales have been tracked to date.

Explain your selections

The earliest versions of Carbon Keeper were developed as a personal project, with the code written in spare time as a proof of concept. Initial deployments were partially funded by Winrock International and E+Co, allowing the basic approach to be field tested with minimal risk.

Starting in August 2011 Carbon Keeper will be funded by a growing list of energy project developers interested in the functionality it provides. These groups will pay for software customization and technical support for their projects, and also commit resources to the core platform. Grant funding will be pursued in parallel to help grow the team and expand to serve new regions and project types. Based on the revenue and technical performance of deployments in East Africa in late 2011, Carbon Keeper may seek external investment in 2012 to scale more quickly.

At scale Carbon Keeper will be supported entirely by fees for hosting and technical support. Robust, readily deployed data management is valuable for businesses, carbon project developers, researchers, and development practitioners. A small fee per device tracked will be sufficient to support the service, and costs far less than custom software development.

How do you plan to strengthen your project in the next three years?

The second half of 2011 will be focused on preparing the Carbon Keeper software and business model for operation at scale. The software will be adapted to support both SMS and smartphone-based data collection in East Africa, with a target of 6 deployments and at least 25,000 unique devices tracked per month by December. These deployments will provide valuable feedback about users' technical and pricing needs that will inform ongoing development.

During this period we will begin building a team with expertise in software engineering, business development, and eventually hardware engineering. This will help Carbon Keeper appeal to new types of energy projects and expand beyond East Africa. It will be necessary to seek external funding through grants and possibly investment capital.

The Carbon Keeper website will be developed into a hub of information about data management for energy access practitioners. This includes building relationships with organizations and experts in allied fields such as carbon finance, medical research, and large-scale development projects. It also means accumulating case studies and other resources relevant to monitoring energy access projects.

Strategic partnerships will allow Carbon Keeper to reach meaningful scale as the platform matures. Once the model is proven it will be important to partner with organizations supporting large scale energy access programs, such as the UN Foundation, World Bank, and country governments.

Challenges
Which barriers to employment does your innovation address?
Please select up to three in order of relevancy to your project.

PRIMARY

Lack of access to information and networks

SECONDARY

Lack of skills/training

TERTIARY

Lack of visibility and investment

Please describe how your innovation specifically tackles the barriers listed above.

Carbon Keeper provides entrepreneurs with rich insight about their workforce. Automatic aggregation of sale and supply chain data allows employers to work with large, remote sales teams, avoid fraud, and ensure that products reach the field when needed. These benefits increase as businesses grow.

Carbon Keeper will provide training and other resources to help nontechnical organizations begin adopting IT-based record keeping. This includes materials directed at both business owners and their employees, designed to accommodate varying literacy levels.

Better information management allows business owners to communicate their impact to funders and other stakeholders, makes carbon finance more accessible, and supports investors' due diligence, directly helping small enterprises grow.

Are you trying to scale your organization or initiative?
If yes, please check up to three potential pathways in order of relevancy to you.

PRIMARY

Grown geographic reach: Global

SECONDARY

Influenced other organizations and institutions through the spread of best practices

TERTIARY

Leveraged technology

Please describe which of your growth activities are current or planned for the immediate future.

Agreements are currently in place to implement Carbon Keeper in Rwanda, Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya, and discussions are under way with other energy access projects in East Africa. By early 2012 Carbon Keeper will be ready for marketing to energy access projects in other regions.

To build credibility and expand the reach of Carbon Keeper, the carbonkeeper.org website will be developed into a repository of useful materials and best practices. This will help raise the standard of information management in energy access businesses, and increase the visibility of Carbon Keeper in the field.

Technology and software are essential elements of Carbon Keeper, and the platform will appeal to more and different types of businesses as it is developed into a flexible, robust software product.

Do you collaborate with any of the following: (Check all that apply)

Technology providers, NGOs/Nonprofits, For profit companies.

If yes, how have these collaborations helped your innovation to succeed?

Carbon Keeper's financial and technical partnerships with energy access project developers are critical to the success of the platform. These for profit and nonporift organizations link Carbon Keeper with entrepreneurs in the field, allowing design and development to be informed by business needs and user feedback. Every feature added to the platform since the initial prototype has been requested, or carefully tested and approved, by end users.

As Carbon Keeper is built on free software, informal partnerships with several open source projects have been essential during software development. The RapidSMS, Open Data Kit, and Django communities continue to provide valuable source code and advice, and code from Carbon Keeper will be contributed back to these projects whenever possible.

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