Building a greener future from Tunisia

CHIFCO founder

Built in Africa focuses on entrepreneurs, startups and technologies that hail from the continent and empower its citizens.

The global energy crisis has provided entrepreneurs with new opportunities to innovate. Conserving energy is not only in vogue but necessary for a lasting power supply. Africa has had energy and power problems for some time and it seems more and more African entrepreneurs are looking for solutions. Earlier in this series we introduced you to Patrick Ngowi, the man bringing clean energy to East Africa with his solar energy company.

In this, our seventh instalment of the Built in Africa series, we feature Amine Chouaieb, founder of a Tunisian-based energy startup. Chouaieb’s company, CHIFCO, allows users to enjoy real-time energy monitoring and energy bill reduction with a device called the InnerJ Box.

What makes this startup — and particularly the InnerJ Box- unique is the data it provides. According to the company, the product “reinvents the way utilities, telecommunications companies, and facility managers interact with customers”.

“This technology captures the complex relationships among devices, premises, customer accounts, users, applications, networks, and services that must be managed by any Smart Grid in order to save energy.”

As an engineer, Chouaieb always dreamt of starting his own business, one that would make a difference to consumers.

“I had the idea for CHIFCO, as a company working in the ‘internet of things’ sector, to connect everyday devices in order to create new services related to energy, security, and health care. Particularly, I was interested in energy and conducted market research in this sector to come up with the concept of the InnerJ Box,” he says.

Although the idea has been floating in his head for a while, it was an advert in a newspaper from Microsoft — which offered to award 10 startups grant funding and training — that got him going. He says that this presented an opportunity to turn his idea and market research into a reality.

“By winning a Microsoft 4Afrika grant, CHIFCO was able to pilot its technology. We built it on Microsoft platforms including Azure and Windows 8 mobile. With additional mentorship and training from Microsoft, CHIFCO has grown its business to 20 employees. The company also helped us gain valuable exposure,” he says.

This technology will change everything for Africa

Chouaieb reckons that his company’s technology is perfect for African users because it assists with managing energy use — and focuses on reducing energy demand in a smarter way by cutting off some devices without requiring that the entire grid is shut down.

“Through providing 3G/4G connectivity, InnerJ Box connects people on the energy grid and allows them to receive requests to cut consumption for short periods during the year,” he says.

When the demand is high, users receive a text message asking them to shut down their air-conditioning, for example. Then once they do, the system detects that and offers them a number of points that can be later exchanged on other devices such as tablets, phones, internet or electricity equal to their energy savings.

“In such systems all the players of the energy distribution channel are winners. This technology is a first in Africa, and enables users to enjoy real-time energy monitoring and an energy bill reduction by 30%. This way we are engaging people to change their habits for a greener future.”

Tunisia has a burgeoning startup ecosystem but there are challenges

Chouaieb says that launching a tech company in Tunisia means that it is time to set up a sustainable innovation ecosystem in the country. He concedes that this will take time, but the presence of programmes like Microsoft’s 4Afrika initiative and others that provide incubation and seed funding indicates that things are getting better.

“Being able to launch my company in Tunisia, I was also able to increase the vote of confidence in the country’s future economic landscape. This is important since the political instability we have faced, and attracting investment into the country so that other startups can prosper is the next step for Tunisia.”

The future of CHIFCO is not just in Tunisia. Chouaieb has been actively looking for clients for his products from all over the world. He reckons though it is great for Africa, it is not limited to the continent.

“I have now signed deals with a number of high-profile customers, ranging from consumers to enterprises and we are currently working with large telcos and utility companies in various continents. This includes three deals with Telcos in Europe, and I am currently focused on signing 1000 customers in Tunisia in the next year, followed by South Africa and Kenya.”

He has faced some challenges in hiring the right team to execute the product’s promises as well as delivering the right quality in time. His biggest challenge remains access to funds, however.

“Many entrepreneurs in Africa perceive access to finance as the number-one barrier to setting up their own business, and focus too much time on creating the perfect business model. They need to work on themselves first because investors look at the team profile before anything else.”

To make this company a success and build the greener future it promises, the young entrepreneur says he needs a successful team of people who share the same vision.

For him this is what makes both a successful entrepreneur and company: ”People who share the same vision and can spread their passion through the whole value chain and implement critical thinking into the ground, building their network in a sustainable matter and spreading the right values internally (HR term) and externally.”

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