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OffGridBox raises $1.6M to charge and hydrate rural Africa with its all-in-one installations – TechCrunch

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The simplest needs are often the most vital: power and clean water will get you a long way. But in rural areas of developing countries they can both be hard to come by. OffGridBox is attempting to provide both, sustainably and profitably, while meeting humanitarian and ecological goals at the same time. The company just raised $1.6 million to pursue its lofty agenda.

The idea is fairly simple, though naturally rather difficult to engineer: Use solar power to provide to a small community both electricity (in the form of charged batteries) and potable water. It’s not easy, and it’s not autonomous — but that’s by design.

I met two of the OffGridBox crew, founder and CEO Emiliano Cecchini and U.S. director Troy Billett, much earlier this year at CES in Las Vegas, where they were being honored by Not Impossible, alongside the brilliant BecDot braille learning toy. The team had a lot of irons in the fire, but now are ready to announce their seed round and progress in deploying what could be a life-saving innovation.

They’ve installed 38 boxes so far, some at their own expense and others with the help of backers. Each is about the size of a small shed — a section of a shipping container, with a scaffold on top to attach the solar cells. Inside are the necessary components for storing electricity and distributing it to dozens of rechargeable batteries and lights at a time, plus a water reservoir and purifier.

Water from a nearby unsafe natural (or municipal, really) source is trucked or piped in and replenishes the reservoir. The solar cells run the purifier, providing clean water for cheap — around a third of what a family would normally pay, by the team’s estimate — and potentially with a much shorter trek. Simultaneously, charged batteries and lights are rented out at similarly low rates to people otherwise without electricity. Each box can generate as much as 12 kWh per day, which is split between the two tasks.

The alternatives for these communities would generally be small dedicated solar installations, the upfront cost of which can be unrealistic for them. The average household spend for electricity, Billett told me, is around 43 cents per day; OffGridBox will be offering it for less than half that, about 18 cents.

It doesn’t run itself: The box is administrated by a local merchant, who handles payments and communication with OffGridBox itself. Young women are targeted for this role, as they are more likely to be long-term residents of the area and members of the community. The box acts as a small business for them, essentially drawing money out of the air.

OffGridBox works with local nonprofits to find likely candidates; the women pictured above were recommended by Women for Women. They in turn will support others who, for example, deliver or resell the water or run side businesses that rely on the electricity provided. There’s even an associated local bottled water brand now — “Amaziyateke,” named after a big leaf that collects rainwater, but in Rwanda is also slang for a beautiful woman.

Some boxes are being set up to offer Wi-Fi as well via a cellular or satellite connection, which has its own obvious benefits. And recently people have been asking for the ability to play music at home, so the company started including portable speakers. This was unexpected, but an easy demand to meet, said Billett — “It is critical to listen!”

The company does do some work to keep the tech running efficiently and safely, remotely monitoring for problems and scheduling maintenance calls. So these things aren’t just set down and forgotten. That said, they can and have run for hundreds of thousands of hours — years — without major work being done.

Each box costs about $15,000 to build, plus roughly another $10,000 to deliver and install. The business model has an investor or investors cover this initial cost, then receive a share of the revenue for the life of the box. At capacity usage this might take around two years, after which the revenue split shifts (from a negotiable initial split to 50/50); it’s a small, safe source of income for years to come. At around $10,000 of revenue per year per box with full utilization, the IRR is estimated at 15 percent.

What OffGridBox believes is that this model is better than any other for quick deployment of these boxes. Grants are an option, of course, and they can also be brought in for disaster relief purposes. Originally the idea was to sell these to rich folks who wanted to live off the grid or have a more self-sufficient mountain cabin, but this is definitely better — for a lot of reasons. (You could probably still get one for yourself if you really wanted.)

OffGridBox has been through the Techstars accelerator as part of a 2017 group, and worked through 2018, as I mentioned earlier, to secure funding from a variety of sources. This seed round totaling $1.6 million was led by the Doen and Good Energies Foundations; the Banque Populaire du Rwanda is also a partner.

Along with a series A planned for 2019, this money will support the deployment of a total of 42 box installations in Rwandan communities.

“This will help us become a major player in the energy and water markets in Rwanda while empowering women entrepreneurs, fighting biocontamination for improved health, and introducing lighting in rural homes,” said Cecchini in the press release announcing the funding.

Alternative or complementary sources of power, such as wind, are being looked into, and desalination of water (as opposed to just sterilization) is being actively researched. This would increase the range and reliability of the boxes, naturally, and make island communities much more realistic.

Those 42 boxes are just the beginning: The company hopes to deploy as many as 1,000 throughout Rwanda, and even then that would only reach a fifth of the country’s off-grid market. By partnering with local energy concerns and banks, OffGridBox hopes to deploy as many as 100 boxes a year, potentially bringing water and power to as many as 100,000 more people.

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Apple boosts employee pay as workers attempt to organize

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Enlarge / The branding on the front of an Apple Store retail location.

Apple plans to raise the starting pay of its hourly workers, according to a Wall Street Journal report. In the US, employees’ pay will be at least $22 per hour, which could be higher in some markets. That’s 45 percent higher than it was in 2018.

Additionally, Apple plans to increase starting salaries for corporate workers in the United States. It will also move up some employees’ annual reviews by several months to enact pay increases as soon as July.

In a statement, an Apple spokesperson said:

Supporting and retaining the best team members in the world enables us to deliver the best, most innovative, products and services for our customers. This year as part of our annual performance review process, we’re increasing our overall compensation budget.

There are likely several reasons for this move. First, businesses of all sizes are having a harder time attracting and retaining talent in this stage of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Apple could be facing more challenges than other big tech companies because of its efforts to get employees back into physical offices (though that doesn’t apply to hourly retail workers). It has repeatedly attempted to call employees into offices more days per week, but it has delayed those moves several times due to COVID-19 surges and organized employee resistance.

Apple recently lost an AI/machine learning leader who specifically cited the company’s remote work policy as a reason for his departure. Last week, the company postponed an imminent requirement to bring office workers back on-site for three days a week.

Economic factors are at play, too. Inflation has been at its highest in decades, contributing to pay dissatisfaction. The recent volatility of tech stocks could also be a factor. Tech companies like Apple sometimes seek to entice workers with stock options on top of salary and other compensation, but current and prospective employees might feel less enthusiastic about stock benefits right now.

Finally, retail workers at three US Apple Store locations have announced unionization plans. Some union organizers called for Apple to increase its base hourly pay.

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Modular Panasonic Toughbook has 8 replaceable parts, 1,200-nit screen

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Pansonic’s rugged Toughbook line expanded this week with the Toughbook 40. The new laptop carries many of the hallmarks of its predecessor, including military-grade durability specs and swappable parts, with some upgrades in size and display.

Toughbooks have durable designs meant to withstand long drops (as much as six feet, in this case) and challenging conditions, like rain. But another standout characteristic is their modularity. The Toughbook 40 has eight parts made to be easy to repair or upgrade: the battery, RAM, storage, and keyboard, plus four expansion areas. Various types of expansion packs are available, including an optical drive, fingerprint and barcode readers, and extra I/O ports, batteries, and storage.

Modularity.

In a FAQ (PDF), Panasonic said you can access most of the expansion areas with a screwdriver and some screws, while some only require you to use a slide lever. IT managers can lock down the SSD or expansion areas with a screw. According to Panasonic, there are 6,048 ways to build the Toughbook.

At 7.4 lbs, the 14-inch Touchbook 40 is 1.2 lbs lighter than the preceding laptop, the 13.1-inch Toughbook 31. That’s several pounds heavier than today’s ultralight laptops, but Toughbooks are built for extreme cases, like military and law enforcement use.

At 1,200 nits, the laptop’s 1920×1080 touchscreen is fit to use in a sunny room or outside. Panasonic didn’t specify battery life at that extreme brightness but claims that the PC can last up to 18 hours on the MobileMark 2014 benchmark and 36 hours if you get a second battery.

The laptop’s resistive touchpad has a 60 percent larger area, and it can be used while wearing gloves or during rain.

Inside, the Toughbook 40 has up to an Intel Core i7-1185G7 with Intel Iris Xe integrated graphics (a discrete, unspecified GPU will be coming at some point). The laptop is configurable with up to 2TB of storage, upgradeable via a quick-release latch, and up to 64GB of DDR4 RAM. Additionally, there’s a 5 MP webcam and the option for 4G or 5G connectivity.

The laptop starts with two USB-A ports and a Thunderbolt 4 port.
Enlarge / The laptop starts with two USB-A ports and a Thunderbolt 4 port.

In Panasonic’s announcement, Toughbook GM Craig Jackowski said the Toughbook 40 is the “most rugged” of the series. It meets the MIL-STD-810H and MIL-STD-461H military specifications and is CID2-certified for use in hazardous environments. It is IP66-certified, protecting it against dust and powerful water jets.

On the security side, the laptop has an encrypted OPAL SSD with optional FIPS, TPM 2.0, Intel Hardware Shield, and Microsoft Secure-core PC. The Toughbook 40 also introduces a “Secure Wipe” feature that “wipes the contents on the drive in a matter of seconds,” according to Panasonic.

Aimed at businesses and the public sector, the Toughbook 40 will start at $4,899 when it comes out in late spring, Panasonic’s announcement said. If you’re seeking something with a more digestible price, the 13.5-inch, DIY-friendly Framework laptop just got 12th Gen Intel CPUs.

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The Google Pixel Foldable is reportedly delayed to 2023

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Enlarge / The Oppo Find N. Google’s Pixel foldable is expected to have a similar aspect ratio.

Oppo

At Google’s recent I/O conference, we heard about a lot of upcoming Google hardware, including the Pixel 6a, Pixel 7, Pixel Watch, and even a Pixel Tablet, which isn’t due out until sometime in 2023. We didn’t hear anything about a Pixel foldable, though.

Still, we know something is in the works since the Google Camera app included the detection flag “isPixel2022Foldable” alongside flags for other Pixel devices. So what’s the deal?

The Elec reports that the Google foldable is delayed until 2023. This would mark the second time the foldable has been delayed, as it was originally due out late last year. It seems that the original plan was to release the product alongside Android 12L, aka 12.1, the tablet-and-foldables-focused Android release. Google often tries to develop Android builds and new hardware simultaneously, but making hardware is difficult.

Google's outline of the Pixel foldable, which was included in Android 12L.
Enlarge / Google’s outline of the Pixel foldable, which was included in Android 12L.

Google and Samsung are partnering up for Wear OS and the Google Tensor SoC, and the Pixel foldable is likewise expected to use a lot of Samsung parts. That means a Samsung Display-made flexible OLED display on the inside, flexible “ultra-thin glass” for added rigidity, and a hinge from Samsung’s hinge supplier.

The display sizes are 7.57 inches inside and 5.78 inches outside. That’s close to the Galaxy Z Fold 3 but not exactly the same. 9to5Google found simplified animations of a Google Foldable in Android 12L, and they suggest that Google’s phone will open to a wider aspect ratio than Samsung’s, which would put it more in line with the Oppo Find N.

You can’t blame Google for not wanting to rush a foldable to market. Users still regularly report cracked displays, even from Samsung’s third-generation foldable; combined with the device’s $1,800 price tag, that makes it a tough sell.

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