Holding a light for off grid

In conversation with Kristina Linhardt, CEO, HiNation.

The off-grid market is growing fast in India. Private players are entering with innovative business models, and new technologies. Kristina Linhardt, CEO of HiNation talks about the company’s expanding product range, and the importance of distribution and choice to ensure quality in the off-grid space.

HiNation AB has now been working with the Innovations Accelerator for 2 years – tell us where you are today?

I have been with HiNation since 2008, in the beginning as a mentor to the founder, and today as a major shareholder and CEO, and we are now shifting to an exciting new phase of growth. The team will be expanded and new shareholders are coming on board. We are also going from a one-product company to opening up for multiple products. We will have three pillars, where HiNation Originals will continue to be the backbone with our own developed and manufactured products. We broaden the product line and sell products we have found, produced by others, but we approve them and test them. If they pass the tests, they are selected for branding under the umbrella “Approved by HiNation.” The products will be included in our product line and sold in our web shop.

We will also have a third pillar – HiNation Trading – which has been developed as a result of moving around various countries in non-electrified areas, keeping our ears open and asking questions. For example, we have been meeting with many schools, and we have been asked to put together a solution to bringing light to schools. We have created “The Bright School Box”- one box contains all you need to install light in a school building; solar panels, cables, lamps, batteries etc. The box is put together with several Swedish producers.

Because of the work with Innovations’ Accelerator we are now in the process of establishing manufacturing of a new product in our HiNation Originals product line.

How will this new stage of growth reflect in your distribution of products?

We are learning from big and successful Swedish companies like IKEA. We have developed “The Bright School Box” – which is everything you need to install light, in a box. Although the request is from a specific customer, the solution can be replicated anywhere. In this way, we are putting everything together and keep considering at all stages what is needed in this environment, and how can we make this as user friendly as possible.

Similarly, our webshop will become a stronger focus for us in terms of exchanging products. We will have all-inclusive kits that can be purchased online. The Rural Solar Kit is an example of this, and as a customer you will have the full set up in one place. This will also serve to bring down final prices.

What is HiNation looking to India for, in this current phase?

HiNation is moving into a stronger production and manufacturing position, as the production costs are low in India. With the help of low costs of production, we can meet the demand of a high quality product and the need of people living in rural areas, at prices they can afford. India becomes a very interesting component in that landscape. We have had many discussions on this, and are learning from big companies like Scania, for focusing on our next steps in India.

We have also had the good fortune to be put in connection with business students at Great Lakes Institute of Management in Delhi, during our last visit to India. We have a great partnership with them, where they are learning business fundamentals, and playing the part of being HiNation. They are putting together their understanding of where they would produce, logistical details of how should this be done most efficiently and with whom. When we were contacted by the Great Lakes, it was crystal clear that we wanted to do something with students. And we felt very good about this.

There is a push by the new Indian Government, with the flagship programme Make in India. This is also a message to say make here, and send out. Does HiNation have any reaction to that?

We are seeing how big Swedish companies have been doing this for some time now. We will never be able to get our production cost as low if we don’t do what we are planning to do now and manufacture in India. This is in line with the message coming from India.

You will be largely working off-grid, how do you look at this market?

You have to be very careful in where you go. We saw many places in India that have been getting so much help from the local governments, that their motivation to actually buy might be quite low. That would not be a market that we would be targeting. There is awareness on the part of local organisations that ownership is an important part of sustainability in this process. Even a portion of payment is an important way of being part of the process of accountability.

We will be looking at India as a potential market. But once we have a product that is competitive on the Indian market, we will use Indian distribution channels. And we will look for partners that share our interest in terms of quality level. I have just heard too many stories of people struggling to get light only to lose it soon after because of bad quality products.

Difficult distribution channels are still a challenge in the off-grid market in India. If you are living in an urban area, or close to an urban area, then you have stronger access to these products. But the further out you are, the harder it is to be able to access information and know what your options are. You have a very limited assortment of choice, and these products that you can see and touch can be of a very poor quality, but there is no way of knowing. It is a trial and error process that is very costly for these communities.

How do you see the role of women in the energy and technology space, in Sweden and given your extensive international exposure? Have you seen any shifts?

I have been working with men all my life. I have been sitting on company boards, and worked all over Western Europe and with large organisations. And it is a lot of men, and then me. But things are changing. I do see that there are more girls going to study at technical schools than when I was at business school. In my time, there were 2 women and 300 men. It is good to see that there has been a substantial increase in this ratio. And I do my part to encourage this. There will be an important shift, as more and more women get involved, especially in the energy and environment arena. Because there needs to be a lot more attention paid to people-centred solutions. And women can be a lot more down to earth and practical about such questions from the family perspective.

Two boys inspecting a product. Photo.
A man demonstrating a product to a large group of people. Photo.
A man demonstrating a product outdoors. Photo.