From solar-powered wifi hubs to reducing packaging waste: the small UK firms driving a green revolution

Sustainability has never been higher on the national agenda as government and business respond to the increasing awareness of the need for urgent change. For companies developing technologies that can address the climate emergency, this is a time of opportunity at home and abroad.

As well as bringing increased trade and revenues, products and services that lower environmental impact could create tens of thousands of jobs in the UK and transform the quality of life of millions of people worldwide.

With the international green sector growing rapidly, the UK Government has launched its Clean Growth programme to help boost demand for British innovation and technology, and help exporters tap into the market.

Daniel Becerra

One innovative company that has its eyes firmly set on an international future is Belfast-based BuffaloGrid, which uses solar power to bring phone and internet connectivity to communities without access to electricity.

Daniel Becerra co-founded the business to help close the digital divide in developing countries. “Half the planet’s population does not have access to the internet, but it’s not like they’re all living in rural places with no coverage,” says Becerra, who is originally from Mexico. “The problem is access, affordability, digital skills and relevant content. What we want to achieve is to provide digital prosperity for the underserved and the unconnected.”

BuffaloGrid charging station

  • BuffaloGrid’s solar-powered hubs charge phones and power banks, supply wifi, and enable content streaming

His team has developed a solar-powered hub that can serve up to 1,000 people. It can charge phones and power banks (these are provided free by BuffaloGrid), supply wifi and bring digital content to communities. The hubs are distributed mainly through partnerships with mobile network operators and convenience kiosks, as well as refugee camps run by UNHCR, the UN refugee agency. The first 400 will go to India, Bangladesh and Nigeria, connecting up to 200,000 people.

“One device can have a big impact in the community,” says Becerra. “Next year, we’re planning to produce 4,000 units, to take us to 2 million users. We’re concentrating on areas with the highest population density, where we can have the biggest impact.”

BuffaloGrid is not Becerra’s first business. In 2008, he co-founded Artica Technologies, which developed intelligent systems for the energy-efficient cooling of buildings in the UK. Three years later, with an exit under his belt, he started looking for his next problem to solve. “I’ve fallen in love with the impact tech startups can have,” he says. “And I’ve always believed connectivity is one of the best tools to level the field between the haves and have nots.” The UN sees improved connectivity as key to ending poverty, halting climate change, and fighting inequality across the world.

“We need to be out there, we need to reach these markets,” says Becerra about exporting his products to the places where they are needed the most. To this end, BuffaloGrid has been supported by Innovate UK, the Carbon Trust and the Department for International Trade (DIT), whose advice on the certifications, legislation and taxes for each country proved invaluable. “That was work we tried to do ourselves in India. It took six months and we failed. With DIT’s help, we were able to do it in two weeks,” says Becerra.

BuffaloGrid’s free power banks
Quote: “We need to be out there, we need to reach these markets”
BuffaloGrid

His advice to other SMEs would be to take advantage of expertise wherever it’s available. “Whether that’s your local authority, DIT, or a company that has more experience than you, get advice. Decisions that you make nine months before your delivery date can have a massive impact. You will not know all that you need to know before you get started. The more you can learn, the better.”

Tapping into support can be the catalyst that turns a good idea into a world-changing one. Dr Amrit Chandan and Carlton Cummins launched Aceleron Energy in 2016 after inventing the world’s first fully serviceable and recyclable lithium-ion battery, with the aim of finding a solution to the growing issue of battery waste.

“A battery is made up of lots of components but usually it’s impossible to access them, swap them out or repair them,” says Chandan. In contrast, Aceleron’s battery can be stripped into its core components in five minutes. There’s a smart management system and it’s possible to swap out individual cells to maximise the lifetime of every element.

To help it explore markets for its products, Birmingham-based Aceleron received support from the Transforming Energy Access programme, which is administered by the Carbon Trust, as well as attending trade missions and the Consumer Electronics Show, a showcase for new technology held annually in Las Vegas, with DIT. “It’s difficult to just go into a market and say: ‘We’re here, buy our product,’” says Chandan. “Without the support we received, we wouldn’t be here today.”

A technician with an Aceleron Energy battery
The insides of an Aceleron Energy battery
Quote: “We saw this as being larger than the UK, right from day one”
Dr Amrit Chandan

Exporting now makes up half of the company’s business, with batteries sent to the Caribbean, India and Kenya, and ongoing programmes of work in Ethiopia, Mozambique, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and others.

With the number of electric vehicles on the roads rising, researchers estimate that some 250,000 tonnes of battery waste will accumulate worldwide over the next 15-20 years, so the opportunity is there for Aceleron’s batteries to have a real impact in reducing that waste. “We saw this challenge as being larger than the UK, right from day one,” says Chandan. “We have a great sense of pride that our products aren’t just generating profit for us in the UK, but are positively impacting people and the environment.”

The idea of protecting the planet also inspired Rachel Watkyn to develop her own sustainable packaging after she struggled to find the right kind for her jewellery business. Realising her vision has taken grit and persistence. When she appeared on Dragons’ Den in 2008 to pitch her idea, some of the Dragons were sceptical, saying she was on an eco-warrior crusade. “They told me I’d only ever be a niche,” says Watkyn. Even so, two of them saw potential and backed her to the tune of £60,000. “I may have been ahead of the curve but I believed things would change.” Now, Watkyn’s Tiny Box Company turns over £10m a year and sells to 42 countries.

Rachel Watkyn

Watkyn was inspired to start Tiny Box because of the lack of sustainable packaging options for the small jewellery business she was then running. “I couldn’t really put ethical jewellery into plastic, mass produced boxes from China,” she says. “But when I approached UK manufacturers, they said I needed a minimum order run of 1,000 units per size – it would be a 12-week lead time, and I’d need to pay lots of tooling charges for each size. So I decided to do it myself.”

Quote: “We made the website more friendly to overseas customers
Tiny Box Company boxes

Her product resonated with SMEs in the UK and abroad, though Watkyn says she did not initially have an export strategy.

“I set up the business because I had a problem. It had never really occurred to me to look at international markets. But we started to realise we were getting orders from France.” Making small tweaks, such as adding an international phone number and local currency functionality, made the website more friendly to overseas customers.

In previous years, exporting has made up around 10% of the East Sussex-based company’s overall sales, although this decreased because of the pandemic and challenges around Brexit. However, the situation is starting to improve and Watkyn has plans to increase her investment in international markets. “We’ve realised there isn’t a lot [of competition] out in Europe, so we could be doing a lot more there.”

As well as signing up to the global marketplace Fruugo, she’s been working with DIT to evaluate the possibility of opening a factory in the Netherlands, and is about to move into a new 50,000 sq ft warehouse in the UK. “That will mean we can really start driving forward [with international sales],” she says.

Watkyn firmly believes that exporting can be a driver for business growth. “We took a hit last year, but now it’s all systems go,” she says.

To find out more about getting started with exporting goods and services, and what resources are available for your business, visit great.gov.uk