*This story was updated Dec. 21 to include details of the Equitable Internet Initiative.
This story is part of a series supported by the New Economy Initiative (NEI).
When COVID-19 hit Michigan this year, Ali Dirul and Karanja Famodou expected their Detroit-based solar power business to lose customers. Instead, the crisis brought a surge in even more projects for the pair.
“I believe people are taking more seriously the need for emergency preparation,” says Dirul.
The resilience of their work during the pandemic suggests the co-founders of Ryter Cooperative Industries
(RCI) are on the right track with their project management company specializing in energy-oriented engineering solutions. But it isn’t just industry stability that heartened the altruistic businessmen this year.
“We’ve also been impacted in a positive way in some sense because some of our projects have been focused on supplying Wi-Fi to communities to keep them productive,” says Famodou. “Solar provides access to critical information, for students as well as adults, and has helped home learning.”
"[COVID-19] demonstrated this real-world, practical implication," says Dirul. "We had people saying ‘wow this makes my life easier — I can apply for funds, access information, educate my children, even just connect with others during lockdown.' The reception has been such that we are talking with cities about implementing this on a wide scale."
Oakland Avenue Garden and Greenhouse shows off some of the solar panels installed by Ryter Cooperative Industries.
Embedded in communities
Founded in 2015, RCI focuses on energy accessibility projects, like an energy station at D-Town Farms in Rouge Park, and the installation of a series of solar “smart poles” in communities that can’t always rely on traditional power sources. In Detroit, 63% of low income homes have no in-home broadband internet, according to the Equitable Internet Initiative
(EII), a statistic that has prompted EII to contract RCI to install several public power stations in neighborhoods, mostly in the North End and Southwest Detroit.
One of RCI's smart pole installations at Parker Village
provides light and Wi-Fi to the area in Highland Park, and is a source of pride for the village’s community organizer Juan Shannon. Shannon and the team at RCI were working together before they all became part of the recent Detroit Innovation Fellows (DIF) cohort, but the program helped solidify their partnership and led to further projects in the village.
“We just helped install 4.5 kilowatts of solar power on a pergola there,” says Dirul. “People are getting trained in installation, and it’s contributing to skills.”
Orlando Bailey from Urban Consulate worked with Dirul and Famodou through the DIF program to help grow their concept, and admires their expertise in the area.
“One of the conversations we were always having was ‘how do they scale?’ ” Bailey says. “They have a business model that works, there's an appetite for what it is they do, but how do people get to know about them and access their services?”
It’s a conversation that clearly had an impact. Dirul says this year RCI has grown their team by 400%, building out from just Dirul and Famodou to approximately 15 people the pair now work closely with to manage operations as well as other contractors.
After connecting with like-minded changemakers in the DIF program, RCI teamed up with Mose Primus to supply solar lighting at Yorkshire Woods community garden
, and has plans to work with the Carrie Morris Arts Production
group on future solar projects. There’s potential for commercial partnerships too, with Famodou pointing to solar installations being used at shopping centers to reduce costs and carbon footprints.
A power-full impact
In 2019, the solar industry generated $18.7 billion
of investment in the national economy, and the U.S. Department of Energy expects the clean energy industry to continue to grow rapidly in the coming years. Dirul and Famodou want to see their city take advantage of the economic opportunity for regions that invent, manufacture, and export clean energy technologies.
The data indicates the thirst for solar power is booming. Consumption has doubled between 2015 to 2018
and there is now more than 85 gigawatts
of solar capacity installed nationwide, enough to power 16 million homes. Across the U.S. solar power is estimated to offset over 70 million metric tons of carbon dioxide every year, which is compared by advocates
to planting almost 1.2 billion trees.
But solar power, argue Dirul and Famodou, is not just about the environmental benefits. They see the potential for their work to help provide equitable access to energy, especially internet services, and especially in times of crisis. And not just in Detroit.
“While the aesthetics may change we think this model can serve as a basic model for deployment nationally,” says Famodou. “In urban communities there’s a need, in rural communities too.”
“If we were able to get the financial support to apply this across the country it has real potential,” he says. “The emphasis on COVID-19 and the fact that the educational institutions are relying on the remote model in much greater numbers — this can help make that a workable model.”
It’s not something the pair see as limited to the U.S., either. As executive director of the nonprofit Lumens Foundation, Dirul and a colleague traveled to Ghana recently to deliver training around solar energy, and with COVID-19 looming, he sees a need there.
“We could sponsor a project there,” he says. “We’d like to be able to solarize some of the hospitals tied to villages where electricity is an issue. It would help with storing vaccines, operating — those kinds of things can have a big impact.”
Solar panels, mounted on a shipping container, help power Avalon Village in Highland Park.
Making solar affordable to communities is one of the other main hurdles the business faces. It’s why building a network across the city is so important, so RCI can bundle purchases and order equipment in bulk.
“We are looking towards how we can incentivize communities,” says Famodou. “An individual can get a certain price but if you get a block club that go in together to get a pallet of generators it saves on installation and shipping.”
RCI also hasn’t remained entirely unaffected by the pandemic. Ordering and receiving supplies has presented a challenge this year for the company.
“It's a lot longer for delivery,” says Famodou. “So from the customer standpoint we’ve not been able to deliver as quickly as we would like.”
It’s part of a larger resource issue that the company often encounters, specifically around skilled labor and finding employees who can work on installation. It won’t stop Dirul and Famodou, though.
“At times we don’t have a resource pool that we can reach out to if we need people immediately, that trained pool is not there,” says Famodou. “So, we have to grow it.”
Dirul says they are considering establishing a training program, and while they have the skills to do so, they still need the funding.
“We’ve been generating a large portion of funding ourselves,” he says. “So acceleration and an availability of funds would help. We have people who really want to learn. Youth are going to see, and be a part of, more projects around solar, solar solutions, and feasibility studies.”
“We are excited about the future,” says Famodou. We think solar will grow, we want people to develop the skill set. These are future assets, these are not going to be short term.”
Karanja Famodou, left, and Ali Dirul pose underneath the solar panels they helped install on a pergola at Parker Village, which will be used to run an on-site cafe next year.
This is part of a series supported by the New Economy Initiative (NEI), a special project of the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan that is working to build an inclusive regional network of support for entrepreneurs and small businesses. Social entrepreneurs featured in this series are fellows of the last cohort of NEI’s Detroit Innovation Fellowship (DIF), a talent development program that connects, promotes, and invests in people who are leading projects to transform their communities.