You are late for a meeting. To add to the troubles, your smartphone is low on battery. At a convenience store, you spot a dispensing machine that lets you borrow a power bank for a nominal price. Once you are done using it for the day, you can drop it off to a dispensing station near your location. Would you opt for the service?
Power bank rental companies are now looking to ride a trend that has evolved into a proven shared economy concept abroad. Globally, you have the likes of london-based Joos, LecToGo (a network of mobile charging stations in Scandinavia) and Naki Power (across Europe). In India, startups such as the Bengaluru-based PlugO, A3 Charge in the National Capital Region (NCR), GoCharge, and Spykke (which launched in March 2021), are present in multiple cities, allowing users to rent portable power banks when they need them. “Today there are many phones being launched without chargers. There are people who start feeling anxious as soon as their phone’s battery levels drop. There are many use cases,” says Sahil Gupta, co-founder and chief technology officer at A3 Charge.
A3 Charge, which launched in 2020, today has more than 25,000 power-bank users and dispenser machines in more than 800 locations in the NCR. “The whole idea is that you can find our machines every 3km. Any venue which is open for more hours is a good location for us—malls, places like pharmacies, 24Seven outlets. We are getting in touch with all such places for tie-ups,” says Gupta.
Finding an A3 Charge power bank dispensing machine is easy. Log on to their app—available on both iOS and Android— and sign up for a subscription plan, along with a security deposit. The basic plan starts at ₹69; there are also monthly and six-month plans, which offer a limited number of power bank swaps. The ₹1,189 annual plan allows you unlimited swaps.
Once you pay and sign up, the app shows you the exact location of the machines on a map and the number of power banks available on at each location. “Once you reach the location, you scan the QR code on the machine and the power bank pops out. You can use and return the power bank to the same machine or any other location within seven days. If the power bank is not returned within that period, we consider the power bank sold and your security money is forfeited,” adds Gupta.
The power banks, with a capacity of 5,000 mAh, are assembled in India. They come with three inbuilt cables which can charge Micro, type-C and all iOS devices. To ensure these machines are operational at all times, A3 Charge even has a team of riders that works like an on-ground maintenance team.
One of the biggest challenges in the sharing economy is the safety and viability of the product. “The security of the power bank is a key challenge in the industry. Many users take the power bank and don’t return them. We initially had an option where you could charge the power banks at home. But we disabled that later. We have a team that calls and follows up in such cases. But I would say that 5-10% of the power banks are still lying in the market and have not been returned,” says Naveen Hari, co-founder and chief of growth at PlugO, which was started in 2019 and runs on a similar app-based model with different subscription plans, starting from as little as ₹20 for a daily plan.
While PlugO has found takers in the business-to-consumer (B2C) segment, it’s the business-to-business (B2B) space where it has made real headway. “In 2018, we had done a pilot with Swiggy where we deployed our power bank dispensers in their kitchens to evaluate what kind of usage we can get from such locations. All orders are processed on mobile and delivery partners need power banks. It worked very well,” says Hari. “That is one of the reasons we got into B2B partnerships. We are solving a major problem here. With a simple mobile app, they can rent power banks on the go.”
The startups believe there is a market among common smartphone users too. For, though many of the new phones lcome with substantial battery power, the lower-cost devices could offer an opening. A report released in June by technology market research firm Techarc found smartphone users in the under ₹30,000 segment were not too happy with device performance. Battery backup issues and technical glitches were some of the key challenges, the report added.
PlugO has machines in different cities—though primarily in Bengaluru, across hundreds of locations—and offers flexibility in terms of how users can return the power banks. “Our machines are interconnected through a network. Let’s say you are travelling from Bengaluru to Mumbai. We have our dispensers in Mumbai too. So you can drop a power bank that you picked up in Bengaluru there as well,” Hari explains. PlugO is present in Kochi (through a partnership with Kochi Metro) and Hyderabad as well, with plans to expand to other tier-1 and tier-2 cities.
The startup’s machines are located at all kinds of public places: malls, hospitals, cafés, pubs. But 80% of its revenue comes from B2B customers. Partnering with the likes of BigBasket, Udaan (for its B2C commerce app Pickily) and Zepto in Mumbai, Bengaluru and Hyderabad, PlugO noticed that delivery partners for these brands were regularly using its power banks while picking up their orders from the hubs and stores.
“There is definitely a need for the sharing power bank economy. We conducted our own consumer surveys at hospitals and malls. We found that most users had an average of 40–50% charge on their devices while entering these locations,” says Hari.