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Pay As You Go Sunshine: How Solar Energy and Mobile Phones are Powering the Developing World

Every night, something unusual happens in Samuel Kimani’s home on the outskirts of Nairobi, Kenya. Samuel, 48, lives with his wife Mary and their three children. Their family supports itself day-to-day through their main source of income, their cow Baraka, whose milk is collected daily and sold directly to customers for about $1.80 a day. Their township has few amenities and grid electricity is available only to the few who can afford it. But at Samuel’s house, two bright lights shine all through the evening.

Samuel used to light his home with a single kerosene lamp, which filled the rooms with smoke and poor-quality light and cost $3 a week. With his low income, Samuel could support his family, but he wasn’t able to make long-term investments in other systems to light his home. That is, until he became the first person in the world to use the IndiGo pay-as-you-go solar energy system. Samuel purchased the system for an affordable $10 and now activates it automatically with a $1 scratch-card each week. Through IndiGo, Samuel’s small home now has two bright lights providing eight hours of light each evening, which enables the kids to study in the living room whilst Mary prepares food in the kitchen. Instead of spending $0.20 to charge each of their three mobile phones at one of the many local kiosks he simply charges them at home, saving $1.50 per week in the process.

 

Samuel Kimani in Kenya. (Photo: Eight19 Ltd)

 

“With kerosene I couldn’t read comfortably, always straining. But it was the children who suffered most; we used to run out of kerosene four or five times a month, and with no light they couldn’t complete their studies. Now we have clean permanent light, we are saving money, and I am so happy for me and my family.” 

In today’s special edition of “Digital Diversity”, Olivia O’Sullivan, our Media and Research Assistant, interviews Simon Bransfield-Garth, the CEO of Eight19, the company providing pay-as-you-go solar energy to people like Samuel. Eight19 takes its name from the time it takes sunlight to reach the earth – eight minutes and nineteen seconds.

Digital Diversity is a series of articles from kiwanja.net about how mobile phones and other appropriate technologies are being used throughout the world to improve, enrich, and empower billions of lives.

Interview by Olivia O’Sullivan

Hi Simon. Can you tell us exactly what Eight19 does?

What we’re trying to do is find novel ways to bring solar power to emerging markets, trying to get over some of the problems that have occurred in the last ten years when people have tried to take solar into those markets.

What we did was to combine mobile phone technology and solar technology. This allows us to create what we call “pay-as-you-go solar.” So just in the same way as you buy a scratch-card for your mobile phone every so often, you buy a scratch-card which enables your solar power to work for a period of time – for example a week or month, whatever it may be.

 

An Eight19 IndiGo unit. (Photo: Eight19 Ltd)

 

How does the system work in developing countries? How does solar power change people’s lives?

The solar-as-a-service model plays very well in emerging countries partly because the pay as you go model is well understood; people have pay as you go mobile phones. But also because we’ve eliminated the upfront cost of buying a solar light, so we can give people an economic return on a day by day basis. Where people don’t have electric light their options are kerosene or in some cases candles – about 80% of Zambia uses candles – and in South Sudan, for instance some people even just use grass as a way of lighting their houses. The amount of money people spend on kerosene for lighting is huge – about 38 billion dollars. When you compare the cost of that kerosene light for light with mains electric lighting, the light out of a typical kerosene lamp costs between a hundred and a thousand times as much – just because it’s a very inefficient lamp and kerosene’s expensive. So you end up with a situation where the people who have the least income in the world are paying not just a bit more for their energy but vastly more for their energy.

 

Light provided by a kerosene lamp. (Photo: Eight19 Ltd)

 

By providing solar we can eliminate that cost and replace it with something more modern and up to date. For example, in Kenya people are spending the equivalent of about 12 dollars a month for kerosene and for charging their mobile phone. We’re providing the IndiGo solar energy system for just over a dollar a week, so effectively for five dollars a month the user is getting light for two rooms and also power to charge a mobile. So we’ve roughly halved people’s energy spend and we’ve given them the benefit of solar power instead of kerosene.

What we find is that once people have solar power then it has a very dramatic effect on their daily lives. The light doesn’t just allow them to cook but it allows things like children to do their homework. Over time users can upgrade the system to progressively more powerful solar units. As you provide more power, you enable other things – such as access to a radio or a television – and so what the electricity is doing is providing key things that we’ve come to value in the more developed world like access to information and access to media; both of which have an important social impact, including the ability to participate in the political process. It’s much more than just providing light.

 

Mwiki, Kenya. (Photo: Eight19 Ltd)

 

The fact that the weekly fee actually reduces users’ spend, by eliminating the cost of kerosene and charging phones, makes it much easier for us to sell into the market because we sell from the point of view of an economic proposition rather than just ‘solar-power is good’ – if you speak to someone who’s been living with kerosene for fifty years, sometimes it’s quite difficult to persuade them kerosene fumes are harmful things they don’t want to have. But if you say to someone who spends a quarter of their income on energy that they can halve their energy bill, then all of a sudden that has a direct impact – then after that they see the benefits of solar.

Approaching this as an economic proposition seems quite important to this project – it’s not charity – do you think this is the best way to approach alternative energy and development?

There’s been a shift in mindset in the last ten years or so on how to support people who are at the lower end of the income scale. There was a tendency years ago to dive in with the grand gesture –provide a tractor in Africa and so on – and the problem with that is it comes out of context, it doesn’t come with all the infrastructure that’s needed to support it and we saw many examples where the equipment breaks down and that’s the end of it because there isn’t anybody to maintain it and no spare parts. We have a firm belief that sustainable technology needs to have a sustainable business model – so as far as possible what we try to do is to build a local economy around the technology. Where we’re rolling out lights, we have local maintenance, local distribution, local marketing, and so on.  A really simple example of that is we now manufacture our scratch-cards in Kenya as opposed to shipping them in because we’ve got a market for them in Kenya and we have found a local printer.

 

David (SolarAid technician) installing a unit in Kenya. (Photo: Eight19 Ltd)

 

So why has it been so difficult to sell solar power?

The question we asked ourselves was, “if solar power is so obviously beneficial, how come the world isn’t awash with it?” One of the problems with solar and characteristic of a problem with renewables in general is the need for the end user to buy the equipment up front. Normally, to use electricity I don’t expect to have to buy my own small power station – but with renewables that’s exactly what we expect. So there is a challenge. Fundamentally, people are being asked to change their business model. Instead of using something as you go along, now they’ve got to find their own capital. In Africa if someone wants a reasonable home lighting system, the cost starts at about fifty dollars – in terms of proportion of salary, that’s roughly the equivalent of buying a car in the West. The IndiGo system addresses that by providing solar as a service with a very small initial cost. This is readily understood –  people just seem to intrinsically get what we’re trying to do.

 

Happy customers in Mwiki, Kenya. (Photo: Eight19 Ltd)

 

One of the things that’s attractive about this approach is that once somebody transitions to solar you can be pretty certain that they’re never going back to kerosene.  Solar gives a completely different class of light, it eliminates the fumes – kerosene fumes are believed to be responsible for the deaths of about 1.6 million people a year, which is more than the number of people that die from malaria, from a combination of chronic respiratory illnesses and from fire.  On top of that, the carbon footprint of the kerosene is about 190 million tonnes, which in context is about the same as the carbon footprint of Argentina, or about 30 million cars on European roads.

You said people, once they get their lamps they start to think about getting radios and TVs and the like – how does that work? How is it affordable?

Off-grid rural customers in emerging markets have the same aspirations as everybody else. They’d like to have TV, radio, internet and a computer, fridges – all the other things that everybody else would like to have. We wanted to create a kind of a journey to help people extend their use of electricity, so we came up with this idea of the “energy escalator.”  If you imagine a rural family in, say, Malawi – we provide a couple of lights and the ability to charge a phone. Over time the customer uses that and saves money at the same time. So after a period of time, their solar unit has been paid off. Then we offer an upgrade to that system. We can afford to charge a little bit more because the customer has just saved 100 dollars or so over the previous 18 months compared with what they would have spent on energy. So now that customer, say, has four lights and a radio. And then that pays off after a period of time, so you go onto the next step, maybe powering a television. And so, over a period of time a rural customer transitions in steps from no electricity to still being a rural farmer, but now having many of the benefits of electricity.

 

The Energy Escalator. (Picture: Eight19 Ltd)

 

We have found that people view electricity very differently to the way that we do in the developed world. In the West, we’ve been brought up with the idea that electricity is relatively cheap so we use it in pretty inefficient ways – a great example is if I want to make a cup of coffee in the morning, then somebody over in a power station takes some fossil fuel which they burn to heat water, to drive a turbine, to generate electricity, to go a long way down a cable to warm up water to make my cup of coffee. There are great chunks of that chain which are inefficient. Whereas for off-grid customers, nobody would dream of using electricity to boil water, electricity’s far too valuable to use for that; you use electricity because it gives you information, it gives you communication, it gives you light – it’s a very valuable commodity.

Do you think that if this does scale up widely, we’ll ultimately have an off-grid, more efficient energy system in the developing world than the one that exists here? And in a sense these countries will just skip the grid?

I think that’s exactly what will happen. When we look at the off-grid market, the numbers are actually very substantial – there’s somewhere between 1.4 and 1.6 billion people, around 22 % of the world’s population without electricity. One of the assumptions prevalent about ten years ago was that the grid would eventually reach everyone. But the cost of extending the grid to rural areas is very high and today power can be delivered more cost-effectively using renewables, generated locally. This is directly analogous to mobile phones which have removed the need to extend landlines into rural areas. IndiGo enables the end user to fund the infrastructure, using the premium they were previously paying for kerosene, in order to get their own power generation without the up-front cost.

How do you plan to expand and scale up and how do you think energy use is going to expand in the developing world in the future?

At the moment have products in Kenya, Zambia, Malawi and South Sudan. And our vision is that these products will grow with the dynamics of consumer electronics, rather than the dynamics of alternative energies. It seems just to be something that works. And people really like it. When we did our first trial of 30 units in South Sudan, a queue formed of people standing there with their ten dollars saying ‘I want my light please’ and we had to say ‘sorry, we’ve only brought 30 this time’ and they were quite upset because they wanted their light! It’s just about providing a mix of technology and business model that enables things to move forward.

 

A Panel in South Sudan. (Photo: Eight19 Ltd)

 

If you think of the rate at which mobile phones for instance penetrated developing markets, that’s the sort of dynamic that we would like to get. So our goal is to have tens of thousands of customers this year, hundreds of thousands of customers next year and millions of customers the year after.

Ambitious?

It is, but there are three hundred million households which don’t have access to electricity so unless you get into the millions you’re not making a dent in the problem. One of the things that we see is the transformational change that you get when people have access to this power, it’s not just a case of saving money but it enables people to do things that they previously couldn’t, because they have access to information, to media and to light. So a really simple example of one of the things that people do with mobile phones – people can move from just growing subsistence crops to having market information, market prices so they can grow more in the way of cash crops, and get involved in much more energetic economic activity. In a sense it’s a way of helping people get into the information age without having to go through the industrial revolution.

 

Kitale, Kenya. (Photo: Eight19 Ltd)

 

Simon Bransfield-Garth has 25 years global experience building rapid growth, technology-based businesses in sectors including semiconductor, automotive and mobile phones. His career includes 7 years at Symbian, the phone OS maker, where he was a member of the Leadership Team and VP Global Marketing. Simon was founder of Myriad Solutions Ltd and was previously a Fellow at Cambridge University. He holds a BA and Ph.D in Engineering from St John’s College, Cambridge UK.

Olivia O’Sullivan has worked for the Guardian newspaper, the Sudan team of the UN Peacekeeping Department and with the London NGO Waging Peace. She is an MPhil in International Relations at Cambridge University. She previously studied History at Cambridge University and Diplomacy and World Affairs at Occidental College, California. She is currently the Research and Media Assistant for kiwanja.net/FrontlineSMS.

Digital Diversity is produced by Ken Banks, innovator, mentor, anthropologist, National Geographic Emerging Explorer and Founder of kiwanja.net / FrontlineSMS. He shares exciting stories in “Digital Diversity” about how mobile phones and appropriate technologies are being used throughout the world to improve, enrich, and empower billions of lives.

You can read all the posts in this series, visit his website, or follow him on Twitter.

 

 

Comments

  1. ALBERT ATENYA OCHENJE
    Kakamega
    December 9, 2013, 4:09 am

    Please kindly send me your mobile numbers so that I can buy directly from your company. Please call me now for further details. My phone is 0712824130

  2. vijay
    Vienna Austria
    April 12, 2013, 11:25 am

    it is amazing about the indigo solar power and we need it in Europe to, because not all of them are rich here, it would be better if they could invest in europe too. We in europe are not rich either, many people have little pensions and we need this pay as you go sunshine, can anybody give information about this and can we use it in europe too? thanks

  3. Maisha Beyett
    February 13, 2013, 6:42 pm

    Certainly, but everyone needs to appreciate that adding Solar on their property is an purchase which will improve the actual worth of their residence if / when they make a choice to sell. With the environment the way it is going we are not able to underestimate any item that presents totally free power at no cost to both the consumer and more importantly the world!

  4. Ghislain KAPAMBA
    RDCongo
    February 1, 2013, 3:01 pm

    I need the adress of INDOGO in NAIROBI. I’m willing to meet them because of their services.

    Thank you so much.

  5. embalajes de madera
    January 15, 2013, 1:06 am

    Heya i am for the primary time here. I came across this board and I to find It really helpful & it helped me out much. I am hoping to present one thing again and help others such as you aided me.

  6. Michael L
    August 10, 2012, 5:43 am

    Solar energy has made a revolutionary change to many around the world. When the International Energy Agency met to discuss the future of solar energy is said that it would lead to massive long term benefits and change energy consumption around the world. Read more…The Future of Solar Power Energy
    http://fufengenergy.com/the-future-of-solar-power-energy

  7. Social Media &Technology Blog
    http://www.electroknol.com/
    July 5, 2012, 5:44 am

    Solar energy is biggest source of energy, Its conventional so use to remove darkness from life …

  8. Ian
    USA
    June 20, 2012, 10:16 pm

    Why should you have to pay at all? / Why can’t we live in a truly ‘free’ society?

  9. [...] Full Article [...]

  10. Alison Curzon
    Wales, UK
    April 25, 2012, 5:44 am

    Such an interesting article & interview. I had no idea just how damaging kerosene fumes, it is not something we in the western world hear much about.

    To be able to provide such a vital product that is safer, greener and cheaper is a fantastic step forward and I hope that this initiative leads to not only an increase in solar energy being used in the developing world , but also to inspire other such projects that could be as beneficial.

    I look forward to learning more about ‘Pay as you go Sunshine’ and the wonderful work of all at Eight19 in the future.

  11. Rob
    Lincoln, UK
    April 24, 2012, 11:32 am

    A fascinating article. As ever, simple ideas are often the best and this initiative has the chance of making an enormous difference in the under developed world. Most importantly, the benefits in health, education, social programmes are huge.

    Interestingly, this mirrors some of the efforts of NGOs, government agencies and the military to develop sustainable energy in austere locations. Fold out or ‘roll-up’ solar panals and mini-wind turbines are increasingly being used in this way to reduce logistical foorprints and cost.

    However, I think the most positive aspect of this is that it makes a real difference to peoples’ lives without making them more reliant on Western Aid.

  12. Thomas J Setter MD
    Anthem,Az. USA
    April 22, 2012, 7:09 pm

    I have seen how SOLAR works in Karagwe,Tanzania.
    The electric pump powered by SOLAR,Helps to bring water to 250,000 people. Also Solar is used by the farmers to re-charge batteries to power LED lighting at night so their children can read. Same with SOLAR powered BACKPACKS.
    Thank you spreding the word.

  13. sarah
    April 21, 2012, 11:28 am

    I need more information on saolar energy as i have to make a project on it. can any1 plz give me some info?

  14. [...] read more… Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. [...]

  15. Paul Felix Schott
    The United States of America
    April 17, 2012, 5:44 pm

    Lord i Pray that we stay One Nation Under GOD, and United that all should be Free.
    May we always have Patriots like Paul Revere. To tell us the wicked are coming to dig in our pocketbook.

    Our Government needs to Lower all taxes while we still have a United States of America.

    When the TRIBULATION in the World starts getting you down. From Pollution the cost of OIL, Heating Fuel,The Fuel you put in your Vehicles, You Electric Bills from
    cooling air conditioners and lights not to speak of the Evil. The TAX that all Governments Federal, State, County and City put on everything they can thing of.

    They are supposed to serve us. Not put a burden on its people. That they are elected to serve all the people you, not their own Pocket Books.

    The Wicked keep putting higher taxes on everything. Making it a Heavy Burden on many that are already struggling just to put food on the table.

    Too many have lost their home to the tax collector or to foreclosures from the unjust
    bankers greed. More are out of work and lost their homes then in the GREAT DEPRESSION, in the last ten years. All Americans and many Nations need good jobs and more of them. Not more TAXES and WARS.

    All Taxes need to be lowered now while there is still time to save America.
    The Nation That Stands United In GOD We Trust not the wicked.

    There is a Industry that will employ workers and is growing by more then 50% every year. There is a clear way for all up on the roof the Sun Light is free fuel from GOD. Some wicked in Government have been backing Coal, Oil, Gas and the Nuclear industries for too many years.

    These kickbacks to them were called Subsidizing Industry Technology. Most all Wise Men and smart Economist and Environmentalists call this padding their pockets and subsidizing back to the Stone Age.

    The best deal would be to lower Taxes for all this is not the Roman Empire or OPEC Empire oh i am sorry i meant Persian Empire ..
    Why do our Leaders let us be Slaves to Taxes they put on us to give it away to the wicked.

    The Chinese Know Renewable Energy is a good thing. Most of the rest of the World is still a slave to Oil, Coal and Nuclear Power. All the Governments of the World now know it is wise to use Renewable Energy it is the Local Governments that are a little slow to learn what is best for all not just there pocket book.

    They fear people going off the grid all that tax money they will no longer be able to take from you. Wind and Solar Farms are growing all over the Earth. This could have happened years ago if the greedy wicked were stopped by the Real Good.

    The Freedom to get your own Power from the Wind and Sun, Solar Energy has been there for years. Are Libraries and Schools should have been the first to have gone Solar and Renewable Energy. And why are they not? Churches are all over the Planet. They are going to Solar Energy.

    Thank GOD for the Pioneers like John Schaeffer that Started Real Goods The first and Best catalog for Renewable Energy and Scientist Bill Young at the FSEC Florida Solar Energy Center and Monica D. Key Lindbergh for many years wrote to legislators promoting Solar and Renewable Energy and many others.

    These Pioneers helped put Wind, Solar And Renewable Energy in the Spotlight for all the World to see.One of The Greatest Scientists ever Albert Einstein Stared it with a Dream that the day would come that all the World would use Solar Energy. His many years of work with the law of the “Photoelectric Effect”, and showing this to the World won him the Nobel Prize in Physics. For the “Photoelectric Effect”
    Free Energy From the SUN in the heavens above.
    We still do not teach this to our young.

    GOD Bless all that help tell this to the World

    All Taxes need to be lowered cut in half or there will be a lot more Poor and needy and not in just other countries. This coming year the World will see hunger like never before. More then 100 million will be sick from malnutrition going with out food. Many will not make it. Taxing the poor and taking there Land away from them is Wicked. Very soon the Rich will become the Poor.

    If your Legislature will not lower Taxes vote them out of office and VOTE in someone that will Lower your Taxes. If your Son or Daughter was raised in a christian Home we need them in our Government as Leaders.

    United We Will Always Stand
    In GOD We Trust
    True Patriots
    GOD Bless
    and May HE Guide you all.

    The Lord’s Little Helper
    Paul Felix Schott

    P.S.
    Many a Nation have fallen from taxing their people to Death. You want Prosperity and for thing to Flourish and grow lower all taxes. You want thriving, success, or good fortune for only a few, keep over taxing all.

    Solar, Wind and Renewable Energy Freedom from OIL. The Humanitarian thing to do. Solar Energy.

    Why let the Wicked in office in our Nation, if they do not believe in GOD our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and the Bible vote them out of office.

    United We Will Always Stand in GOD We Trust
    George Washington and Johann Paul Schott Dec 25,1776 3:45AM.

    56 Signers of the Declaration of Independence
    In GOD We Trust
    The United States of America’s Motto July 30, 1956.
    King David’s Motto 3,000 years ago.

  16. [...] Pay As You Go Sunshine: How Solar Energy and Mobile Phones are Powering the …National GeographicBut also because we've eliminated the upfront cost of buying a solar light, so we can give people an economic return on a day by day basis. Where people don't have electric light their options are kerosene or in some cases candles – about 80% of Zambia … [...]

  17. [...] Pay As You Go Sunshine: How Solar Energy and Mobile Phones are Powering the …National GeographicThat is, until he became the first person in the world to use the IndiGo pay-as-you-go solar energy system. Samuel purchased the system for an affordable $10 and now activates it automatically with a $1 scratch-card each week. [...]