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How a German Startup Is Making the ‘Magic of Light’ Affordable in Developing Countries

Image Credit: Mobisol

Beatrice Akyoo doesn’t need to spend as much money lighting her home, and her children have more time for homework without inhaling the nasty fumes from kerosene lamps. She also earns extra income by charging her neighbours’ mobile phones.

“I am proud to own my personal electricity source,” she says. “At night, my family now has clean and bright lights - and we can even power a refrigerator."

It may not sound like much to those in the West, but some two billion people around the world don’t have a reliable electricity source to meet their daily energy needs. In the 90 percent of households in rural Tanzania, Kenya or Rwanda that don’t have electricity, they use kerosene lamps, batteries or - if they’re very wealthy - a generator.

“All of these options are fairly bad news,” Thomas Duveau, head of business development at Berlin-based solar energy company Mobisol, said in a recent interview.

The answer for Ankyoo – as you may now guess – is solar power. With ample capacity in Europe, scaling it in Africa is a no-brainer: As Duveau points out, “There’s certainly a lot more sun in Tanzania than in Germany.”

Mobisol harnesses two realities: Affordability is a challenge (“very few people have $500 lying around their house in Tanzania”); and there is an existing, developed technology on the ground – using SMS on mobiles phones to wire money.

The company offers households in Tanzania, Rwanda and Kenya a small leasing model where recipients can pay for a solar system in installments with their mobile phone over three years. This gives low-income people in developing countries a clean alternative to fossil fuels – and after the three years, they own the electricity source.

The sun-harvesting system – which Mobisol designs, procures, distributes and services – is high-tech, long-life and a better value proposition for users than their previous energy sources. Powering three kerosene lights for four hours, as is typical in a Tanzanian household, would use about half a litre of kerosene and cost 50¢ a day.

“For exactly the same price, we bring in a solar system,” Duveau explains. “So we put a panel on your roof, bring a battery, bring you LED lights – which are much brighter, and much nicer – we bring a machine that recharges mobile phones, we bring a radio and a TV.”

Mobisol solar systems vary from 80 to 200 watt-peak (Wp), depending on the recipient’s needs. They provide enough electricity to power household appliances, as well as small businesses, giving the entrepreneurial the opportunity to create an income. In fact, around a third of Mobisol customers earn incremental income with the system. The largest model has the capacity to power a fridge, so some customers sell beverages or farm produce. Many charge phones, like Akyoo, or sell their surplus energy to their community.

The business is scaling up the use of renewable energy systems across the region: Since being founded in 2010, Mobisol has installed over 70,000 solar home systems on households and businesses in East Africa, giving roughly 350,000 people access to clean, affordable and reliable solar energy.

The positive impact on people’s livelihoods is substantial. Children’s grades are significantly rising with the extra study time after dark, and entrepreneurs can use the hours to sew for customers or work in their garage or workshop. People who have never seen a moving picture before are watching films and football matches on a projector. And they have more free time - simply charging a mobile phone previously meant spending half to a whole day every week walking to the nearest village and idling around.

The impact of the “magic of light,” as Duveau calls it, can be hard to quantify: “Everyone wants electricity.”

And it’s just the beginning. Mobisol wants to reach millions of households in low-income communities. Yes, it’s good for the environment – saving 35,000 tonnes of CO2 every year – but it’s also empowering local people and rousing the social and economic development in these countries.

“Having a purpose affects everybody and everything you do,” Duveau says.

“Claiming to have a purpose, and not living it or seeing it as part of an ongoing process, leads to purpose-wash. If you think this is just CSR 2.0 for the social media age, don’t even think about it.”


Tom Idle is a writer, journalist, editor and commentator in the field of corporate sustainability, climate change policy, environmental protection, clean energy and corporate social responsibility. He is the former editor-in-chief at 2degrees network, the world's largest community for sustainable… [Read more about Tom Idle]


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