Making Bluetooth Work For Rural Low-Income Families

By Vincenzo Capogna, Innovation Manager, SunnyMoney

Making Bluetooth Work For Rural Low-Income Families

By Vincenzo Capogna, Innovation Manager, SunnyMoney

SunnyMoney is a social enterprise founded by London-based charity SolarAid and we are the largest seller of pico-solar lights in Africa. A pico-solar light is a compact portable device that uses a photovoltaic panel to produce up to 10watts of power. Combined with advanced batteries and LED bulbs it simply charges in the day to give out clean, safe light at night. Solar lights represent a valid and convenient alternative to kerosene, candles, or battery-powered torches in all those developing countries that lack access to a reliable energy grid.

SunnyMoney doesn’t manufacture solar lights; we are product neutral and our focus is overcoming the challenges of last-mile distribution in rural areas. Our model involves working closely with education authorities to raise awareness of solar lights through teachers. Their involvement is crucial to building trust in solar technology which will then stimulate demand in local communities. It is this community-based model that has enabled us to sell over one million solar lights and become the largest distributor on the African continent.

Yet, in the communities where we work across Tanzania, Malawi, Kenya and Zambia we would rarely have higher than a 10-15% uptake rate in any one school community. This tells us that there are still many barriers to people purchasing a solar light and one of these key barriers is affordability.

SunnyMoney Brains (SMB) is the innovations department of SunnyMoney and we are focused on developing, selecting and testing innovative products and business solutions that can bring down the barriers to the adoption of solar products. This work is incredibly important if we are to extend modern energy access to low income rural families in Africa. One of our most recent projects is working in partnership with technology providers to test and pilot entry-level Pay-As-You-Go (PAYG) solar products.

The idea behind this is that families don’t need to pay the full up front cost of a solar light in one go. They can pay it off in small weekly instalments that are similar, or less than their usual weekly expenditure on kerosene. Therefore, PAYG allows the customer to purchase a high quality solar product in a way that mimics usual expenditure kerosene expenditure.

PAYG is not new to the solar market but the technology has mostly been used with larger solar home systems, at prices that are beyond the reach of the majority of our customer base – 90% of our customers live below the poverty line. At SMB, we use SunnyMoney’s experience and increasing knowledge of the market to develop and distribute products that reach a customer-based balance between the features of the product and the cost constraints imposed by the market segment (low income rural families who are hearing of solar energy for the first time).

One of SMB’s main collaborations is with diviPower, a Fort Collins-based technology company that has recently launched diviLite, an innovative entry-level PAYG solar light. The diviLite PAYG system has the same functionalities of a standard entry-level solar light but it also includes an embedded Bluetooth chip. This enables it to be wirelessly connected to a mobile phone and activated when a cash or mobile-money payment is made. When a diviLite is purchased it will have one week of light credit included. After that week it will be locked and not useable until the weekly payment has been made. We are piloting both cash payments (with activation via a smartphone carried by the Head Teacher), as well as an innovative solution allowing mobile-payments (through M-Pesa) which includes automatic activation of the product. After a few affordable weekly payments the product is permanently enabled and the customer becomes the owner of the solar lantern and to enjoy years of free, clean and safe light (the products have a lifetime of five years).

With this work we are expecting to dramatically extend modern energy access to off-grid rural populations by increasing the affordability and therefore more than doubling the uptake of high quality solar products. Another important focus of the current market tests is refining the product features and improving the marketing and training materials that accompany the solar lights to ensure the number of products that become fully paid off is higher than 90-95%.

Both product and service innovation are a vital component of making this technology affordable and appropriate for the people we are aiming to serve in rural Africa. Being open to testing products in the challenging markets where we work, and adapting characteristics to better respond to customer needs is vital to ensuring we make solar lights and business models that will succeed in helping families living off-grid to adopt and benefit from new energy technologies.

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