Could mobile phones bring electricity to rural Africa?

One of the signs of economic growth in Kenya in recent years is the increased number of vehicles on the road. This is nowhere more evident than on the highway from Nairobi to the coast, the busiest stretch of road in the country. Convoys of slow-moving lorries make their way up and down this route to and from the port at Mombasa which serves the whole of East Africa. There is a single carriageway in either direction. Broken-down trucks are a frequent menace, a torn off tree branch placed in the road often the only hazard warning.

We are trialling a new product developed by a British company, a solar-powered phone-charging system designed for use by small rural businesses in Africa. I am going to spend a few days on the Kenya coast, visiting the ten entrepreneurs involved in the programme with two people from the company. We want to see how these first prototypes are performing and what the entrepreneurs think of them. The drive down takes seven hours.

The land is dry and covered with scrub. Jagged mountains appear on our right. Leafless baobab trees dot the landscape. We pass through various market centres. Onions and tomatoes are for sale around Emali. Further on at Kibwezi there are stalls offering woven baskets, bags and gourds. At Mtito Andei, the halfway point, we stop for lunch, a plate of meat pillau and a soda in a truck stop behind a garage. Three yellow orioles alight on a table nearby, scavenging crumbs, then fly up into the trees. On the second leg of the journey we pass Manyani and later MacKinnon Road, the sites of detention campaigns in the years before independence. Tens of thousands of suspected Mau Mau sympathisers were held here without trial. Many of them died here.

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Forty kilometres from Mombasa we visit two of the entrepreneurs. While 30% of Kenyans in rural areas own a phone, only around 4% are connected to the national electricity grid. The product we are testing is state of the art. The lithium ion battery and the electronics which manage its performance are contained in a compact yellow box which connects to a solar panel. Technically this is a big advance on the conventional phone-charging systems used in off-grid areas which employ lead acid batteries, a charge controller and invertor, and need to be installed by a technician. Such systems are only available for cash and they are not cheap. The batteries require a lot of maintenance and quality can be poor.

The product we are testing works on a ‘pay-as-you-go’ model. The entrepreneur pays a small deposit and then makes monthly payments to continue using the system. Payments are made using mobile money transfer and the entrepreneur receives a code each time he or she pays. This is punched into the key pad on the unit, reactivating the system. It is the same principle as pay-as-you-go TV which has become well established in Kenya. If you don’t pay, the equipment doesn’t work.

The phone-charging kits come with two bright LED lights which can be used to light a house or small shop. Most Kenyan households rely on kerosene (paraffin) lamps for lighting. Kerosene is expensive and increasingly scarce. There are stories of people queuing for hours to buy it. The solar-powered bulbs enable the owner to eliminate the use of kerosene, and save money. The LEDs provide much better light and give off no noxious fumes. With the income from phone charging and the savings on kerosene the monthly top-up payments should be more than affordable. After 14 months the entrepreneur will own the system outright.

We drive for ten kilometres into the bush on the southern side of the highway, climbing a hill. A truck loaded with bush charcoal passes us, heading back out to the road. Further on another truck is parked up, half filled with sacks. Charcoal production is a mainstay of the community here. It’s illegal and the forestry agency is supposed to control it. Yet people in Mombasa need fuel to cook with and the population in this barren area needs some way to earn a living. Outright suppression of the trade is politically impossible. The government agents don’t have the resources to stop it. Bribes buy a level of official indulgence. Over the course of the week I see many sacks of charcoal awaiting collection at roadsides.

Silas and his wife own a general store in a tiny settlement far from the main road and the national grid. He was the first person to start a phone-charging business in this area, using a conventional solar-powered system. He likes the new product which he has been using for the past two months. He says it is much easier to use than his old set up. Despite the emergence of a number of competitors charging phones he is still doing good business. Phone charging is a profitable activity and is quickly being copied. Silas wonders if the product can be developed so that he can connect up a TV and show premier-league football – something people would pay money to watch. The English premier league is big in Kenya. The logos of Chelsea, Man Utd, Arsenal are frequently to be seen in homes and cars. Being able to show matches on a TV would provide a new revenue source for Silas and his wife.

We visit a second entrepreneur in the trial. John has an electrical shop on the main highway but runs the charging business from home, which is a few kilometres up a dirt road. Night is falling by the time we arrive but an LED in the house is bright and cheering. When the family first wired it up neighbour thought they had a motorcycle in their living room. Another LED  attached to an outhouse lights the yard. John’s wife operates the business and finds the equipment easy to use. The cash she earns is used to meet domestic expenditures. When John started, his was the first charging station in this area, but two of his neighbours have also set up businesses using conventional systems which he has installed for them. He says there are enough customers for all of them. Phone ownership is growing, as is phone usage. He’s very happy with the unit, and with the lights which are saving the family a lot of money. They used to keep a light burning all night for security and John tells me that when the family woke in the morning they would have soot around their nostrils. Now that’s a thing of the past.

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Mombasa is a chaos of container lorries and trucks. The port is a 24-hour operation but even so it struggles to cope with the volume of goods passing through. An army of shipping agents hustle every day to get goods cleared for their clients. Money changes hands. Favours are done. There is a security alert the day we arrive. The leader of an extreme separatist group, the Mombasa Republican Council (MRC), Omar Mwamnuadzi, was arrested at dawn by the police as part of a massive crackdown on Islamist activity in the area. The MRC is linked to Al Shabaab, the militant group which controlled southern Somalia for a while. Two MRC members were killed during the raid. A police officer injured by a grenade died later in hospital.

Al Shabaab actively recruited militants from around Mombasa to fight the Kenyan troops which entered Somalia a year ago. With the fall of the Somali port of Kismayo in September, many have returned home, destabilising the Kenya coast region. Tourism numbers have fallen over the past year. The elite Kenyan army unit, the General Service Unit (GSU), is involved in a hunt for the ringleaders and members of the group. My Kenyan colleagues think we’ll be OK, that the security services have the situation under control. A military Land Rover is parked outside our hotel, soldiers lounging in the back.

Over the following few days we visit the remaining phone-charging stations, some located a long way from tarmac roads. Our Toyota pickup bounces its way over rutted, potholed tracks and rock-strewn, dry river beds to reach these businesses. In one especially remote area we find that the entrepreneur sells the local hooch, mnazi, made from fermented coconut milk. His customers like to enjoy a drink or two while they wait for their phones to charge, a process which takes two hours. It is midday and three of his customers are enjoying  a bottle between them. We join them for half an hour, sitting outside the wattle and mud building which serves as general store and bar. Two guinea fowl are pecking about in the dust. The customers are already fairly inebriated. They tell us that before this charging station arrived they had to travel 15 km to charge their phones. The community would collect together a number of phones and someone would walk to the local trading centre. A few days later someone else would walk down there to collect the charged phones. We asked them what they do with the extra time they now have. Apart from drinking it seems they use this time for making more illegal charcoal. As we are talking some charcoal traders turn up in a small truck, a group of young men who order a bottle of mnazi for themselves. Such are the contradictions in ‘development’ work.

In other stations the impacts seem more obviously positive. We visit a community school where the lights from the charging unit are used for evening exam preparation. Previously the school used pressurised kerosene lights. They are saving a lot of money and also earning revenue by charging the phones of some of the parents. The students bring the handsets with them in the morning and take them home in the evening. The caretaker looks after the phone charging.

In another location Ruben, who owns a welding shop in the local market place, has set up his 18-year old daughter, Jessica, as a phone-charging service provider back at the family compound a few kilometres away. ‘Otherwise she would be idle,’ he explains. ‘Now she has money for her baby and I do not have to worry about providing for her.’

We ask the entrepreneurs if they think a rechargeable lantern would be good business. Local people would be able to buy a light for a few dollars which could be recharged in the same way a phone is recharged. They all think this would be very interesting.

After completing our visits we end up at a bar on the beach. Bathers are splashing around in the shallows, enjoying the late afternoon sun. The people from the company which makes the charging unit have a lot of ideas about how to remodel the prototype, features to change, spin-off products. The big challenge is distribution. How do we get the product to the customer in a way that is commercially viable? How do we layer the lighting product onto the phone-charging business? How do we distribute the available margin across the different actors required to make all this work? We discuss various options. People have been trying to crack the problem of how to bring solar lighting to rural communities for 20 years. It feels that finally we are on the cusp. Product innovation, lower costs, a pay-as-you-go model, the ubiquitous presence of mobile phones, all coming together to provide a possible solution. If we can prove that making charging available boosts phone use we might get the mobile phone companies in on the act.

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On the last day, before we head back to Nairobi, we visit a small business which is making briquettes as an alternative to charcoal. They use waste material from processing coconuts, a business they started as a community organisation. Cosmetics and cooking oil were their main products until the idea of making briquettes was introduced. The husks are carbonised in a kiln and the char mixed with a small amount of flour paste to make the briquettes. The group is doing well. It has secured funding to buy an electrically powered press and machinery for packaging its product. It has plans to expand and use more of the coconut waste available locally. Securing raw materials will create employment in the community.

It’s a long haul back to Nairobi, the last two hours in the dark. On the radio there is a news report about the rising number of road deaths. Who is responsible? Most respondents to a survey say the police need to enforce the law. The researchers say Kenyan drivers aren’t taking enough responsibility for their own behaviour and they criticise the quality and quantity of government road-safety advertising which they say is ineffectual. Road accidents will soon be the main cause of death in Kenya, ahead of malaria and HIV/AIDS, they claim. We overtake the line of lorries crawling up towards the city, dodging back into line as oncoming traffic passes, then pulling out for another dash forwards. Near Athi River we pass a horrible accident. A small family car has ploughed into the front of a bus. It looks as though the bus was on the wrong side of the road, probably overtaking. It’s hard to imagine anyone in the crushed and burned-out car survived.

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