Can This Portable Solar Charger Create African Electricity Entrepreneurs?

The Fenix solar charger is far more expensive than most similar solutions to lack of power in the developing world. That’s because the idea is that once you buy it, you sell charges to everyone else.

Spend 20 minutes researching off-grid power solutions in the developing world and you’ll come up with dozens, if not hundreds, of solar-powered charging devices. The problem is getting these solutions to scale. The traditional model, where nonprofits give away solar chargers, lanterns, LED lights, and other devices, probably can’t revolutionize the way the developing world uses power. A model that relies on entrepreneurship might.

We first covered Fenix International, a startup that manufactures a portable plug-and-play battery that can be powered by any number of sources (solar panels, electric grid, bicycle generators, micro-wind, etc.), when it participated last year in the Cleantech Open venture-capital pitch session. Since then, Fenix has secured funding from a variety of investors—and it has started rolling out its product in Uganda with an innovative business model: selling the ReadySet plug-and-play battery through MTN (Africa’s largest mobile telecom) directly to consumers, who earn money by charging the community money to use the device.

Check out one entrepreneur’s experience in the video below:

On the flip side, MTN sees an increase in revenues from users who have their phones charged more often.

MTN has sold approximately 2,000 units over the past year or so. Each device, which holds enough power to recharge a device seven to eight times, comes with a price tag of $150—not exactly cheap in the African market. But Fenix says that entrepreneurs can make back their investment in as little as three months by charging fees to the community. "If you can have [a product] make you income, people are far more interested in investing in it," says Mike Lin, CEO of Fenix International. And, he adds, the ReadySet is durable. It won’t fall apart like so many cheap options. "When it comes to things like a solar panel or energy system, you need to invest in the quality of the components," he explains.

This week, Fenix launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise $20,000—money that will go towards bringing more ReadySets over to the African market. The campaign is also a chance for Fenix to gauge interest in its product in the U.S., where it could be used in camping, emergency preparedness, and other off-grid situations. For $199, the first 100 backers get the ReadySet, which will eventually retail in the U.S. for $300 (retailers in the U.S. take higher margins, so Fenix is pricing the device higher).

The Kickstarter ReadySet kit comes with the device, a 15-watt solar panel, an LED light, a power adapter for on-grid charging, and a universal clip charger. The product is built on an open platform—a design choice that Fenix hopes will expand the number of applications for the ReadySet. "The iPhone, the Android phone are useful because of the apps they can run. Instead of software apps, ReadySet is made more useful by all the cool things you can plug into it like maybe the next really cool water purifier. We know we can’t do it all ourselves," says Lin. "We want to create a community around renewable energy."

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