Powering Solar Energy In Africa With Pay-As-You-Go

To cover the cost of prohibitively expensive solar installations in Africa, a startup called Angaza is introducing solar power that works the same way as mobile phone minutes.

It’s a familiar problem in the developing world: In places where grid power isn’t easily accessible, many people rely on toxic kerosene-fuel-based lanterns to provide light in the evening. The most practical solution, as so many nonprofits and sustainability-minded organizations have shouted from the rooftops for years, is to make solar power systems available in these off-the-grid areas.

The issue with that, however, is that solar power systems can be too expensive for people in these poor, rural areas to afford. There are a handful of solutions being tested, including solar microgrids and programs that allow entrepreneurial residents to buy the systems and then sell power to neighbors.

Angaza, a recently crowned Tech Awards Laureate, has a different idea: ask users for a small upfront fee ($10) to buy a solar power unit, with small amounts paid weekly for 12 months after that in order to cover the cost.

Originally, the startup planned on selling its SoLite three-watt home solar system—a portable LED light and solar panel combination that can light up a whole room—in Africa for an upfront cost of $50 to $60. But they weren’t able to sell the systems quickly enough—hence the pay as you go model. "Families in east Africa don’t have large sums of money to purchase products at one time even though the payback is great," explains Lesley Silverthorn Marincola, CEO of Angaza.

The key to the pay as you go model is a series of hardware modifications within the light that connects it to the local cellular network as well as mobile money platforms—that way, customers can easily pay via services like M-Pesa. A cloud-based energy management platform regulates activity. "It’s like how pre-paid cell phones work, where you buy a phone and prepaid minutes. Here, you buy a physical kit, but in order to make the light function you have to buy energy credits," says Marincola.

Angaza just launched its pay as you go product in May, so the sales volume is still low. But the company is working on a "large scale impact survey with local entrepreneurs using the product in Tanzania," says Marincola. The service also has distribution partners to help with sales in east Africa.

As for the Tech Awards funding? Angaza will receive either $75,000 or $25,000 (they will find out in November), which will go towards scaling up production.

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