The M-KOPA Solar journey has been tough but rewarding. When my co-founders and I began the company in 2010, we knew there had to be a better way to provide affordable and clean energy to off-grid homes in Africa. What we didn’t know was exactly how customers would use this to their long-term advantage.
We developed a mobile money ‘pay-as-you-go’ model to bring affordable solar onto people’s roof tops and remove many of the financial and geographical barriers to accessing energy. Our commercial launch was in 2012 and 400,000 homes later, we’re astonished about the effect this is having on customers across East Africa.
Our core offer to them is an 8W battery-powered solar home system with three lights, mobile phone charging and solar-powered radio. In February 2016 we began offering upgrades to a 20W system that had all this, plus a 16” digital TV.
Customers who complete their payments on time can also acquire additional life-improving products on the same payment platform. We offer energy-efficient cook stoves, smart phones, water tanks and more.
Our sales pitches for all these used to be mainly focused on ‘affordability’. This seems obvious when 80 per cent of homes using M-KOPA have per capita income of less than US $2 per day.
However, we’ve realised that our customers are increasingly focused on ‘opportunity’. Most of them are looking at using their home systems to get ahead or progress – what is called maendeleo in Swahili. And these positive changes range from expanding an existing business to supplementing family income.
For an enterprising family with power, there is money to be made from charging phones or hosting movie showings. Our lights and add-ons have made it easier for thousands of kiosk operators to stay open after dark and to draw in trade.
I heard about a great story from Elizabeth Namang’are, who is one of our customers in Kangemi, Kenya. Thanks to bright lights, she’s nearly doubled daily income to over US $30 at her vegetable kiosk.
She tells how she previously struggled with candlelight for essential evening trade, serving returning commuters. Some would take advantage of the dim light and sneak extra vegetables into their bag. Others would demand for extra change, insisting they gave more money. We’ve helped her cut all that stuff that out and more people can see that she is open.
The configuration of our solar home system – with fixed and detachable lights – is also working. Calasina Achieng’ is also in Kangemi and she roasts maize at the roadside for a living. Thanks to M-KOPA, her children are getting a leg up and business is improving too.
Her kids can now stay at home in safety, to complete their homework using the ‘fixed’ lights in our system. She uses her portable light to illuminate her stand. And she plays the radio to catch up on the 7pm prime time news and attract some loyal regulars, who like to do the same.
Anderson is one of the high mountain guides working on Mount Kenya. He’s used his M-KOPA system to improve client safety on his expeditions. He thinks there’s less risk of falls at night and likes to keep abreast of the hourly weather forecasts.
I love these customer stories - every one is different and incredibly insightful. Last year we set up M-KOPA Labs as a standalone research and development unit. And we’ve partnered with organisations in different industries to test new products and services – all based on the incredible insights we get from our customers.
We’ve got transformational products, like fridges and fans, in the pipeline. One of our partnerships is with the MasterCard Foundation and we’re researching using our platform to offer agricultural support and inputs to smallhold Tanzanian farmers.
I think these innovations will be transformational for many customers. I think many of them will continue to surprise us on how they use power and appliances to get ahead.
All of us at M-KOPA benefit from time in the field, to remind ourselves that we’re helping people build a better future. And it’s why we still start every management meeting in the company with a presentation of a customer’s story.
This blog is part of a series of stories that highlights the serious efforts people are making to improve lives through energy access. Read the other blogs in the series by:
- Peju Adeosun from Virgin Earth Challenge on the latest solutions to energy access.
- Eli Mitchell-Larson from SunFarmer on delivering affordable solar to energy-hungry Nepal.
- Sameer Hajee from NuruEnergy on developing a sustainable, scalable solution to dirty kerosene.
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