Feb 16

Combine mobile tech + solar electricity generation – and empower the powerless

There are over 1.5B people globally who do not have access to electricity.  A large proportion live in sub-Saharan Africa. Eight19 is a Cambridge, UK company which has creatively combined solar panel electricity generation with LED lights, USB charging and a mobile technology-based payments system to create a solution that can save a family 40% net of its income – and improve the quality of life (including health) for its users.

In many of the parts of the world where people live without access to electricity the ‘alternative’ is kerosene – a crude-oil derived liquid that gives off noxious gases while providing a weak light.  Kerosene is also expensive as well as harmful in an enclosed space.

In Sub-Saharan Africa a family can spend as much as $3/week on kerosene to provide light at home.  This amounts to some 30% of the typical $10/week earned by a family.  In addition, if that family should have mobile phones (increasingly an economic as well as family communication necessity), charging each phone can cost $0.20 (plus the time and effort to go to somewhere which has the electricity to recharge that phone).  Take 3 phones (including both parents and children) and a family might spend (say ) $1.50/week simply on recharges.  In other words, $4.50 or 45% of a family income might go on poor light and to enabling the ability to communicate.

Enter Eight19.   It has brought together the following (in what it calls IndiGo) basic package:

  • a solar panel, cabling that binds that solar panel to an interior unit which contains battery, micro processor (with unique serial number), keypad, USB port and two LED lights
  • a business model which is simple and fair
  • accessibility, enabled by mobile telephone services (scratch cards and SMS).

It works like this.  To start, a user buys (for, say, $12) the solar panel plus battery/keypad unit and 2 LED lights.  The solar panel charges the battery during daylight hours and stores c. 3AmpH of power, sufficient to enable the lights for several hours each day and recharge 2-3 nearly empty simple cell phones.

To enable the battery to release the stored electricity, the user buys a scratch card for $1 from a local distributor.  Once scratched the card reveals a code which the user sends by SMS to an IndiGo server which validates the number and then returns by SMS a unique passcode code which the user inputs to the keypad on the battery.  This code authorizes the electricity release for a week (this could be for a day or a month, with a different price for each).  For each subsequent week (or other paid period) the user buys another scratch card and repeats the process – for about 18 months of use.

After these 18 months the solar panel and unit becomes the property of the owner (and no further scratch card purchases are necessary – although Eight19 hopes that users will upgrade to more powerful solar panel/battery units that can drive tablets or radios or TVs or other electrical appliances that work off 12V.

The beauty of this arrangement for the user lies in its simplicity.  After the small upfront payment the user is ‘renting’ the equipment until it is paid off (like hire-purchase, but without the infinite payment presumption that gave hire-purchase its bad name).  Purchasing a scratch card is familiar as is the use of mobile technology (SMS) to send the scratch card code and receive the passcode for that particular battery/keypad unit.  Indeed, as better mobile transaction technologies arrive, Eight19 can adopt these.

The financial justification is straightforward.  Assuming that the initial down-payment is possible, a user pays $1 to save $3.50/week (net) – a saving representing 35% of the weekly income.

From an educational or lifestyle viewpoint, there is now decent light in a house – light for children to study by, for cooking or for making living more agreeable in the dark hours.  The health improvement dimension is equally straightforward – removing kerosene removes toxic fumes and the risks that always  come with having flammable liquids around.

Now think on a larger scale.  Kerosene is a dirty and relatively inefficient fuel, which adds copious pollution to the atmosphere.  Solar charging does not.  If sufficient of those without electricity buy into the Eight19 approach, then there are macro benefits — for the climate, health, energy resiliency, etc as well as the micro benefits to the family.

Finally, the concept (though likely without the scratch card) could be applied in almost any country with sufficient sun.  Think of the possibilities if the majority of long-life smart mobile devices (smartphones, tablets and even LED lights) are charged by solar energy.  This would reduce the electricity grid load — not by much on an individual basis but by a much more substantial proportion in aggregate.  According to CEO Simon Bransfield-Garth, Eight19 is not focusing on this but on the developing world (which makes sense).

Nevertheless, IndiGo represents an innovative approach which exploits mobile technologies and solar electricity on a micro scale to open upt he possibility of macro savings that could warrant much wider adoption, even in the developed world (especially at Eight19 pricing).

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