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Let there be power

Mobisol engages in business in Africa with mobile solar systems.

by Lisa Schwarz 

 

Africa’s energy sector is booming. Nonetheless, hundreds of millions of people still live on the continent without a power connection. After sundown, entire regions are covered in darkness. A Berlin-based company, Mobisol, wants to change this. But how? A guest article.

The Project

At the close of 2015, world leaders met in Paris to develop a new international climate protection agreement succeeding the Kyoto Protocol. The message was clear: to prevent climate change of catastrophic proportions, a new solution to reduce global carbon dioxide emissions has to be found as soon as possible. In doing so, emissions-intensive industrialised countries should play a leading role. However, it is also becoming increasingly important to sate the hunger for energy of the emerging economies of the Global South. Sustainable solutions are needed for this – no fossil fuels or high-risk nuclear energy. In this context, during the negotiations in Paris, two companies offering solar solutions for Africa were awarded the prestigious Momentum for Change Award by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. One of the recipients was Mobisol – we are a Berlin-based company that distributes micro-financed solar systems in East Africa.

 

 

According to the World Bank, less than 10% of rural households in Sub-Saharan Africa have access to a power grid. In East Africa, around 70% of the population live in rural areas.

 

The classic solution to the energy crisis in Sub-Saharan countries – grid-based energy infrastructure – is not tailored to households with low energy consumption. Because of the technical challenges in installing and maintaining the grid, as well as inadequate generating capacities, comprehensive on-grid electrification is impracticable in many places. In addition, the costs of on-grid options exceed those of decentralised solar systems many times over.

 

Low income households currently cover their energy needs largely with unhealthy, environmentally damaging and expensive fossil fuel-using devices such as petroleum lamps and diesel generators. In remote regions, the use of larger electrical devices is simply not possible. However, the high levels of solar radiation in these areas make them ideal for smaller, decentralised solar systems. Nevertheless, two main problems in supply have presented themselves in the past: financing the systems as well as their repair and maintenance.

 

 

Although the commercial distribution of solar home systems started as recently as 2013, Mobisol has already supplied power to more than 200,000 people in Tanzania, Kenya and Rwanda.

 

Mobisol addresses these problems with an innovative strategy: it has developed “solar home systems”, which are also affordable for the low income population of East Africa through access to microfinance. Customers finance their systems over a period of 36 months, with monthly instalments paid by mobile banking on their phones. The majority of Africa’s population have access to a mobile network today, even in rural areas. After paying off the system, it belongs to the customer. The instalments are based on the costs for fossil fuels typical for the country in question.

The Mobisol system is comprised of a solar panel, a solar battery with solar controller, LED lamps, all necessary cables and switches for installation, as well as a mobile phone charging plug. The high-quality solar systems are available in four performance levels, ranging from 80 to 200 Watts, and are powerful enough to cover all the electricity needs of an average household. Mobile phones can be recharged and numerous lamps, radios, televisions and fans powered, as well as lap tops, internet routers, electric shavers, irons and even efficient direct current refrigerators.

The system was conceived for the African market by an experienced team of engineers in Berlin. The highly energy efficient components can be quickly assembled into a robust system and installed in a “plug and play” manner by locally trained technicians.

 

 

Part of our formula for success includes guaranteeing the sustainability of the technology.

 

We have assembled a network of well-trained and certified service technicians in the project countries who can provide assistance to customers within 48 hours. Long-term guarantees and free servicing for three years are included in the price. Innovative software support for maintenance processes and customer service has also been developed. The centrepiece of the local system is a solar controller with an integrated GSM modem, through which the technical data on the panel, the battery and energy consumption are transmitted, tracked and stored it in a web-based database in real-time. This allows for problems to be swiftly identified and addressed. For example, the data lets local technicians know if a panel is dirty or a battery is worn out. The findings are communicated to the customer by telephone, avoiding the need for an inconvenient trips by the technicians. Using the database, systems can also be automatically locked when accounts are overdue or systems are stolen, and texts with maintenance information can also be sent automatically.

 

 

Currently, our more than 40,000 installed solar systems generate inexpensive and clean power for more than 200,000 people in the rural areas of East Africa. Following market launch, we sold 2,000 systems from 2013 to 2014, with this figure rising to 10,000 just one year later. Today, our solar systems provide power to a population equal to that of the city of Mainz.

 

Reliable solar power raises the living standards of rural families without a connection to a power grid. Efficient LED lamps improve their quality of life drastically, by, for example, allowing work to be done in the evening.

Thanks to Mobisol’s systems, currently 120,000 children can do their homework in the evening without having to breathe in hazardous fumes from kerosene lamps.

Our customers no longer have to travel long distances to businesses with diesel generators to recharge their mobile phones. Many customers also use solar power commercially: around 13,000 small-scale entrepreneurs generate additional household income of over 5 million euros a year through recharging mobile phones and solar lamps, or through village cinemas and solar powered hairdressers.

 

 

 

In addition, we also create new training positions and jobs in East Africa’s precarious labour markets. The Mobisol Academy ensures comprehensive local training for all the company’s employees. To date, over 700 permanent jobs have been created here.

 

 

The electrification of rural areas is one of the key factors in the socioeconomic development of the entire region, and can, to a certain degree, limit the number of people leaving rural areas to go to overcrowded cities. The increasing energy needs of the Global South can be satisfied most easily and effectively through decentralised renewable energies.

 

 

Tanzania and Rwanda provide good current examples of how this works. Following our positive experiences in these countries, we recently announced our entry into Kenya’s market, and further countries are planned. Analogous to our market expansion, we are constantly expanding our range of products and services. At the moment, our selection of direct current devices and our business solutions are being greatly extended.

With 4 megawatts of installed solar capacity, Mobisol has already established itself as the largest provider of micro-financed solar home systems in Africa.

Every year, our solar solutions compensate for more than 20,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide that would have been produced through the use of fossil fuels.

 

Today, African nations have a historic opportunity to take innovative approaches and avoid repeating the prior mistakes of industrialised countries. Broad access to mobile communications makes the installation of landlines superfluous, and the use of mobile payment systems through mobile devices renders a classic banking system unnecessary. Instead of grid-based electricity infrastructure, sustainable decentralised systems arise that are reliable and inexpensive. The creativity and innovative capacity of East African entrepreneurs and young, motivated workers drive this process strongly forward. At the same time, external parties such as Mobisol can support sustainable socioeconomic development by, for example, providing their expertise in the field of solar technology. In doing so, they improve the quality of life of people and their families, and make a significant contribution to the growth of African economies – all while implementing sustainable solutions for global environment protection.

 

The creativity and innovative capacity of East African entrepreneurs and young, motivated workers drive this process strongly forward. At the same time, external parties such as Mobisol can support sustainable socioeconomic development by, for example, providing their expertise in the field of solar technology. In doing so, they improve the quality of life of people and their families, and make a significant contribution to the growth of African economies – all while implementing sustainable solutions for global environment protection.