21 October 2011

Africa: Solar-Charging Micro-Firms Could Solve Mobile Energy Gap

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Basket maker talking on cell phone.

Nairobi — Solar-powered charging of mobile phones holds great potential for Africa, and could generate significant income for smallholder entrepreneurs, according to a report.

Solar-powered charging stations could address a "significant unmet need" in rural areas that are not connected to the national grid, saving people time and money they would otherwise spend travelling to charge their phones.

But access to initial funds remains a challenge, says the report 'Phone Charging Micro-businesses in Tanzania and Uganda', published by the Global Village Energy Partnership (GVEP), a non-profit organisation that tries to harness entreneurship to open up energy for the poor.

There are 78 phone charging entrepreneurs in Tanzania, 28 in Kenya and 26 in Uganda, the report says, but there is opportunity for expansion. By 2015, 40 countries from Sub-Saharan Africa, South and South-East Asia, and the Middle East will have more people with access to a mobile network than have access to electricity at home - according to the Cisco Global Mobile Data Traffic Forecast for 2010-2015.

"Phone charging can create a significant income stream for the entrepreneur providing the service - US$250 a month for one of the Kenya businesses," Simon Collings, author of the report and chief operations officer at GVEP, told SciDev.Net.

"The stations have to be sized depending on the number of customers, and the entrepreneur needs to understand the limitations of the equipment they have - and how to use it properly. We advise on where to buy good quality equipment," he said.

GVEP trains entrepreneurs in the technical components required for the stations, such as the solar panels and batteries; as well as the business techniques, such as how to provide a good service, and how to open bank accounts and expand their businesses.

"We talk with the bank or microfinance institution to encourage them to lend to the entrepreneurs," said Collings.

The main challenge, he said, is sourcing the start-up capital to purchase the solar panels.

"Persuading banks and microfinancing institutions has not been an easy task for GVEP. Despite this challenge, there [are steps] ahead being made."

Linda Kwamboka, a data collection and integrity officer with the Nairobi based M-Farm - a software and agribusiness company set up by women entrepreneurs - said the initiative promotes a business attitude in rural areas.

"If the owner of a solar charger charges ten Kenyan shillings (around nine US cents) per phone, then they would make a living out of it while promoting mobile phone usage for communication, transactions and access to information," she said.

But she added that the weather could present a big challenge. "Fewer phones will be charged when there is cloud cover, so the money inflow will not be as great," she said.

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InFocus

Turning the Spotlight on Solar-Powered Mobile Phones

Basket maker talking on cell phone.

Kenyans can now take advantage of a cell phone that uses solar energy to recharge in order to deal with problems linked to increasing power outages. Read more »