London — Solar powered satellite TVs are slowly but surely expanding the size of Africa's TV audiences and finding new viewers in previously uncovered rural areas. Russell Southwood spoke to Azuri Technologies' CEO Simon Bransfield-Garth about why rural householders think TV is important and what they watch.
When we spoke to Bransfield-Garth at the beginning of 2017, Azuri Technologies had only got customers in "the hundreds". Now it is selling its solar powered TV in three countries (Kenya, Uganda and Nigeria) and has sold in "the low tens of thousands. Paygo (Pay-as-you-go) is inherently challenging in distribution terms and it's different with TV as you need to build up a network of installers."
But despite these challenges, Bransfield-Garth has been pleasantly surprised by the level of uptake of its solar TVs:"The general sentiment in the market is that (solar) TV products are doing better than we actually all thought they would. When we started we thought it would be only 10% of those buying (our solar energy product). But a substantially larger proportion take TVs. In three years time I think that more than half will take TVs."
Its main competitor for solar powered TVs announced in January this year that it had connected 100,000 households in Kenya and said that 80% of its customers had solar TVs. So between them, Azuri Technologies (who was later into the market) and M-KOPA have probably added around 600,000 new TV viewers.
"Television has turned out to be really important thing for low-income, off-grid households. It means you get relatively low cost access to both information and news and entertainment."
Users now have a choice of content bundles between Zuku and the more recent partner Star Times:"Both have similar sorts of packages. There are 60 TV channels and 20 radio channels. The content varies by country but there is a mix of international and national TV channels: for example, in Kenya you get KTN and Citizen. There are several movie and religious channels and some channels are available in regional languages. And the whole thing - the TV and the solar unit - costs US$1 a day."
The users are smallholder farmers but those who are slightly better off:"People often club together to buy a TV system and continue to pay for it." On average users watch 4-6 hours a day. Content varies but there is a lot of attention to local, religious, news and sports channels. Earlier in the day they often watch childrens' channels. They are not markedly different from national viewing patterns in their country".
"A programme called Shamba Shape-Up is popular in rural areas. Research shows that 40% of those who've watched it have adjusted their farming practices as a result of watching. Television is quite important in terms of driving income. It sets expectations when you can see what other people are doing."
The TVs supplied are getting bigger: at present it offers a 24" screen but it will soon offer a 32" screen:"The offer will be indistinguishable from what any city dweller might have. It 's effectively a first class product." Customers pay the top-up rate via mobile money, allowing customers to use the system as much as they want for the credit period. After as little as 2 years of payments, customers will own the equipment and continue to pay only for the satellite service.
But do the users keep up their payments?:"It's in the nature of Paygo. People have intermittent breaks because of the pattern of their incomes. But the pattern of regularity of payments is far better than for lights and there is only a small percentage of non-payers. With energy, you can always do something else but with TV there is no alternative."
It will continue to scale up over the next 12-18 months and will add Zambia to the list of countries where it offer its solar powered TV product:"We may add new countries but we need to get good levels of penetration to make it worth operating in other countries."
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