When living in rural settings that are off the electricity grid, alternative energy sources for lighting, cooking, working and other activities are crucial. In Kenya, the fuel of choice (or perhaps more accurately, necessity) is often kerosene. While it gets the job done, kerosene gives off fumes that are dangerous to human and environmental health, and the open flame can easily start a fire if a kerosene lamp is tipped over.
Gradually, many organizations, businesses and initiatives are looking for alternatives. M-Kopa believes that solar energy is the answer – and Kenyans appear to agree. As of February 2014, the company had provided energy to 50,000 Kenyan households.
There are two packages available at retailers across the country. With a deposit of 2500 Kenyan shillings ($30.94 Cdn.) and daily payments of 40 KES for one year, the buyer can own 3 lights, a 4W solar panel (usually put on the roof), and a phone charging port with 5 USB connections, as well as a year-long warranty.
The upgraded package (for a 2999 kes deposit and 50/day) includes a portable lamp, in addition to two wall hanging lights, a solar chargeable radio, a phone charging station, a 5W solar panel and a two-year warranty. After the year of payments is complete (or sooner, if they choose to pay faster), the buyer owns the device outright – after that, lighting up their homes is completely free.
The large initial fee seems as though it might financially exclude some people from accessing the technology. However, with an average per capita income of $1800, it is a worthwhile energy alternative for many. The daily costs are equal to or less than what a typical family would spend on kerosene, not to mention the amount spent to charge phones where electricity is available.
M-Kopa combines its solar product with innovative mobile payment technology. Customers can make monthly installments through their mobile devices using M-Pesa, a service that essentially turns your phone into a digital wallet. It allows consumers to pay their bills without wasting time and resources travelling to service centres.
According to information provided by M-Kopa’s co-founder in a BBC article, the solar panels contain embedded SIM cards that send feedback to a main control centre, allowing the company to monitor performance and recognize problems. This also means that if you’re unable to make a monthly payment – perhaps a relative falls sick, requiring you to redirect your funds – the light can be turned off remotely. The default rate, however, is apparently quite low.
M-Kopa does not provide information on the life span of the solar panels, lights and accessories, whether extending the warranty is possible, and how much maintenance is expected to cost (for example, replacing light bulbs ). It also does not currently have systems large enough to power larger appliances, such as cooking stoves or televisions, for example, which would be a worthy next step to further diminish use of dangerous fuels. M-Kopa says it is working on “several exciting new products,” so we can hope that this is on the way.