The Power of Text: Mobile Phones Bring Solar Energy to Rural Kenya

A Kenyan business is using the power of mobile phones and making the most of the country’s abundance of sunshine to bring affordable solar electricity access to rural communities.

Autor*in Marisa Pettit, 07.29.15

A Kenyan business is using the power of mobile phones and making the most of the country’s abundance of sunshine to bring affordable solar electricity access to rural communities.

According to statistics from the World Bank, over three in four households in Kenya have no access to electricity, while over 80% of the population owns a mobile phone. But as well as making calls and writing text messages, phones are increasingly being used to send money and payments. In fact, 25% of Kenya’s GDP now goes through M-Pesa, the country’s main mobile money platform.

The Kenya-based renewable energy business SteamaCo has tapped into the country’s booming mobile culture and developed a cashless mobile system which has made electrical power accessible to people who had never been able to afford it before. The electricity is produced by solar micro-grids – small scale power stations that are able to operate independently from the area’s main electrical grid – and the connection fee is much less than they would have had to pay the local power company, that’s assuming the national grid were even in reach.

So how do mobile phones come into it?

The micro-grid owners and operators use SteamaCo’s hardware to monitor the technical and financial performance of the grids, while their customers get flexible access to the electricity. As soon as a payment is made, the power comes on. When the money runs out, the power goes off again. There are no contracts, and customers pay for the electricity in small units, topping up their credit just like you would on a pay-as-you-go phone. There are no bills or metre readings either – customers only buy the power when they need it – making the system convenient for everyone involved. And all information regarding status and payments is sent via SMS, meaning the system operates even in some of the most rural, remote areas.

SteamaCo’s first customer signed up 2013, and today they provide power to approximately 1,000 homes and small businesses. The success of the system shows that developing communities are more than able to use high-tech energy services – in fact, a sophisticated system like this has proved perfectly to suit their needs.

In a world where over a billion people still lack access to electricity, a system like this could be introduced to other countries, allowing even more people to develop their communities and their lives in exciting ways. With a reliable source of electricity, local entrepreneurs can keep their businesses open longer, children can study after dark, and new business models can be set up that rely on electricity. According to the SteamaCo manager in the video below, since the system has been put in place, welding companies and barber shops have been set up, and other people have taken the opportunity of chilling and selling cold beers. For a fascinating look at the effect the SteamaCo system has had on real Kenyan town, check out the short video below.

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