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East Africa is where the revolution of using mobile payments for off-grid solar electrification started. Mobisol is taking this to new levels, selling high power solar systems which can be used not just for homes but for small businesses, enabling entrepreneurial customers to earn additional income.
Customers can charge mobile phones and laptops and even run DC fridges without relying on fossil fuels or intermittent grid connection. Over 80,000 solar home systems have been installed in East Africa so far, benefitting more than 400,000 people.
East Africa has seen great progress in terms of availability and affordability of solar PV products in recent years. Small solar lanterns and small home systems continue to be important in providing basic electricity services which allow people in off-grid areas to use clean bright electric light and phone charging, moving away from polluting and costly fuels like kerosene and diesel.
However, there is increasing demand for even more powerful systems which can be used for business activities and to run a wider range of household appliances such as televisions and fridges. Mobisol has not only developed a range of large solar home systems which enable these kinds of activities, but is delivering the appliances themselves as well as providing pay as you go financing which makes these high quality systems and appliance packages affordable.
Since 2012, Mobisol has electrified over 80,000 households in rural regions of Tanzania, Kenya and Rwanda. Mobisol combines solar electricity with an affordable payment plan, comprehensive customer service and remote monitoring technology. Mobisol’s quality solar home systems are a clean alternative to unhealthy, environmentally harmful and expensive fossil fuels.
Systems come in varying sizes from 80 to 200 Wp (costing approximately US$400-1100) to match the energy needs of differing households and businesses. These come with a 3-year warranty and are paid mainly by instalments over 36 months, using mobile money. Mobile payment technology, which has leapfrogged bank accounts in East Africa, enables customers to pay for high quality products in instalments. Mobisol plans to expand its product range to higher power systems (up to 800Wp) that run agricultural and business appliances such as welding machines.
Mobisol is responsible for designing, procuring, marketing and servicing the systems. Commercial sales started in Tanzania in 2013 and Rwanda (at the invitation of the government) in 2014. The first flagship store in Kenya was opened in March 2017. The company headquarters in Berlin is responsible for developing technology and software as well as raising finance. Mobisol operates through five zonal hubs (three in Tanzania, one Rwanda, one Kenya).
These hubs manage customer care and credit as well as quality assurance, maintenance and distribution of systems. They co-ordinate a total of 50 ‘market hubs’ (shops) where systems are stored and sold to customers. Some customers come directly to the shop to purchase their system. Others come through sales agents, who market the systems door-to-door and at events. Mobisol have around 920 certified sales agents and technicians who work freelance. Other channels include telesales and referrals from existing customers.
All potential customers receive a telephone credit check, sign a contract and make a down payment before the system is released for delivery. Nearly all customers choose to pay in instalments. Once fully repaid, the customer owns the system.
It’s been good for business, being able to sell cold drinks and charge phones. And I think the light and TV bring more people to the shop. My home is much more pleasant with electric lights in every room.
Mr Macha who has two 200Wp systems – one for his home, and one for his hardware shop
Owning a solar home system allows people in off-grid areas to have a reliable energy source, raising living standards and helping save money. Around 90% of customers previously used kerosene for lighting before they had a Mobisol system and spent a significant amount of their monthly income on this, as well as mobile phone charging costs: around 15 USD per month for three kerosene lights and phone charging.
For an only slightly higher monthly instalment, starting at around 20 USD, the Mobisol system allows for much greater levels of energy service, for example running multiple bright LED lights, televisions, radios and other household appliances, which are packaged together with the solar system itself. Solar fridges can for example be run on Mobisol’s largest system. Hazardous emissions from kerosene lamps and diesel generators are omitted and CO2 mitigation through fossil fuel savings has a positive climate change impact.
The systems are powerful enough to be used for business activities enabling customers to create incremental income. Types of businesses range from phone and lamp charging businesses to hairdressing, to chilling drinks and running a village cinema with a projector.
Mobisol has recently partnered with an insurance provider in Tanzania to provide health insurance to customers with a good credit history. There is significant demand for this and, to date, over 5,000 systems have been provided in combination with health insurance.
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Training and employing local technicians and marketing staff in rural areas provides job opportunities in regions with regular high unemployment rates. The ‘Mobisol Akademie’ is an in-house training system for sales agents and technicians, consisting of field and classroom-based training. This ensures service quality and builds much needed skills in the emerging solar sector.
The systems are certified by Lighting Global and consist of a poly-crystalline PV module (80/120/200Wp), lead-acid battery (80Ah/150Ah; 12V) and proprietary Mobisol controller. The core technology combines a charge controller with an electronic module that includes a GSM modem which enables communication between the installed system and Mobisol’s database (‘SolarHub’). Following a successful pilot, Mobisol is planning to switch to SIM-free technology.
Mobisol’s software, SolarHub, enables them to oversee monitoring, controlling and payments as well as tracking stock. It gives customers a digital credit history, often for the first time. Installation, maintenance and remote monitoring are carried out in-house. The system can be switched on and off remotely. Maintenance is available for free during the three-year warranty period and for a fee after this. There is a free national helpline for any customers experiencing problems.
The design of products is handled by in-house engineers in Germany. Components are procured in China, Germany and Kenya and assembled in East Africa. Mobisol has recently partnered with Kenyan solar component manufacturer, Chloride Exide, and is sourcing panels from their subsidiary, Solink, to foster the local solar industry and reduce shipment time, costs and related emissions.
Mobisol aspires to provide clean, reliable electricity to millions of households in lower income communities, stimulating low-carbon economic and social development.
The demand for systems that can power business activities is high. Mobisol is carrying out research and development on more powerful systems that can power a more advanced level of business activities. Mobisol is also creating a project team to explore recycling of solar components, electronic equipment and lead gel batteries.
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