The light switch
Does the light work? With a mix of scepticism and relief, James Were looks up at his new electric lamp. Until just a few weeks ago, the 34-year-old’s clay hut on the shores of Lake Victoria was lit by a dim kerosene lamp. One night, as his daughter tried to light it, the lamp exploded. A fire broke out and burned everything inside. The family of six narrowly escaped. “That’s enough”, said James, who works as a farmer and fisherman in the village of Bwaja. He knew of several people who lit their homes with solar electricity using systems from the Berlin-based start-up, Mobisol. James went to the customer service centre in the nearby city of Kisumu and ordered an 80-Watt system.
Pros on the roof
Mobisol delivered James Were’s solar panel by motorcycle taxi, and sent a technician to install it on the roof. Almost all customers in Kenya are like James and his family – from the poorer, western parts of the country. Cities like Kisumu and large villages are mostly connected to the (sometimes unreliable) grid, but further out in the countryside, many homes are not electrified. Anyone who wants to connect to the grid has to pay for the necessary power lines themselves. The solar home systems give people independence from the electricity grid, raise their quality of life, and even power small enterprises.
22 inches of independence
Hardly bigger than a flat-screen TV: the solar modules, like the one this salesperson is unpacking here in the Kisumu customer service centre, are produced in China, just like their lead carbon batteries. The system’s entire electronics, however, are “made in Germany”. Every battery has a SIM card that transmits all the customer data to company headquarters in Berlin. The card not only knows when the next payment is due or how much electricity the customer has consumed; it also uses GPS to pinpoint its precise location. With these coordinates, technicians can find the right panels when they require maintenance. There are no postal addresses here.
By January 2018, Mobisol has “solarised” 105,400 households and small businesses in Kenya, Rwanda and Tanzania, the equivalent of over 500,000 people. The combination of economic success and local sustainable impact makes Mobisol attractive for investors. Several funds have jumped aboard, and their turnover has more than quadrupled in four years.
Mobisol estimates that around 30 percent of their customers earn money with their solar electricity. The simplest method: charging neighbours’ mobile phones. George Otieno does this in his living room – with a charging station that the radio mechanic ordered with his 200-Watt premium package. “Business is running”, says the 49-year-old. The neighbours either pick up their phones after two hours, or they wait in the living room. Sometimes Otieno treats his good customers to tea.
He is in demand in the village, he says. That’s because little in Kenya happens without mobile phones. “Everyone owns at least one. People even make payments with their phones.” Banks are uncommon, so SIM cards often play the role of a digital wallet. Mobisol also collects monthly payments this way.
Stay with solar
Did everything taste alright? Ruth Odhiambo enjoys a chat with her guests. A new solar home system has helped the 44-year-old widow’s hotel prosper. Along with the panel, she acquired ceiling lamps, a television and a charging station for mobile phones. “An extra service for my guests”, she says proudly. Her hotel is now the most popular destination in the village. Odhiambo has big plans to invest – in a hair salon. “I have the hair clippers already”, she says. (Mobisol also offers these.) At the moment, she’s looking for the right place in Akado for her new shop. Then she’ll hire staff.
Light for enlightening
Sitting on her living room couch, school teacher Victoria Odicoh prepares her next lessons. For a long time, she had to do this work in the daylight because the 44-year-old is night-blind. Reading and working in the evening, in the dull glow of the kerosene lamp, was always a burden. “Plus I often felt afraid in the dark, because we live so far from the road, and I was alone with three kids.”
For half a year, she has had a solar panel on the metal roof – and her own light, a television and a radio. Odicoh is paying off the whole package in 48 monthly instalments. After that, her electricity costs will drop to zero. “My life has become more independent,” she says, “and my day isn’t over when the sun goes down.”
No more operating in the dark
Sadik Hayo examines a girl who has contracted malaria. Between him and his young patient on the bed lies a thermometer. For five years, the doctor has led this private hospital in Yala, a small town about 50 kilometres north of Kisumu.
Hayo switched to Mobisol because the constant electricity outages made his work at the clinic nearly impossible. “Should I operate on a patient by candlelight?” he asks. Reliable light in a hospital is a matter of survival. That’s why he had a solar panel installed on the clinic’s roof six months ago. Now there is enough light around the clock in case of emergencies, and even a television in the waiting room for patients.
Even chickens like the light
Solar panels help many small businesses get off the ground: hair salons, to which Mobisol also delivers clippers; kiosks that can now stay open into the evening; a mobile cinema that passes through Kenyan villages; and even small agricultural businesses.
Poultry farmer George Ochola has used solar electricity for four months. The 37-year-old hung the lamps that were delivered with his panel not only in his house, but also in the chicken stall. “The chickens like the light”, says Ochola. “In the evening, I just turn on the light, and they come running.“ The chickens never used to venture out of the stall into the darkness, out of fear of stray dogs.
Balancing returns and impacts
Sustainable energy that improves the quality of life and helps people grow their enterprises: Mobisol's business model can contribute to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Many investment funds are now oriented around the SDGs, and thereby don't only yield financial returns, but also have positive social and environmental impacts.
Because of growing interest among investors for funds with a “triple bottom line”, Deutsche Bank has integrated such funds into their investment portfolio. They cover the areas of housing, microfinance, employment and education, as well as the environment, with a focus on nutrition, agriculture, waste, water and clean energy. Mobisol is just one example of the various companies that can be found in these funds.