Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Micro energy for rural Africans

Two articles--one on a new solar lamp program in Uganda, one on a new
battery charger that was developed with rural Africa in mind.

Solar Sister wants to light up rural Africa
Rugged, intuitive to use, affordable solar lamps that women can sell
door-to-door change lives.

By Esha Chhabra, / July 1, 2011

One-year-old start up Solar Sister is using cosmetics company AVON's
model to distribute solar energy in Uganda, Sudan, and Rwanda. To
learn more about the �business in a bag� model that's giving rural
African women an income and a renewable light source, Dowser spoke to
Katherine Lucey, Solar Sister's founder.

What was the problem you saw and how could you fill that need in a
unique way?

Lucey: Problem: Gender-based technology gap in rural Africa. When I
was doing work for a nonprofit that was installing solar energy in
schools, clinics, and rural homes, the maintenance of the project, the
adaptation of the solar wasn�t very good because we�d return a year
later and find that 50 percent of the systems were not functioning. It
was a very high fail rate.

In rural Uganda, where 95 percent of the homes don�t have electricity,
solar technology is a distributable energy source; so, it�s a very
good solution to clean rural energy or actually, rural energy period.
It just happens to be clean as well.

Also, the technology that we were using � the solar panel, the PVC,
etc., was very "techie" and we were in homes where there was no
technology. So, the women didn�t have a comfort zone with the
technology that we were bringing into their home.

We realized that the women are responsible for the solar panel � it�s
a household utility. So, there�s a gender gap there for technology.
And that�s not specific to Uganda. It�s an issue here at home as well
when you look at the gender ratio in science and math. It leans
towards men.

That�s how I started thinking about how we can close that gap.

And the solution?

The AVON model for solar energy.

At the time that I was developing this idea, the design of the solar
lamps became micro-solar. These are designed specifically for BoP
[Base of the Pyramid] application. They�re rugged, very intuitive to
use, affordable, and readily available. And it�s not as "techie;" it�s
really just a light. So, the gap bridged. All of a sudden it�s a lot
easier for women to use. You stick it out during the day; you bring it
in at night; you flip a switch and you have light to read, cook, and
even a source to charge your phone.

It�s also 1/10th the cost of a home solar system so it�s within the
price point of these homes. They can range from $15 to $50, and when
you�re already paying $2 a week for kerosene, it�s an investment that
will pay off in a few months because you�ll no longer have to pay for
an energy source. They use those extra funds then for better food,
health care, and schooling fees.

And the price continues to drop as the technology evolves.

Did Solar Sisters pair with a micro-finance institution (MFI) to
provide women entrepreneurs the initial capital needed for this
"business in a bag" model?

No. Rather Solar Sister uses a "micro consignment" model versus micro
franchise. These women don�t have to pay the franchise cost up front
and we don�t work with MFIs.

For example, we had a lady, Viola, who signed up to be an
entrepreneur. But she had just had a baby so was not able to sell
immediately. If she had taken out a loan then she would have had to
start paying back within a week or so. That would have been difficult
in her situation and put her collateral at risk � her home.

Rather, we want them to sell and our intent is not to make money off
the interest rates. So, we extend a loan ourselves by providing them
the inventory.

In handling the finances, do you utilize mobile banking or other forms
of banking?

Yes! In Uganda, 5 percent of people in rural Uganda have electricity
but 80-85 percent have a phone. Not only do they have one phone but
four phones for different calling plans and mobile carriers to get the
cheapest rates. In fact, with solar energy, many women are able to
charge the phones of their neighbors for 25 cents and provide a
service. So, it�s another source of income.
And yes, we use mobile banking and SMSs to communicate with the
entrepreneurs and streamline funds. It makes the operation much more

Have you had any default cases?

Yes, we�ve had women who have sampled it and decided it�s not for them
so they�ve bought the lamps themselves that are in inventory or
returned them to us and that�s alright. That�s not a problem. We

What propelled you to focus on this particular issue � energy poverty?

My background was in energy so I was sensitized to the idea that
energy is fundamental to development. My work experience was on a much
bigger scale, though � developing large plants and big-scale economic
development. But as I left that post, I knew that the same principles
apply at the home level, the grass-roots.

I was really interested in microcredit and how it was giving access to
financial services. But I saw that there was this same need on the
energy side � access to energy in a way that they could do it at the
grass-roots level. The will of government wasn�t there; waiting for
the government to solve the rural energy problem was not the answer.
We needed a solution that was closer at hand.

Solar is the most democratic � we all live under the sun. Energy is
free and the equipment is a one-time cost. Compare that with cost of
burning wood or kerosene, and [the] health issues involved. The cost
is extremely high. That�s why I went with solar.

When you come back to the States, do you wonder why can�t we do some
of these ideas on a more grass-roots level at home?

For those in Uganda, the cost of solar is much cheaper. They�re paying
20-30 percent of their income on energy already. We don�t pay that
much. And if we were to put in solar equipment, it would require us to
spend a bit more. So, we think of solar as a luxury, which makes it
harder to implement here.

You�ve been in this startup mode for a year, any hiccups along the way?

Oh yes.

We met this one lady who seemed like a great businesswoman, had a lot
of potential, and we thought she�d make a great entrepreneur. But
after the initial box of lamps she took from us, we never heard from
her again. So, we got back in touch and asked her how the experience
was. She told us that she�d sold the box and it was a wonderful
opportunity. But why didn�t she ask for more lamps? Sh responded, that
she thought it was just a one-time opportunity.

So, I found myself wondering how did we not convey this correctly that
this is an ongoing business opportunity, not a one time thing?

Sometimes, such simple details make you realize flaws that you
couldn�t have conceived because we just assumed that these ladies
would come back to us when they wanted more inventory.

With these lessons in mind, what do you say to other budding social

Be committed and open to learning. That�s the key. Just stick with it
and be open during the process of developing your idea/organization.

You�re working with Ashoka as a changemaker. How do you see this model
as being scalable?

We�re partnering with women�s groups who have been working in the
community for 10-20 years. By doing such partnerships, we�re able to
use their foundation and their local knowledge. The biggest challenge
in scaling is actually identifying funding partners, should it be a
developing impact investor, philanthropic organization, or some other
entity. So, what we need to do is really become the experts in our
business. Women can sell a lot of items. Solar energy is one of them,
and it�s one mode to economic freedom.

� This story originally appeared on


The Universal Charger for Just About Any Gadget Battery

By Alexis Madrigal
Jun 29 2011, 3:03 PM ET 6

ASPEN -- If you can pry the lithium ion battery out of your device,
you can probably charge it with Fenix International's noteworthy USB
charger. And you won't need an annoying adapter, either.

The company developed the charger for use in Uganda and other
developing world countries. It's part of a whole suite of products
Fenix designed to help local people to become one-stop electricity
providers. But you can use it yourself, too. At the bottom of this
post, you can see the Fenix charging my Canon G11 camera battery.

Here's how the device works. Instead of using some proprietary cord
conversion system, the charger just has little contacts that can clip
onto almost any Li-Ion battery.

Doing away with all of the cords allows an entrepreneur in any place
where mobile devices are abundant but power is scarce to be sure that
he or she can charge most phones without carrying around a ton of
little adapters.

The charger can plug into any computer or USB wall adapter, but Fenix
designed it specifically to be plugged into the ReadySet, an all-in-
one "intelligent battery" that can take in power from a variety of
sources (bicycle generator, solar, the grid), store and smooth it,
then spit it back out to charge phones or other appliances.

Fenix CEO Mike Lin has been working on designing new products for the
developing world for years. I first ran into him in San Francisco,
when he was working for Potenco on a pull-cord power generator. Here
in Aspen, he's carrying around the ReadySet and his chargers in his
bag, where they combine to make a pretty effective demonstration of
his vision for mobile power entrepreneurship in the developing world.

What might be more fascinating about the new charger, though, is that
it's a clear example of how technology designed for the "bottom of the
pyramid" can bounce back to the developed world as a cheap and easy
solution. As more and more entrepreneurs start to focus their efforts
outside the OECD countries, I think we're due for a lot more of this
kind of cross-pollination. Keep an eye out for the Fenix, as it should
be going to retail stores in the U.S. this year.

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