The potential of solar power in Africa is largely untapped, something that Berlin-based start-up Mobisol wants to change. It has specialised in solar home systems – small solar power units that generate enough electricity to light several rooms, charge mobile phones and run electrical appliances.
Working on behalf of the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), DEG - Deutsche Investitions- und Entwicklungsgesellschaft mbH provided Mobisol with develoPPP.de funding and support. ‘Over the next few years, we aim to supply millions of homes in developing countries with clean energy,’ says Mobisol’s founder Thomas Gottschalk.
Many of Africa’s regions still have no access to electricity. In Tanzania alone, seven million families live without electricity. Rural areas in particular are often connected to the energy grid for just a few hours a day, if at all.
Consequently, low-income households often rely on sources of energy such as petroleum lamps, kerosene and diesel generators, all of which are hazardous to health. Mobisol’s mobile systems provide the most socially deprived groups with the access to electricity that is essential for long-term development –without harming the environment or people’s health.
The key feature of the Berlin-based energy start-up’s business model is a micro-financed payment system. Most money transfers in Tanzania take place via mobile phone, so Mobisol uses a mobile phone-based system of payment by instalments.
The solar modules are available in 80-, 120- and 200-watt versions and cost between EUR 320 and EUR 1,300, depending on output. On average, customers pay the equivalent of around EUR 20 per month for a module, with instalment payments based on the household’s previous energy expenditure. After three years, the consumers then own the system.
The instalment system and flexible pricing model get round the problem of the high initial investment needed for solar energy systems, something which has so far been a major obstacle to scaling-up this technology.
However, for Mobisol, the microfinancing model requires a substantial amount of capital investment, as the company has to pay all the initial costs up-front. This is a huge financial undertaking for a start-up, but support from DEG has made it possible. With develoPPP.de funding, the company was able to pre-finance 1,000 solar modules and a pilot scheme in Tanzania and Kenya, which confirmed that there is demand for the systems.
‘We all need electricity and light, no matter who we are,’ says Stephany Oromo, the Tanzania-based Communications Manager for Mobisol; ‘The challenge for developing countries is to include those at the bottom of the pyramid, and that’s exactly what Mobisol is doing.’
The solar home systems allow the power supply to be scaled up quickly and cost-effectively in rural regions without having to rely on an expensive and labour-intensive expansion of the network and a monopolist operator. And having an electricity supply can also give rise to new regional economic cycles, creating further jobs.
Neema Ayuba (centre) from Tanzania is a saleswoman for Mobisol and signs up new customers for its solar home systems. A widow, she earns a living from the work, enabling her to send her children to school. ‘My goal is to keep working for Mobisol; the experience I’ve gained so far means I can sign up more customers and earn more as a result,’ says Ayuba.
The unpredictable nature of Tanzania’s energy supply makes it difficult for entrepreneurs to do business there. Nevertheless, Saria N. Nnko took the leap into self-employment, opening a hairdressing salon in the village and benefiting in the process from the develoPPP.de project: ‘Thanks to solar energy, I can now run my own business. I use my salon to offer hairdressing and charge mobile phones.’
Mobisol’s local customer service team provides assistance in the event of technical issues, but the systems can be serviced directly from head office in Berlin via the mobile network thanks to the SIM card installed in each one. This makes it possible to check in real time whether a fault exists and, if so, what kind of fault it is. This remote diagnostics system enables Mobisol teams to ensure they have the right replacement parts with them when they travel to a customer to rectify a fault.
‘Education Made in Germany’ reads the sign on the building. Established in Arusha in May 2014, the Mobisol Academy trains local advisors and technicians. A similar academy operates in Rwanda. These two academies have so far created 180 jobs in Rwanda and Tanzania.
Eliasi Aroni Teth works as a tailor in the Arusha region and is thrilled with the Mobisol systems. ‘I used to use kerosene. Since I’ve been using the solar energy system, it costs me less overall and saves me money. And now I can use an electric sewing machine. At my age, that makes things easier.’
Surveys from the pilot phase show that around one third of Mobisol customers use energy from the solar home systems to set up their own businesses.
Providing access to energy is changing local people’s lives. This hairdresser can now use solar power to charge his clippers.
Communications Manager Stephany Oromo sums up the positive impact of the project: ‘Ultimately, we have paved the way for young people to study, provided mothers with an energy supply for their children, and enabled families to gather around the television and spend the evening together. This gives me a huge sense of fulfilment and puts a smile on my face.’
The example of Mobisol shows that even a small company can kick-start development with a good idea and support from develoPPP.de. Mobisol has now installed over 45,000 solar energy systems in East Africa.
‘When the neighbour’s system works, when their lights are on at night and their radio is playing, and when people see that the technician actually comes if something goes wrong, then we are winning people over,’ says founder Thomas Gottschalk.
The team around Mobisol founder Thomas Gottschalk makes it possible for people in developing African countries to use electrical devices. 75 % of the population – seven million families alone in Tanzania – don’t have access to electricity. Thanks to solar energy, people can use modern communications and electrical technology and get connected to the Internet and to the rest of the world.