Africa’s Budding Entrepeneurs Won’t Wait for Old-Energy. New Energy is Here Now.
August 5, 2012
Here is the future of the developing world. Sorry to break it to old-energy industries, but burgeoning populations around the world may not want to wait 10 years for a new coal powered plant, and another 20 for the grid to be extended to rural areas, as we once did in the developed world. The technology exist to Leapfrog into the 21st century, and a new generation of entrepreneurs is seizing it.
Fenix International (http://fenixintl.com) and MTN Uganda ( http://mtn.co.ug) launched the ReadySet renewable energy system in Uganda in 2011. Annette is a ReadySet entrepreneur who works with the Grameen Foundation AppLab (http://www.grameenfoundation.applab.org) as a Community Knowledge Worker.
With the ReadySet, she can now operate a micro-utility business by charging mobile phones, and no longer has to use dangerous and costly kerosene lamps. Anette was able to pay back the investment of the ReadySet in 3-4 months. She uses this additional income to better provide for her family. The ReadySet is currently available for sale at MTN outlets in Uganda.
We first covered Fenix International, a startup that manufactures a portable plug-and-play battery that can be powered by any number of sources (solar panels, electric grid, bicycle generators, micro-wind, etc.), when it participated last year in the Cleantech Open venture-capital pitch session. Since then, Fenix has secured funding from a variety of investors–and it has started rolling out its product in Uganda with an innovative business model: selling the ReadySet plug-and-play battery through MTN (Africa’s largest mobile telecom) directly to consumers, who earn money by charging the community money to use the device.
MTN has sold approximately 2,000 units over the past year or so. Each device, which holds enough power to recharge a device seven to eight times, comes with a price tag of $150–not exactly cheap in the African market. But Fenix says that entrepreneurs can make back their investment in as little as three months by charging fees to the community. “If you can have [a product] make you income, people are far more interested in investing in it,” says Mike Lin, CEO of Fenix International. And, he adds, the ReadySet is durable. It won’t fall apart like so many cheap options. “When it comes to things like a solar panel or energy system, you need to invest in the quality of the components,” he explains.
The recent historic blackout in India only underscored and added more urgency to this evolving model. David Biello reports in Scientific America about the contrast between grid-dependent urban dwellers and “energy poor” rural residents with new solar technology.
Oddly enough, some of the formerly energy poor—rural villagers throughout the subcontinent—found themselves better off than their middle-class compatriots during the recent blackouts, thanks to village homes outfitted with photovoltaic panels. In fact, solar power helped keep some electric pumps supplying water for fields parched by an erratic monsoon this year.