South African app to beat Eskom price hikes

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You know that there’s an 8% increase in the works for Eskom every year for the next five years, which is probably a lot more than your salary is likely to increase to keep pace. So what, exactly have you done to prepare for this massive hike in prices? Have you installed a solar geyser? Have you switched to energy saving bulbs? Have you put a brick in the cistern? (That’s water – Eco-Ed)

Have you? HAVE YOU?

Of course you haven’t. You’ve sat around and complained and moped, but since you can’t make head or tail of your electricity bill anyway, you’ll just blindly pay up when the time comes because you can’t be bothered to think for yourself.

Fortunately, not every one is like you. Specifically not the people at Methys’ Cape Town offices, who’ve been devising new and interesting ways to help you manage your power consumption sensibly.

Methys is a French company which came to Cape Town in 2008. A still young firm with a background in big data and analytics, it found a niche using its analytical skills to help big industries save money through energy efficiency. Now it’s planning to help out consumers like you out in the same way with an app in the only language you’ll understand.

Smartphone apps.

One of the Power Time monitors sold by Methys.
One of the Power Time monitors sold by Methys.

Methys has a decent history with apps, it was the first company to make an app which lets you top-up a prepaid meter from your phone, which won a Mobile World Africa award a couple of years ago for addressing a particularly African problem with it. Now, it has built an app called Kwami, which will keep you up-to-date with the energy usage of your home with customisable alerts. It works alongside a Power Time monitor (which the firm imports and sells here). The hardware part requires no installation, but can track the amount of power flowing through your meter.

Monitors like this are popular overseas, but there is one recurring problem they face: keeping people interested.

“What happens is that people put a meter unit in and use it for a week,” says Methys’ Sebastien Lacour, “And then they forget about it.”

I’ve heard the same refrain from energy experts all over the world, including some of the people behind the project to take the Scottish isle of Eigg completely off-grid.

Kwami, then, is designed to be a constant reminder that the monitor is there. So it will ping you alerts if, for example, you reach 80% of your monthly budget, or there’s a sudden and unexpected power surge in your house.

The trick, then, is to make sure those alerts are motivating rather than so annoying you turn the app off, and there are many studies by organisations such as Stanford University and the University of Lincoln in the UK which have found that gamification and energy efficiency are surprisingly compatible bed fellows.

Gamification, of course, is the rather ugly and positively hateful word for introducing elements of play into otherwise mundane tasks. It’s a key part of nudge theory, which involves getting people to do change behavioural patterns by suggestion and encouragement, rather than sticking up big signs which say – for example – “Turn the lights off or you’re fired”. Because ultimately, people end up ignoring those too once they fade into the background of familiarity.

When you tell an office team, for example, that they’ll get bonus points for using less energy than a rival team, they tend to turn the PCs off at night all of a sudden.

So the other aspect of Kwami, says Lacour, is that it can turn energy saving into a game. As well as mini-games and targets you can set up for yourself, you’ll be able to compete with neighbours and neighbourhoods for cutting down on waste. And it’s not just greenies who should be interested.

“Energy has become so expensive that people are getting concerned,” says Lacour, “But they don’t know where to start cutting down. It’s about educating people and if you can find a way of making it fun that’s really important.”

Lacour says South Africans have been much more reluctant to cut down domestic use than many overseas countries – Kwami was recently highlighted in a Finnish competition, not an African one – and so far, sales of the Power Time monitors haven’t really taken. He’s confident, however, that attitudes will change as prices rise.

“It will come,” he says, “Things will reach a stage where it affects people’s budgets noticeably and they’ll have to do something about it.”

EnviGroup-blackAnd let’s face it, waiting for Eskom to change is going to be an exercise in futility. Things may change – this very week Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe told the Green Economy National Youth Summit that the government is very keen on cheap alternatives to coal, such as solar power, which could become points of national strategic focus to keep prices down.

“If this is coupled with the potential for regional interconnection within the Southern African Development Community sub-region,” Motlanthe said, “We have the potential to be one of the fastest-growing economic hubs in the world.”

Still, don’t hold your breath.

Kwami, the app, will be available free of charge, although you will need to pay around R1 300 for a hardware monitor that’s compatible with it when it’s released later this year. That’s not bad value – Lacour reckons you can probably save up to 20% of your monthly bill by being more careful, but even if you only manage 10% that’ll pay for itself over a year.

The bad news? It’ll be a Windows Phone 8 exclusive for the first six months thanks to investment by Nokia. Nuts.



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