A curiosity from the floor at AfricaCom: South African firm Econet Solar International is formally launching its Solar Home Power Station, following a trial in 2 000 households in Zimbabwe.
The Home Power Station is one of a number of initiatives designed to wean people living outside the reach of mains power off of fuels like kerosene for lighting and cooking. In South Africa, kerosene is the number one cause of child poisoning in the country and according to Econet 46 000 homes are destroyed here every year in kerosene-related fires. Likewise, indoor air pollution is a serious health risk associated with asthma, bronchitis, tuberculosis, lung cancer and heart disease.
It’s nasty stuff.
The Home Power Station, meanwhile, comprises a solar panel, USB ports for charging phones and portable LED lights which run for up to 20 hours on a single charge, which takes about half a day’s sunshine to replenish. There are also accessories like a portable TV and FM radio available for the system, an Android tablet, a fan and an electronic mosquito repellent.
There are loads of low cost solar lamps available now, like WakaWaka – which launched to much fanfare earlier in the year – and the award-winning Use Solar, Save Lives project which teaches people in rural Kenya to make their own solar lamps from offcuts of panels and glass jars.
Home Power Station, however, is a much more powerful domestic generator and as such costs a lot more than something like the R100 WakaWaka to build. According to Econet Solar, the generators cost around R2 000, which puts them way out of the price range of the families they are designed to benefit.
Econet’s way around this is to charge a small fee up front – from R100 to R300, depending on whereabouts they are sold – and then a daily rental fee of around R2.50. Fees are collection via a mobile payment system – Econet Solar is a subsidiary of Econet Wireless, a network operator, and the Home Power Station has a SIM card inside which registers top-ups made via from a pre-paid phone account.
It’s an elegant way around the funding problem. A friend in Mpumulanga tells me that she spends around R100 a week on kerosene for a single lamp and cooker to supplement her sporadic electricity supply – which is more than Econet believes the average African in such circumstances spends – which means that she would be better off renting the Home Power Station.
The only downside is that this is rental: at no point is the Home Power Station paid off. After two and a half years, Econet’s investment in the Home Power Station will have been paid off, but the home will have to continue paying for use. In Kenya, meanwhile, mobile operator Safaricom has been running a very similar project for the last 12 months called M-Kopa, which charges 2 500 shillings (R297) up front and Sh40 (R4.77) a day for the next 12 months – after which time the generator is the household’s to keep. Econet’s generator is undoubtably more polished and has a more sophisticated controller, but an option to pay a higher daily fee and pay off the credit would have been interesting to see.