Solar Energy Shines Bright in East Africa

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It’s 7PM in East Africa.  As the sun sets over rural fields and farming villages, thousands of homes, schools and small businesses are plunged into darkness. 589 million Africans live without access to reliable electricity, 40 million in Kenya alone. In its place the majority of Kenyans rely on paraffin lanterns to provide indoor lighting, a costly and highly dangerous substitute.

This summer I’ll be working with One Degree Solar (ODS), a technology company that manufactures and distributes household solar products to improve access to clean energy and connectivity in Africa. Recognizing that access to reliable energy drives productivity and improves healthcare, education, and commerce, ODS was created to meet the needs of low-income households and businesses that demand modern lighting, phone charging, entertainment, and technology. Conventional alternatives in the micro-solar market require specialized tools, training, and spare parts, making after-sales support difficult and expensive for both suppliers and customers. ODS products are purposefully designed to be easy to maintain and serviceable using locally sourced materials (e.g. standard motorbike battery), extending the useful lifespan of the product and therefore its impact.

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To achieve massive scale and marketing prominence in high-traffic areas, One Degree Solar recently partnered with The Coca Cola Company in Kenya, where it introduced BrightBox systems at 100 sales kiosks in May 2012 as part of an initial pilot. These microenterprises drastically reduced their energy spending, extended their operating hours, and increased revenues by an average of 15% – all while reducing their carbon footprint. I was honored to attend a recent Pan-Africa gathering at Coca Cola’s Africa headquarters in Nairobi, where the BrightBox was exhibited to country managers and regional bottlers.

Kiosk at Night with BB

Like many emerging industries, solar too has suffered from low quality entrants, damaging customer confidence. In an effort to rebuild consumer trust, Lighting Africa, a joint World Bank and IFC initiative, was born to independently promote quality assurance, supply distribution, and customer education.  In November 2012 the BrightBox passed rigorous quality control tests, affording it access to distribution partnership across Kenya. Lighting Africa is targeting expansion to Nigeria, Ethiopia, Tanzania, and CDR, creating new avenues for ODS to continue to grow outside of Kenya.

As demand begins to outpace supply, ODS faces its first ever stockout this month (yikes!), and I am reminded of the lessons in Ops 430. It’s exciting to be applying those lessons – along with pricing, promotion channels, working capital, shipping costs, currency devaluation – in a real world environment, with real bottom line consequences. Hopefully we’ll make the right choices as we look ahead to August!

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