Solaris: Lunchbox-size energy businesses for rural Tanzania Credit: Image credit:
Green Business

Solaris: Lunchbox-size energy businesses for rural Tanzania

Solaris by Eternum, launched in 2014, provides a business-in-a-box for rural inhabitants of isolated villages in Sub-Saharan Africa. The users are offered the opportunity to set up their own energy business (called energy kiosks), thus powering their communities, whilst becoming empowered entrepreneurs.

Solaris is a solar charging station powered by 20W-60W solar panels, with nine USB ports to charge anything from phones, to lamps, to hair clippers, incorporating every possible efficiency that can possibly fit into a device the size of a lunchbox.

“We are a business that aims to provide sustainable energy to low income communities,” explains Claire Baker, the company’s Community Developer. “We are empowering village entrepreneurs with technology and business solutions which allow them to generate revenue whilst serving their community.”

Village entrepreneurs acquire the device on a rent-to-buy basis; after 12 months of weekly or monthly mobile money payments, they own the device, all the while generating a profit from selling phone or lamp charges to members of their community. Throughout the 12 months, they receive mentoring from a Solaris Rafiki program (‘rafiki’ means ‘friend’ in Swahili) to help them maximise their profit-making capacity and learn basic business management and marketing skills.

“Our customers, who become Solaris entrepreneurs, selling and producing energy in their communities, previously struggled to earn around $US2 a day, and used kerosene lamps to light their homes at night, causing irreparable damage to their health, and spending significant amounts of their modest income on unsafe and unsustainable energy,” says Baker. “Mostly, they are agricultural workers, or maybe small business owners, selling fruits, mobile phone top-ups or other daily goods. All of them are looking for an energy access solution which they can afford, which is safe, and which they can own.”

Because Solaris is activated using mobile money services via SMS, there is no need for internet access, which is often unreliable or non-existent in remote areas of Sub-Saharan Africa.  

The company has developed a unique feedback system which allows it to receive information directly from each device using the SMS codes generated upon activation of the device when payment is made weekly or monthly.

“We can immediately know how much energy has been produced, how many devices have been charged, how far the entrepreneur has progressed in their payment of the device, and even how much sunlight the panels have been exposed to. This allows the mentor to better guide the entrepreneur, and advise them accordingly,” Baker explains.

All this information is fed to the company’s custom-built CRM (customer relation management) system which is accessed by management and by mentors and is stored on their personal server.

Solar energy is a major market in Sub-Saharan Africa, as there is incredibly high demand for products and sustainable electricity both for household use and business use.

Baker says: “We have crafted a solution which bridges these two markets, allowing our clients to both power their homes and those of their neighbours, whilst generating income which can increase their purchasing power and credit viability in the long term. This proposition, combined with one-to-one mentoring and real-time device feedback is unique in the field.”

Most companies concentrate on the urban areas. Eternum does the opposite as Baker explains: “In rural Tanzania the electrification rate is currently at 4%. This means that only 4% of the inhabitants of the lakes region have access to grid electricity in their homes. Facilities are improving, but the low population density, and the remoteness of many villages, makes progress slow for far-reaching grid systems. The demand, however, is not going away, and with mobile phone usage in this area even more important for communicating, for carrying out business negotiations or transferring money, than in urban areas, it is here that Solaris is most needed.”

Baker cites positive environmental and business statistics. “Amongst our first customers, in the Mwanza area of North Western Tanzania, some have already paid back 23% of their device, and are doubling their income thanks to Solaris. 1,481kg of CO2 equivalent have already been avoided through Solaris use, as the solar lamps replace the need for kerosene lamps. This equates to 7,900km covered in a standard passenger vehicle.”

The company has had financial support in its operations. “We were given a huge boost in the beginning of this venture by being formally supported by the EIT’s Climate-KIC programme, which funded our first few months of operations and allowed us access to prestigious co-working space and expert resources. However, we’re now actively seeking investors and funding to scale up our venture and innovate further to match the demand for our product,” says Baker.

A certain number of core issues inevitably confront any project looking to set up something innovative in a rural, sparsely populated area of Sub-Saharan Africa.

Baker tells us: “Logistically, setting out with the idea of bringing the Solaris energy solution to as many people as possible in isolated villages poses a major obstacle. We invested in a motorbike for our first mentor, who stays in local accommodation during visits to entrepreneurs.”

“Our short and long term goals are the same, for now; to equip as many entrepreneurs as possible with a Solaris device, so that their community can access safe, reliable energy and entrepreneurs can gain in economic prosperity as their villages enjoy home lighting and easy phone charges,” Baker concludes.


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Daniel Muraga

Daniel Muraga is an experienced online writer and communications professional based in Kenya.

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