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Mobile Communications

Yiitidi: Rural connectivity in Senegal?

Most startups ignore rural areas, at least in the short-term. This is because they tend to focus on fast profits to support the business’ long-term goals. Yet Yiitidi, which launched last year in Senegal, takes a different approach; it is dedicated to providing solar power and mobile communications to rural communities in West Africa.

The company’s name is derived from Fulani, a Sahel language spoken widely from Senegal to Sudan, and means “linking” or “connecting”.  As an organization it focuses on the implementation of hubs which comprise of a Photovoltaic (PV) power producing units - to convert solar energy - and mobile antenna. Through mini-grids this combo delivers mobile signal and power supply to un-served rural communities.

At present the company focuses on Senegal but it also has explorative activities in Ivory Coast, Niger and Nigeria. “We have selected this technology for several reasons but mostly for its low operational expenses,” Daniel Bravo, Business Development Manager at Yiitidi tells IDG Connect.

“We provide the training and transform the operation into a franchise making it attractive for local investors,” he continues. “Integrated hubs providing mobile signal and power supply to un-served rural communities is not a new concept but it has not been implemented on a large scale. The speed of deployment is based on sound know-how [and] is the key to our operations.”

The company operates on a model that encourages local community involvement through joint investment. As Bravo explains: “We understand how to streamline the process to analyze a rural community and establish the minimum operating unit to serve both signal and electricity at an adequate cost, providing an adequate return on investment.”

With numerous innovative ventures taking place across the continent it is widely believed that Africa is teaching the rest of the world how to use mobile for many more applications than anywhere else. For instance mobile money got in full swing here, micro-credits and insurance services have gone mobile, m-health and e-health is a reality while many other mobile for development services are being implemented in different African countries.

However, the use of these services are limited in rural communities by the lack of or regular access to a mobile signal. Many people still need to walk long distances to get connected.

Bravo believes all this is going to be a thing of the past: “Yiitidi brings both energy and signal [to un-served communities], making the access of all those services affordable and easy for many users. We provide a service to users, we expand the number of clients to mobile operators, mobile money agencies and the rest of the service providers. Our services are firmly based in a win-win outcome for all stakeholders.”

He thinks that with the use of micro-grids, as opposed to individual solar systems, a village is likely to retain its population and encourage immigration. In this way, the village population is likely to double or triple in six months, making the demand for the power grow 10 fold within a year after grid connection

The model (antenna and power plant) has been tested in many countries and different geographical areas with excellent results. However, the African situation has a unique set of issues.  And since the company is privately held, all the capital invested has been sourced through private means.

According to Bravo, “Licensing is probably the greatest challenge in Africa”. However, this looks set to change as the SE4All (Sustainable Energy for All) initiative by the UN has prompted international organizations to analyze the problem. This has resulted in policy analysis and recommendations for rural programs.

Maybe it is little wonder then that in its first week after installing a new standalone mobile tower, the mobile operator sold over 500 SIMs and the local retailers of SIMs and airtime credit in the village did a brisk trade? Despite the fact that the startup is still in its early stages, it hopes to cover the entirety of rural Senegal with its standalone towers and grids this year, and venture into other African markets in the long-term.

“Africa has shown that it is feasible to leap-frog several technologies and markets and get directly to more advanced stages. For instance, in many countries there are now more mobile money accounts than bank accounts,” says Bravo.

“Considering all emerging markets, Africa is the one that has still more to be done. But most importantly, Africa is showing the world that there are alternatives, cheap and efficient uses of existing technologies and is leading the path for new applications. I am confident that Africa will still continue to lead the field of new uses of mobile for a while,” Bravo concludes.

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Daniel Muraga

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

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