Access to electricity is critical for making substantial development gains. With steady supplies of electricity, it is possible to read and study at night, to run modern appliances, to better use the latest information technologies and to work using time- and labour-saving devices. A home with electricity literally switches the light on modern life and gives a family huge advantages compared to those without electricity.
But there are two potential obstacles to providing electricity for the poor: one is just getting access to a steady supply; the other is paying for it.
In Africa, much of the population suffers from an electricity famine. The situation is worse than on any other continent: the proportion of people in Africa still without electricity is higher – and the rate of urban electrification is lower – than anywhere else. Four out of five rural residents in Africa live without electricity. The rate of rural electrification is also lower than on any other continent and the proportion of Africans who depend on inefficient traditional energy sources is higher than elsewhere (Desertec-Africa).
EGG-energy (http://egg-energy.com) is a Tanzanian company using an innovative business model to bring affordable electricity to rural communities.
Its co-founder, Jamie Yang, said Tanzania has a huge potential market for offgrid energy services. About 85 per cent of the population lacks access to electricity, a figure that rises to 98 per cent of the rural population.
EGG-energy says it is “dedicated to helping low-income consumers in sub-Saharan Africa gain access to clean, affordable energy, using a unique strategy based around portable rechargeable batteries.” The company has eight full-time staff based in their Makumbusho office, 6 kilometres north of Dar es Salaam, the capital.
It calls its system the “portable grid,” and it works like this: customers have a power system installed in their home that runs on brick-sized, re-chargeable batteries. The batteries are re-charged at a central charging station using power from the Tanzanian power grid, and sent to local distribution centres where customers can pick them up. Customers rent the batteries for a subscription fee, and they last about five nights in a home. When the battery is empty, the customer returns it, swaps for a fresh battery and pays a small swapping fee.
It is a brilliant solution to the problem of getting power from the main Tanzanian power grid to people’s homes. According to EGG-energy, most Tanzanians live within 5 kilometres from a power grid line. Yet the majority of the population lack access to electricity.
“After researching the energy situation in Tanzania and other countries with similar electricity access problems, it became clear that one of the primary problems was a lack of last-mile distribution,” explained Yang. “The only way to get power from the source into homes and businesses were power lines, and for the vast majority of rural Tanzanians, this was very much out of reach.
We saw situations in which power lines would pass right over large populations that were still using kerosene for lighting. We also saw that distributed generation like solar was finding only very limited markets because there was no share or sell power from that source without an affordable way to distribute the electricity.”
While EGG-energy is based in Tanzania, it hopes hope to expand across the developing world.
In order to develop an effective distribution network, EGG-energy partners with local store owners and delivery businesses to help with distributing the batteries. The batteries are based on those used in the airline industry and are light enough to be held in one hand.
Yang believes marketing is critical to the success of the technology.
“Don’t underestimate the cost of sales, marketing, and distribution,” he said.
“Many companies focus on the technology and in lowering the cost of the technology, while not paying enough attention to the gaps in the distribution channels.
“We have a sales team that communicates what we do through a variety of methods, including door-to-door sales, road shows and village meetings. We also make contact with the local political leaders and offer referral awards to our existing customers. Potential customers come to our charging stations to purchase the system and to connect to EGG.”
When a customer signs up with EGG-energy, a technician is dispatched to their home to make sure the electricity system is sound and effective. The company also sells energy-efficient lights, radios and mobile phone chargers to complement the electricity system. It’s a wise business model, since having a steady and reliable supply of electricity is a great motivator for customers to purchase other electric-powered appliances.
“We have technicians that have received vocational training through the Tanzanian system and technicians that we train ourselves,” Yang said. “We have very standardized electricity installations that are easy to teach, and have more experienced technicians that we rely on for troubleshooting and support.”
EGG-energy also makes the claim it can reduce a household’s energy expenses by 50 per cent as they make the switch from traditional batteries for radios and kerosene lamps for light.
EGG-energy calls itself a “for-profit company with a social mission.” It sees the provision of affordable electricity and energy as a spur for small entrepreneurs to build their businesses, boost educational opportunities through longer study time, and help with connecting families with the outside world.
It uses regular feedback with customers to make sure their service is actually cheaper than other options – a good habit for any business looking to build a lasting customer relationship.
“One of the key deficiencies in the energy supply chain is customer support,” said Yang. “We have seen multiple solar installations given by NGOs to community organizations that are no longer functioning because the user doesn’t have someone reliable to call or hasn’t allotted a budget to maintain the system.
“Customer support is a key component of last mile distribution, and something that EGG-energy is focusing on as an energy services company with a local, physical presence.”
Published: April 2012
1) ANSOLE (the African Network for Solar Energy) is a research-oriented network of 200 scientists from 22 African and 10 non-African countries. It believes, according to Mammo Muchie, founding editor of the African Journal of Science, Technology, Innovation, and Development, “solar power will become the major renewable energy source on the continent only by organized research, training, design, and engineering.” Website: ansole.org
2) The Kenya-based non-governmental organization (NGO) Access: energy is tackling the problem of 84 per cent of Kenyans – 32 million people – lacking access to electricity at home. It is doing this by teaching people how to make and assemble wind turbines out of scrap metal and car parts and other materials found within communities. Their turbine design is called the Night Heron Turbine. Website: http://access-collective.com/energy/
4) TANESCO: Tanzania Electric Supply Company: Website: http://www.tanesco.co.tz
Development Challenges, South-South Solutions was launched as an e-newsletter in 2006 by UNDP’s South-South Cooperation Unit (now the United Nations Office for South-South Cooperation) based in New York, USA. It led on profiling the rise of the global South as an economic powerhouse and was one of the first regular publications to champion the global South’s innovators, entrepreneurs, and pioneers. It tracked the key trends that are now so profoundly reshaping how development is seen and done. This includes the rapid take-up of mobile phones and information technology in the global South (as profiled in the first issue of magazine Southern Innovator), the move to becoming a majority urban world, a growing global innovator culture, and the plethora of solutions being developed in the global South to tackle its problems and improve living conditions and boost human development. The success of the e-newsletter led to the launch of the magazine Southern Innovator.
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