Evidence and experience show it is very difficult to scale access to quality solar products in sub-sahara Africa if the bottom-of-the-pyramid (BOP) lacks access to affordable and flexible financing that matches their limited and highly seasonal income streams. In Kenya, for example, an overwhelming 5 million households or 80% of the rural households in Kenya lack access to grid electricity. As a result, each rural household spends roughly US$0.60 per day on highly polluting kerosene and dry cells for lighting, translating into over US$1 billion expenditure per year nationally on such fuels which are imported.
Off-grid solar solutions remain the most ideal and cost-effective energy solutions for such households, majority poor and located in remote and sparsely populated regions. However, penetration of off-grid solar in rural Kenya is barely 2% and key barriers remain, notably market spoilage from proliferation of poor-quality products, poor distribution and service network and lack of access to affordable end-user finance.
Payment convinient "as sending a text message"
To make a difference, SunTransfer Kenya has developed and deployed an innovative mobile-payment solution known as M-SOLAR©. This “pay-to-own” end-user finance model will make buying and owning a quality solar system as simple and convenient as “sending a text message.” The software can be used with the payment charge controler Sun-Control (developed by SunTransfer).
Once the solar system with payment charge controler Sun-Control is installed by technicians of SunTransfer Kenya, the necessary software is also loaded on site, enabling a typical client to send their money via mobile to SunTransfer Kenya. On receiving the money, M-SOLAR immediately sends back an sms (short message text) with a secret code to the client’s mobile phone. The client in turn loads the code into their solar system enabIing them to use system for the duration of the payment, typically 31 days. After this period, the client will top up the payment again via M-SOLAR. If the monthly payment is not made when due, the code system will automatically switch off the loads and only unlock when the due payment is made. However, once all the payments are made, the system will unlock permanently, giving the BOP free and clean energy over the next 20 years!
To deliver the M-SOLAR end-user finance service, loads has partnered with M-PESA of Safaricom, the largest mobile money transfer network in Kenya, with over 20 million registered subscribers and widest geographical coverage nationally.
Benefits for better customer service
To the BOP end-users, the M-SOLAR has delivered very many practical benefits: convenient 24-hr payment platform via mobile phones, low transaction cost as the end-user does not require to travel long distance to make payment and access their credit codes, thus huge savings on travel cost and time. Moreover, clients can also check loan balances on the phones by sending a simple text message to the M-SOLAR customer service number. This service enables each customer to schedule and track their payments accordingly.
To SunTransfer Kenya, M-SOLAR has greatly improved operational efficiency, improved customer experience while growing capacity for better customer service and ability to scale.
Distribution network for local customer service
Delivery of M-SOLAR service would not have been possible without SunTransfer Kenya’s unique rural service network of Solar Centers, each equipped with 4-5 well trained solar technicians. Currently SunTransfer Kenya has a portfolio of five Solar Centers in Eastern and Nairobi regions and proposes to open 5 more centers by the end of the year.
The unique blend of M-SOLAR, a low-cost and affordable end-user finance platform, and the growing network of Solar Centers strategically located in rural areas closes to our target off-grid markets, makes SunTransfer Kenya’s business model well-thought out and creatively designed to effectively address the key challenges of end-user finance and poor distribution channels limiting the growth of the substantial off-grid solar markets in Africa.
Ben Kimathi is Research and Training Manager at SunTransfer Kenya; Gathu Kirubi is CEO of SunTransfer Kenya.
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