A solar charger built for Africa has found unexpected success with American customers. It's "trickle-up innovation."
Mike Lin and Brian Warshawski find themselves in the unusual but enviable position of having stumbled on an unexpected business hit. The pair set out with a social goal and built a product for poor Ugandans. But this week, the gadget the pair built to help poor Africans without electricity start micro businesses has proven to be popular with American customers. Their power system for rural Africa makes for a pretty handy camping tool as it turns out.
"It's been particularly exciting to see our U.S. sales launch go so well on Kickstarter because we developed the ReadySet to be rugged and durable enough for Africa without the U.S. in mind," Lin said. He's CEO and co-founder with Warshawski of Fenix, an energy startup designing products for the developing world.
Their ReadySet charging kit is proving popular in the U.S. because it has all the plugs we want for our iPads, laptops, lanterns and such—two USB plugs and two car charger ports, no proprietary plugs. It's not all that different from similar solar power kits. Though this one can also be bike powered or grid powered (which is useful for inconsistent grid situations). It's designed for the most basic needs: a minimum of light for studying at night, phone charging, to replace dangerous kerosene used for light.
We've quoted the ghastly fact here at GOOD many times before, but about 1/6 of the world's population lives without access to electricity. That's 1.5 billion people. And cell phones are spreading faster than plug-in power. There are about 600 million people who own cell phones, but don't have anywhere to charge them at home. In Africa, only one in three people has access to consistent electricity, according to the World Bank. That's a big market.
The ReadySet is more than a stop gap while whole villages wait for the power grid to plod it's way through rural Africa. This charger is designed to be a business. That's smart.
"While many of our competitors in emerging markets are highly focused on solar products that provide lighting to replace kerosene, Fenix designed the ReadySet to focus on phone charging which generates income from the moment it’s plugged in," Lin said. "Entrepreneurs in Uganda are earning about $50 per month from phone charging revenue and savings on fuel for lighting."
It is however, expensive. Each unit costs $150. Fenix partners with MTN, a Ugandan cell phone company which, naturally, wants to make using their phones easier. MTN has sold about 2,000 of these mobile top up stations to entrepreneurs who charge about 25 cents per charge. Smart business for the telecom, and a strategy for scaling. One study found that mobile operators earn 10-14 percent more per user when they get access to mobile charging of this type. So Fenix is using that incentive to get MTN to push the product that also improves the lives of the families that buy one.
It just happens that families here in the U.S. want one too. "It’s a great example of 'trickle-up innovation,' but also a sign that while many Americans can’t afford an $80,000 solar array on their home, they do want to buy and support solar," Lin said. And the ReadySet's popularity stateside will only support the pair's original vision. "Succeeding in the U.S. will help us hire more engineers and sales teams, accelerate R&D, and grow to scale in Africa," Lin said.