In the last ten years small-scale solar power has taken off across Africa: 221 million people previously living without electricity are now able to watch TV and light their homes in the evening. But when these systems break users are left in the dark and more electronic waste piles up in rural areas. What if there was a way to change that?
The expanding provision of energy, by way of standalone solar products, is bringing electronic life to new areas of sub-Saharan Africa. However, the companies leading this solar market are also bringing with them a foreign business model where the customer retains a connection to the manufacturer through daily or monthly payments. While paying in instalments makes the technology affordable, it is the post-sale part of the model that customers are not accustomed to. These new solar companies do not repair broken systems but replace them. This runs counter to a long tradition of repair in many African societies. My innovation is to support local repair networks by way of the distribution of spare parts for solar products through a business called Solar Spares. At an innovation summit in Nairobi in 2015, tech investor, Ory Okolloh spoke of her concern over the fetishising of entrepreneurship in Africa: “It’s almost like it’s the next neoliberal thing like, ‘Don’t worry that there’s no power because hey, you’re going to do solar and innovate around that.’ … I don’t see any entrepreneurship summit in Europe telling them you know, ‘Go out there and be entrepreneurs.’ And the same people who are pushing this entrepreneurship and innovation thing are coming from places where your roads work, your electricity works, your teachers are well paid. … You turned on your light and it came on. No one is trying to innovate around your electricity power company. So why are we being made to do that?”
The problem – Losing power, making waste
A lot of the discourse around today concerning the digital revolution and its disruptive innovations is about connections: smartphones enable us to stay connected around the world, around the clock; the sharing economy is increasing interactions between people as peers; and online learning is transcending borders. Yet in this horizontal landscape we sometimes forget that not everyone is connected. Although mobiles and laptops are battery-powered they still need, at some point, to be connected to electricity. And it is then, in thinking of that static, somewhat older technology: electricity, that we might remember the 1.2 billion people worldwide who are still living without it. 53% of whom are living in Africa, south of the Sahara.
There are very few areas that have escaped the trend of 21st century disruptions and the un-connected, un-electrified regions of Africa are, as Okolloh articulated, no exception. Thanks to the falling price of silicon, and rapid advances in battery technology, young entrepreneurs in Berlin, London, and San Francisco have created an industry that makes and distributes solar lanterns and home systems. These are products, often portable, that use a small (<100 watt) solar panel to charge a battery which in turn powers anything from a few light-emitting diodes (LEDs) to mobile phones, radios and on to televisions. The next generation of products, currently under development, is set to include energy-efficient fans and refrigerators. Such electrical improvements to life are doing wonders for gender equality (girls can go to school and women to work now household tasks can be done after-dark), health (less toxic kerosene fumes in the home and a lower risk of house-fires) and income (users save on average $70 a year).
Where then is the problem? What within this existing innovation needs disrupting? The problem is twofold. First, increasing access to energy also increases access to appliances. The practice of buying, consuming and using more increases the amount of waste we make; in this case the amount of electronic waste. The booming solar sector is introducing a whole new suite of electrical and electronic appliances to regions where there is no adequate or suitable waste management facilities. The second part of the problem is that the companies are coming closer to consumers. In the past, companies sold their stuff in the capital city, into existing retail networks. But now, solar brands are bringing a relationship as well as a product. Doing direct sales, complete with financing, means manufacturers are now present at the village, even household, level. This proximity of the company to the user is squeezing the repair worker, whose business was previously built on the absence of manufacturers from the places their products were in use. More closed technologies (harder to open-up) and warranty systems, protect intellectual property and brand reputation but they simultaneously exclude repair workers. While no doubt bringing benefits, the arrival of these solar companies also threatens the stability of local repair economies. Unless that is, their arrival could somehow be escorted by the previous generation of pioneers – the repairmen.
The solution – A spares and repairs franchise
In many of the more successful disruptions of recent years (e.g. Whatsapp, Airbnb, and Uber) there has been a backlash: Uber drivers complained of hidden costs, Berlin banned Airbnb and Whatsapp was criticised for its data policies. Indeed, so recurrent are these backlashes that France has even coined the term ‘uberisation’ to refer to such disruption. Solar Spares will minimise the chance of any backlash through greater consultation with the target market. This bottom-up approach has been favoured in the development sector for years now, through community-led projects and participatory planning. Therefore, if our double-pronged problem (more appliances tied to extended payment plans) is occurring in African societies, then it is in those societies that we must find the answers. My solution, based on 18 months living, working and researching in Kenya, is a business supplying spare parts to support the existing network of repairers across sub-Saharan Africa. I am proposing a change in the very nature and purpose of business – not to sell more but to make things last for longer, to reduce waste. Repair businesses are generally reluctant to buy and hold new spare parts. Instead they rely on unclaimed or unrepairable items which they cannibalise (their words) to retrieve replacement parts when needed. When this stock cannot provide, the repairmen send their customers to a retailer to buy the new battery or cable, returning with it and then making their money on the labour charge. Solar Spares will do two things:
1) supply the solar retailers with spare components and
2) alert nearby repair clinics where they are available. Musa up the road will have the battery that John has been hunting for weeks.
But would this solution work? In a word, yes. The repairmen are already flexible; they have been adapting to technologies as they go along over the years, moving from surface-mounted technologies like the Cathode Ray Tube (CRT) televisions to today’s flat-screen Liquid Crystal Display (LCD) monitors. Further, given that the repairman is already present in the villages and towns that outside companies find notoriously difficult to reach he can offer a quicker turnaround time, for a lower cost. Previously, as volumes of a particular product increased in the local market, repair workers sought out the spare parts they need. However, today’s unique product designs and business models mean this historical development will not occur, hence the need for this disruption. The best innovations are often not new in themselves but new in their delivery. This is not a new idea. My idea is more of a renovation than an innovation: it breaks the status quo by bringing an older (African) tradition to bear on a new market.
The impact – Integrating with existing companies
Very few of the existing solar companies are making money, as is common with start-up led industries. They are pre-occupied with establishing brand image and market share. The self-employed repairmen’s brand, on the other hand, is himself. Working on a day-to-day basis, without the luxury of financial backing, if he doesn’t make money, he doesn’t eat tonight. What is a tough decision for the international company, to take on a new business function, is a natural one for the specialist, incorporate a new product. Working with Solar Spares could set a trend that inspires the bigger companies to follow; perhaps even employing or partnering with the repair specialists in the future. The repairmen could help manufacturers improve product design or connect companies with local waste brokers. Leading brands like Fenix International and BBOXX Limited are already exploring these areas. They are aware
that marketing their environmental conscience to include the whole lifecycle of the product could further differentiate themselves from competitors in what is already becoming a crowded marketplace.
Is that all Solar Spares will do though? Well, no. Knock-on effects could extend to the angel and impact investors by adding product longevity, waste volumes or recycling rates to their metrics. Indeed funds such as Bamboo Energy Finance and Persistent Energy Capital have already expressed their concern over disposal in the sector where they are putting their money. Policy leaders might even re-think their approach towards the informal sector in general; re-framing repairmen as entrepreneurs with skills to be harnessed, not illegal businesses to be fined or punished. Otherwise, if it is left too late, these small-scale artisans across Africa, not wanting, or not being able, to reinvent themselves as salespeople (the main jobs on offer to locals in this industry) will be sized out, and then, as they disappear, the e-waste they are already repairing that the solar companies are not (i.e. phones,TVs, DVD players) will appear in ever greater numbers in rural areas.
Without an app, big data or even a website, this retrograde innovation could appear luddite and out of place in a region that has become known as the ‘Silicon Savannah’. Yet there are opportunities to collaborate with existing programmes and schemes to make Solar Spares, more digital in the future. The Kenya Renewable Energy Association already has a USSD platform running to help users locate legitimate solar suppliers. They have told me they are interested in building Solar Spares into a future version of the platform. Similarly, across the ocean in India, Urjaa Samadhan is piloting an SMS system to connect solar users with repair workers, this too could be developed to include the provision of spare parts and components.
At a recent Royal African Society event in Edinburgh, titled Africa in 2017, Kenyan doctor-turned-artist Njoki Ngumi called for Africans to stop sleepwalking towards a Northern Dream. Ngumi, like Okolloh, was arguing that the future of Africa doesn’t have to be that of the Global North. Africa does not need to go the way of disposable technology and contracts with companies rather than the state. New technology doesn’t have to mean new cultures, economies or networks displacing those that are already there. With Solar Spares, we can challenge things, we can change things. We can renovate the future of technology in Africa.