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Beyond the Grid, Africa: Solar Charging Stations

SEE Impact’s Solar Charging Station

Electricity is a major challenge for people living in towns and villages across Northern Uganda. Our farm in Lamwo district is no exception. The nearest electrical pole is miles away. Even if we were connected to the electric grid the power supply is terrible. When there is grid power it is often only on for a few minutes or hours per day. If repairs are needed, say after a storm, it can take days or weeks to fix.

The only practical solution for our farm has been solar. We bought a small solar system that allows us to charge a few phones, a radio, and a battery to power lights at night. Besides our farm use, we started to see a need for charging beyond our own. People in the near community often come to our farm to charge their phones as well.

Solar Charging Station

Across Africa, there is a disparity between the rapid growth of mobile phone owners and the slow pace of rural electrification. Without access to power at home, many phone owners rely on shops in larger towns that provide charging services. But getting to the town can mean a long journey and significant expense. Small solar systems are also common in households. Yet the ones most people can afford are poor quality; making charging difficult even on the sunniest days. Also, few low-cost solar chargers have overcharge protection which can easily spoil a phone.

As international development experts, we became challenged to find a solution. During our research we explored four central questions which included;

  1. Is there a unique business opportunity to address the needs of off-grid phone owners?

  2. Would a local phone charging business be a viable, cost-efficient, and sustainable way to address the charging needs of off-grid phone owners?

  3. How can we make a low-cost business model to scale-up?

  4. What is the linkage between a phone charging business and our agriculture programs?

Charging up to 20 Phones and Other Devices

Our solution is a portable solar station for charging phones and devices in off-grid areas. Our solar station is equipped with a 75 Watt solar panel, inverter, and a battery back-up. The system can charge up to 20 phones at a time. Also, with the power inverter, other devices besides phones such as laptops, radios, and lamps can be charged. Charging services can even continue at night or on cloudy days because there is a battery-backup.

It’s exciting. Right now we are piloting our first solar power station in the village, Locken, near our farm. We are trying it out as a "work-to-own" franchise model. The agent pays to SEE Impact a monthly lease fee for six months to one year. After the payment period, the agent owns the solar station. By working the charging station the agent earns a commission on:

  • Fees for charging phones and devices

  • Selling mobile phone airtime

  • Providing mobile money transactions

  • Taking orders from village farmers for our SEE Impact’s quality declared seeds, tree seedlings, and other inputs.

  • Payments for farm inputs through mobile payment

Also, we see these solar stations as an opportunity to share and receive information. People in rural communities struggle to get access to information. For instance, few people in rural areas have smartphones to log on to the internet, there isn't a library, few books, or newspapers are in the village.

A Source for Information and Power

To increase knowledge sharing each solar charging station will come with a chalkboard. Bi-weekly, the village agent will post information such as weather forecasts, average crop prices, potential crop sellers/buyers, and community announcements. People can get informed while charging their phones. The chalkboards can also be used for advertising; giving another revenue stream to the agent.

Our solar charging station prototype is currently being field-tested. After the proof of concept phase, we will improve the design and refine our model. Then, we want to scale-up!

Our goal is to increase the production and use from one to ten solar charging stations by January 2021. We want to have both a network of village agents and power stations to increase the availability and access to power, communication, information, and financial services in rural communities in Northern Uganda.

We would love to partner with individuals, companies, and non-profit organizations to explore ways to improve and expand our model. If anyone reading this wants to get more involved please let us know, we would love to hear from you.

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