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 bigger need for charging. People in the near community often come to our farm to charge their phones as well.
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. Charging can be difficult even on the sunniest days. Also, few low-cost solar chargers have overcharge protection to prevent a phone battery from getting spoiled.
As international development experts, we became challenged to find a solution. As we explored possibilities we followed a few central research questions which included;
Is there a unique business opportunity to address the needs of off-grid phone owners?
Would a local phone charging business be a viable, cost-efficient, and sustainable way to address the charging needs of off-grid phone owners?
How can we make a low-cost business model to scale-up?
What is the linkage between a phone charging business and our agriculture programs?
The solution we came up with is a solar station for charging phones and devices. 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 the internet, many people in rural areas are illiterate, and there is no such thing a library or new paper. To increase knowledge sharing each solar charging station comes with a chalkboard. Bi-weekly the village agent will post relevant information. People can get updates on weather forecasts, average crop prices, potential sellers/buyers, and community announcements while charging their phones. The chalkboards can also be used for advertising; giving another revenue stream to the agent.
Our solar 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.