April 18th, 2011 By txchnologist

Everyone in the developing world, it seems, has a cell phone. The African mobile phone market has 400 million subscribers — almost half the continent’s population — and is bigger than the North American market. The phones are used for an astonishing variety of tasks, from enabling migrant workers to stay in touch with their families to mobile banking to allowing fishermen to check market prices.

But as transformative as mobile technology is, it still requires power, which can be hard to come by in Africa. Several companies, including the Chinese firm ZTE, together with Jamaica’s Digicel Group, have already rolled out solar-powered cell phones. But they are following in the footsteps of an Oakland-based company that has been distributing its solar-powered cell phone chargers in Africa for years.

Living on three AA batteries a day

When Better Energy Systems began developing its Solio line of solar-powered cell phone chargers in 2002, (pictured above in Uganda) its primary market was Americans who wanted to decrease their dependence on the electrical grid, says Andy Howe, the president of Better Energy Systems.

But in 2007, when violence erupted in the wake of the Kenyan elections, the company donated 2,000 Solio chargers to people living in the rural North Rift Valley. When the company followed up to see how the devices were working, they realized the magnitude of the energy challenges for the 30 million Kenyans who live without easy access to power.

“From an energy standpoint, rural Kenyans are living on three AA batteries a day,” Howe says. “So even though they have a terrific cell phone network, they’re using kerosene for light. Most people are walking 3 to 5 kilometers to a place where there’s power and then waiting around and paying a significant amount of money to charge their cell phones. That’s taking about 30 percent of their spending a week for the equivalent of three AA batteries.”

Lighting Africa

In 2009, in partnership with the World Bank project Lighting Africa, Better Energy Systems began to sell cheap, reliable, hand-held solar power systems to rural households in the Kenyan countryside. Since the energy needs of rural Kenyans are so spare, the Solio system, which plugs into phones, radios, and lighting appliances, can largely power their lives.

Working with microfinanciers like the San Francisco-based group Kiva, the company has set up local retailers to sell Solios and help Kenyan farmers win independence from their dysfunctional grid.

“We’re helping our clients go from spending 30 percent of their income on energy to 10 percent,” Howe says. “We formed the company as a retail business in North America. But in rural Kenya, we’re an energy company. This is ‘The Big Idea’ for our company.”

Top image: Via Flickr user Better Energy Systems

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