Pay-as-you-go solar products — that tap into cell phone infrastructure and micropayments — are slowly emerging across rural Africa, and India. This week startup M-KOPA announced that the company has now signed up 100,000 customers for its cell phone enabled solar service, and also recently launched its third-generation solar product.
I profiled the company earlier this year and they had reached the 65,000 customers mark as of April, growing at a rate of a thousand systems per week or 5,000 per month. They had been trying to kick start that growth and move to a rate of selling closer to a thousand solar systems per day.
M-KOPA was founded in 2010 by the original creators of the mobile payment system M-PESA, which was developed by telecom giant Vodafone and is one of the world’s most successful mobile payment services — 95 percent of Kenyan adults use it and, by some estimates, a third of the Kenya’s GDP flows through it every year.
Co-founders Nick Hughes and Jesse Moore left their cushy jobs at Vodafone with an idea that M-PESA could be used as a backbone for financing assets for Kenyans. The partners were considering using M-PESA to finance a variety of electronic assets, but then realized electronics need one thing that’s really lacking in rural Kenya: reliable power.
Thus M-KOPA was born, and they built out a service that offers rural customers access to a solar panel product that taps into cell phone networks for daily or weekly billing cycles, and customer alerts. They’ve also partnered closely with mobile carrier Safaricom to help with branding, marketing and distribution.
Recently they started selling what they’re calling a third-generation solar product (they work with partners that manufacture the solar devices). It’s Safaricom-branded, and it comes with two LED solar lights, a solar rechargeable LED torch, a 8W panel (larger than before with 60 percent more charge), a radio, a mobile phone charger and a larger battery. It’s also cheaper than previous products with a 2,999 KES deposit ($34) followed by daily payments of 40 KES (45 cents), down from 50 KES (56 cents).
M-KOPA has developed into a sizable company after close to three years of operation and four years incorporated. As of April the company had 300 employees, it works with another 700 people — independent entrepreneurs and shop owners — who sell its solar products across Kenya and then it has a 24-hour customer call center staffed by 100 employees. M-KOPA is basically a tiny utility aggregating and building out solar projects, one rural home at a time.
M-KOPA isn’t the only company using cell phone infrastructure to enable solar across rural areas. D.Light, which makes some of the devices that M-KOPA sells, says it’s reached its 500,000th pay-as-you-go solar customer. British startup Azuri was planning to hit 75,000 pay-as-you-go solar customers by the end of last year. Simpa Networks and Mera Gao Power are looking to grow these networks in rural India.