Nov 7, 2017 - 3min read
“600 million people live off-grid in sub-Saharan Africa and at the current rate of electrification, millions will remain in the dark”. Simon Bransfield-Garth is not beating around the bush.
He is explaining to Tonik what inspired him to found Azuri: a domestic renewable power system that customers pay for over a period of 18 months using mobile phone credit, after which it belongs to them.
Passionate? Of course. But Simon is not sanctimonious about his mission. The way he sees it he has turned a development problem into a business one, and pioneered a solution that delivers value at every level. This is a blend of enterprise and ethos.
Technology purports to sell convenience. And it does, to more privileged customers. However, in a remote off-grid village in sub-Saharan Africa, electricity is seldom convenient. Mobile phone use is pervasive, but if the battery dies you risk walking for miles to a charging point in order to resuscitate it. Extra mileage aside, one charge costs 20 cents – charging your phone in the UK using mains electricity is one hundredth of the price. As Simon points out in his TED talk below: this is a system in which the poorest people are not just being charged ‘more’ for energy, they are being charged disproportionately more.
Essential though our phones may seem, even necessities like lighting become expensive luxuries without reliable electricity. Local businesses are forced to close up when the sun goes down. Their only other option is to burn expensive and foul-smelling kerosene.
Though many have been attracted to the power of solar in ‘the Sun continent’, few have addressed the lack of infrastructure that perseveres. Without smart meter technology, solar power is used inefficiently: draining the stored power until the electricity cuts out. When it does, people revert to using kerosene. Very few steps have been taken towards improving people’s access to renewable energy systems; their high start-up costs price the poorest customers out of the market.
Simon resolved ‘to create technology that addresses the challenges of emerging economies’. Thus, with the aim of reducing kerosene use, and improving access to power while empowering consumers, HomeSmart was created.
“Azuri was the first company to use artificial intelligence and adaptive power management to automatically learn a customer’s typical power usage”, continues Simon. HomeSmart compares data about a household’s energy consumption against weather conditions in order to gauge how to dispense stored solar energy as efficiently as possible. Lights are dimmed so they stay lit for longer, for instance.
In order to overcome the barrier that high start-up costs set for renewable energy, Simon returned to his inspiration: the worship of mobile phones. Pay-as-you-go schemes were well-established – for phone charging, mobile credit or, indeed, buying kerosene – so Azuri adopted this model for customers to pay off their power system, making sure to outprice kerosene and phone charging.
Simon believes mobile payments have been key to Azuri’s success. He explains that the mobile money system also offers a credible alternative to ‘those who don’t have access to a traditional bank account – it can be accessed on a broad scale, not just by the privileged few.’
Azuri are working with the people and communities to whom they are attempting to deliver a positive impact. They stimulate rural economies directly by recruiting local agents within communities, as well as indirectly, for example by providing light in the evening that allows businesses to have longer trading hours. Some 86% of customers report they have been able to work more since using the Azuri system.
Since its inception, Azuri has sold over 80,000 models and after launching in Kenya has expanded to 11 countries across sub-Saharan Africa. Of the 85% of customers previously using kerosene lamps, only 17% still used them once they had HomeSmart.
The impact of this sustainable and profitable system is beginning to be realised. 97% of users claim that HomeSmart has enabled their children to study more. Therein lies the truly empowering value of innovation.