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Lameck Chibago in Tanzania carefully looks after the solar panel on the roof of his house.

From: Sustainable energy – Footsteps 114

Practical examples of how off-grid sustainable energy can improve people’s day-to-day lives

Many people in rural Sierra Leone consider their mobile phones to be their most valuable and important assets.

As well as their use for business and personal communication, mobile phones make it possible for people to stay up to date with what is happening in the rest of the country and the world. They can improve personal safety in the event of an emergency and allow people to quickly respond to outbreaks of diseases such as Ebola and Covid-19.

However, few people have access to electricity at home so they have to travel, sometimes long distances, to charge their phones at generator-powered ‘telecentres’.

Phones left at these centres are at risk of being stolen, or batteries and memory cards may be switched for less valuable ones. In order to protect their phones, people often wait at the centres for many hours while they are charging.

In response to this, Mobile Power has developed a flexible battery-pack rental system that requires no deposit and no fixed payments. It works in areas with no network coverage and customers can pay with cash – an important benefit for people who do not have a bank account.

The battery-packs, known as MOPO batteries, contain enough stored energy to charge up to eight mobile phones or run the built-in high-power light for 16 hours.

MOPO batteries can also be used to power small appliances such as light bulbs, fans, radios and television sets. There are four main steps: charge, distribute, use, return.

Mobile Power’s battery-pack rental system makes it possible for families to access low-cost electricity at home.

Mobile Power’s battery-pack rental system makes it possible for families to access low-cost electricity at home.

1. Charge

Charging hubs are established in rural locations where there is a need for off‑grid renewable energy. In consultation with the community, Mobile Power’s team installs solar panels on a central building in the village. Alternatively, the hubs are connected to existing solar power systems in schools, clinics or water purification plants where they help to fund the maintenance of these systems.

‘Mobile Power helps to maintain the solar panels on the school… It also makes the school’s electricity available to poorer people in the community.’ (Rev Kumah - School founder)

The hubs are managed by teams of local men and women who receive training in the technical and financial aspects of the programme, as well as customer service and support. The MOPO batteries are charged at the hubs, ready for rental.

2. Distribute

After taking advice from community leaders, local distribution agents are recruited and trained. The agents deliver the battery-packs and are paid in cash by the customers (homes and businesses).

Once payment is received, the agents activate the MOPO batteries using a mobile phone application and credits they have previously bought using Mobile Money. Agents are paid a commission on the rental and return of battery-packs, encouraging them to circulate as many as possible.

‘I used to travel two hours each way to charge my phone. I only did it once a week. Now I can get a MOPO battery with no waiting time. I have saved a huge amount of time and money.’ (Musa Musari – Miner)

3. Use

Each battery-pack has enough stored energy to meet basic household lighting and charging needs for 24 hours.

‘The best thing about MOPO batteries is that I can charge my phone wherever I am without having to go to the telecentre. Now I can keep in touch with my family, and my grandchildren use the light to study.’ (Fanta Kabba – Farmer)

4. Return

After 24 hours the battery-pack automatically locks and the agent collects it and returns it to the hub for charging. The customer can hire multiple battery-packs each week, or just one if they prefer.

‘My family rents one pack and we share the light for study between me and the younger children. Before MOPO batteries we could not study at night. I also use the light for safety, especially when going to the toilet at night.’ (Roseline Kamara – Student)

Saving money

Rural households in Sierra Leone often spend up to 20 per cent of their income on phone charging and the purchase of disposable batteries. The use of MOPO batteries can help customers save up to 75 per cent of these costs.

When asked what they are using these savings for, customers said they are buying more or better food, investing in businesses, paying school fees and using the money for leisure activities.

Case study

Case study: Empowering women

One of Mobile Power’s goals is to provide business opportunities for both women and men, but the local teams were struggling to recruit and retain female agents.

Discrimination and concerns about safety meant that community leaders almost always recommended men rather than women for the role, despite a high level of unemployment among women. One community chief stated that ‘women are not serious’, implying that they would not be able to make a success of the business.

To try to find a solution, in partnership with World Hope International, Mobile Power engaged the services of a Gender Equality Field Officer, Bintu Kanneh. Bintu encourages community leaders to promote the recruitment of female agents and helps to provide training in the technical aspects of the role, as well as safety and business skills.

Bintu coaches the women, pointing out their strengths and also areas for improvement. She believes in them and wants to see them succeed. She encourages the women to work as a team and to support each other. She does this through regular phone calls, visits to their different communities and WhatsApp communications.

Hawa

Hawa, a young woman of 22, is determined to make a success of her business so she can pay for her school exams. She will then be able to go to college. Hawa has 75 MOPO batteries that she can rent out daily. If all are rented out, she makes a daily profit of 75,000 Leones (7.5 USD).

Hawa is regularly meeting her targets and Bintu is very impressed by Hawa’s abilities and determination. She says, ‘As women, we should help and push each other. The chief rejected Hawa because he said she is “not serious”. Now she is one of my best agents!’

World Hope International works to alleviate poverty by providing opportunity, dignity and hope.

www.worldhope.org

Written by

Written by Jono West

Jono West is Co-founder and Chair of Mobile Power Ltd.

Mobile Power aims to make solar power debt-free and affordable for low-income off-grid communities.

www.mobile-power.co.uk

jono@mobile-power.co.uk

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