The biggest obstacle to powering off-grid homes is infrastructure.
The problem, specifically in sparsely populated areas, is a lack of power lines. Without lines going to a remote power grid, many communities lack the access they need to electricity. Entire villages can stay dark. But there are ways around that.
A startup called Off-Grid Electric is looking to use cheap rooftop solar panels for energy in rural parts of Africa, instead of building expensive infrastructure.
Off-Grid Electric is a for-profit company started by Xavier Helgesen in 2012, who had the idea for the company when he was traveling through Malawi to meet clients for his bookselling company, according to NPR.
The village happened to be entirely off the grid, people made heavy use of kerosene lamps and lived entirely without electricity, even though some of the villagers owned electrical appliances, that’s the experience that led Hegelsen to start the company.
The solution that Off-Grid offers is a pay-as-you-go program with a $6 installation fee for solar panels that sit on a household’s roof. The package also includes a meter that keeps track of how much energy each household is using, as well as LED lights, a radio, and a phone charger.
Customers pay for electricity as they use it and can use mobile payment apps to pay bills. In an interview with NPR, Helgesen said his company has been closely watching how people use their electricity.
For instance, the company learned to not to ask households how much wattage they think they’ll use — measuring consumption is foreign to many people. Instead, Off-Grid asks what appliances they want to power. That way, the company gives its customers a more bespoke solution.
The company says it’s lighting up some 50,000 homes a month, with a goal of reaching 1 million African homes by 2017. Off-Grid currently covers parts of Tanzania, and the company is planning to expand to Rwanda within the year. Eventually, it will expand beyond the African continent.
Off-Grid isn’t the first effort to bring solar-powered local energy to rural and developing areas. A startup called Watly, for example, makes self-contained solar power reservoirs that act like self-service hubs for communities where people can charge their phones, use the internet, and access other services.
There are multiple ways to tackle the problem. And as long as companies can listen to users’ needs and reconcile cultural barriers, technology can be a real solution.
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