Intelligent Energy

Dial-a-Photon: Cell phone and small solar panel buy African power

Dial-a-Photon: Cell phone and small solar panel buy African power

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South Sudan joins a growing list of countries to get 'pay as you go solar' in which British provider gives away LED lamps and solar panels while selling electricity as an SMS-verified service.

A small solar panel provides power to this house in Nimule, South Sudan.

A British startup company is offering rural Africans an energy efficient pay-as-you-go solar lighting kit and service that can illuminate two rooms for 7 hours using LED lamps and a rechargeable battery provided at minimal up front cost to the user.

Eight19's IndiGo solar powered battery pack includes USB slots for charging cell phones.

Cambridge-based Eight19 last week started offering the service in Africa's newest country, the Republic of South Sudan, in partnership with Colorado-based Christian charity WorldVenture. It aims to deploy 1,000 kits through the first half of this year, in the Nimule region.

Eight19 first launched in September in Kenya, and has expanded into Malawi, Zambia and now South Sudan, which gained independence from Sudan last July.

The service, called IndiGo, is aimed at replacing expensive and environmentally hazardous kerosene-powered lighting in off-grid rural areas.

Users spend nothing up front for the hardware except for a deposit of around $10. They buy a scratch card for $1.00 per week from a local store, send the card's number via text, and in return receive a code via text that they enter on a keypad mounted on the system's battery. The code works only on that user's system.

The kit includes a small 2.5-watt solar panel measuring about  25 cm by  15 cm (10 inches by 6 inches), a lithium iron phosphate (lithium ion) battery, and 2 LED lamps. The lamps shine at 55 lumens, which is dull by some standards -  generally a 40-watt incandescent bulb provides about 450 lumens - but which offers lighting options that didn't previously exist, including reading at night. In principle, LED light bulbs require only about 20 percent of the electricity of an incandescent bulb.

The battery pack also includes a USB slot for charging mobile phones.

Eight19 says the system can light two small rooms for 7 hours at at time. After around 18 months, users own the gear. The company also offers an "escalator" option to provide additional power for more money.

Samuel Kimani gives the thumbs up to his new solar kit in Mwiki, Kenya, with some old fuel canisters to his front left.

Early adapter Nyungura James Ode, a South Sudanese farmer quoted in an Eight19 press release, says that IndiGo has replaced trips to town to charge his phone, and has also cut out 4-mile round trips to market to buy batteries for battery-powered lamps.

"With IndiGo I save about half of the money I would spend on batteries and kerosene and can spend more time at home now that I don't have to walk to the village and wait for phones to charge," says Ode.

The system's solar panels currently use conventional polysilicon solar cells. Eight19, named after the 8 minutes and 19 seconds it takes for sunlight to reach Earth, will eventually deploy its own plastic thin film solar technology, which it hopes to start manufacturing next year.

Plastic thin film, manufactured on a roll-to-roll basis, is not as efficient as other forms of solar technology, but is potentially less expensive.

"Pay-as-you-go" solar is emerging as a viable off-grid, low carbon option in many countries. In India, Simpa Networks offers a service similar to Eight19's.

Photos from Eight19

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Mark Halper

Contributing Editor

Mark Halper has written for TIME, Fortune, Financial Times, the UK's Independent on Sunday, Forbes, New York Times, Wired, Variety and The Guardian. He is based in Bristol, U.K. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure