Rethinking power for farmers in Africa is just the start for World Mobile CCO


Before I joined World Mobile, my work life revolved around electricity and renewable energy in East Africa, namely Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, and Uganda. I owned a company that imported, supplied and installed voltage correction equipment such as stabilizers, UPS, and switches. I realised I had a passion for developing power backup projects; and enjoyed supporting the systems I supplied and providing first class after services sales support and troubleshooting problems on behalf of customers. I developed a passion for customer services and engineering solutions that solved key power supply and power quality problems.

It never ceased to amaze me how my systems impacted the business operations of my customers and solved problems and kept their systems working during power outages and even when the quality of power affected equipment sensitive to voltage fluctuations.

In industrial and commercial applications, the larger power management battery systems must be recharged in full before the next power outage. We learned very quickly that when you experience regular power outages there isn’t enough time between them to recharge the batteries, before the next occurrence. You either need stable continuous power with no outage to recharge the battery system, or you need a larger charger with more expensive batteries that can charge quickly.

One way we solved this problem was to install solar panels which kept the batteries fully charged during the day. This meant that when the offices closed at night, the batteries could be cycled, so that when they reopened the next morning the batteries were fully charged and ready to power continuous electricity.

We built a successful business installing solar panels at several embassies, banks, hospitals, and schools. This not only saved our clients money and eliminated a lot of stress, but also removed expensive diesel generation from the premises, reducing their carbon footprint.

This taught me what an important role battery technology can play in different applications and I saw the potential to build a business supplying larger batteries. One of my first customers was the Telecom Tower asset owners and operators, which also started my relationship with NorthStar Batteries as I chose to use them for that project.

NorthStar batteries are manufactured in the United States and are generally more expensive than batteries supplied from India and China, but they lasted longer and were the fastest recharging battery available at the time (before Lithium Ion batteries were introduced). They wouldn’t degrade even if they operated in the Partial State Of Charge (PSOC) for a couple of weeks. This saved our clients and telcos unbelievable amounts of diesel. One such telco client in Pakistan saved $200M on diesel in 12 months alone!

This business brought me great exposure to the world of telcos in the context of supply, support, training, logistics, and rollout. But it also got me thinking about the rural villages that were nowhere near the towers. What about them?

Designing a business model that affords farmers better flexibility.

That’s when my good friend and business partner Francois Pienaar and I saw the flaws in the Pay-As-You-Go (PAYG) Solar Home System (SHS) business model, and we decided to try a different approach.

We bought over 3000 solar systems and sold them to cocoa farmers in the South West of Tanzania, allowing them to acquire the system with a small deposit then pay off the system over 15 months.

The critical difference to our solution from others, was that we designed a very clever back-end software that allowed the farmers to top up any amount of power they wanted, at any time, from any bank, financial institution, or mobile money provider. Whereas everyone else was fixed to one costly mobile money provider with a set top-up amount per week.

Earlier I mentioned helping my clients reduce diesel costs and fumes, but I soon learnt that the costs and fumes of candles were even greater. You would not believe how much farmers were spending for such a poor quality of light.

Our solution not only brought good lighting into people’s homes, but also phone chargers, and small radios, so you can imagine what a huge impact this had.

It’s up to us to redesign the model into something that not only works but thrives. And this is the key part of the story; bringing affordable energy is only fixing a tiny part of the problem and pain.

I want to explain at this point why distributed energy and telecom is so crucial to rural Tanzania and Africa in general because it ties into our mission.

The average smallholder farmer in Tanzania lives roughly 3.5km away from the closest shop/retail point for essentials, and their yearly electricity consumption is tiny. The three-light solar system we sold equates very roughly to 20,000 watts per year. That might sound like a lot, but in Tanzania that costs $2-3 per year.

So, long story short, the utility company that supplies electricity via poles and lines will never get their money back from powering deep rural users. Imagine investing $10,000 for a km or two of infrastructure to earn $2-3 a year per user. And you still have to pay for the power you sell. So even with government pressure and funding schemes, it doesn’t make sense.

These farmers are constantly getting pushed down the ladder by suppliers, traders, and financiers, because they can’t access proper and fair service partners.

A typical example is farmers pre-selling their crop for a fraction of what it’s worth. If farmers need money in March, but their harvest only comes in June, they’ll take a big hit to get cash today. Another good example is farming inputs and fertilisers. We saw many farmers prepping months in advance and hitch-hiking more than 100km so they’d have fertiliser later that year. Apart from spending all day travelling, they now lock up cash for months to buy fertiliser that won’t be fresh by the time they need to use it.

So you can see, bringing clean, cheap, and reliable energy into deep rural communities is a game-changer, but it’s also just the start.

So what’s next for farmers in Africa?

By introducing connectivity and a blockchain identity solution into this model, we can connect farmers and their community to a range of service providers that are ready, willing, and able to help.

For example, World Mobile is already working with fertiliser providers that offer the same fertiliser at a cheaper price and deliver it right to the farm. We’re also working with cooperative unions to open up farmers’ produce to global marketplaces that will yield better incomes.

World Mobile has relationships with finance and insurance service providers, allowing farmers to access affordable bridge loans and cover their income if there’s a drought or bad flooding. These essential services will all be more effective when World Mobile brings connectivity to not only schools and universities, but directly into homes.

We’ve developed an affordable way to bring high-speed Wi-Fi into farmers’ homes, powered by a tiny solar home system.

I genuinely believe that we will connect industries and financiers who have the appetite to bring power and services into every home in Africa that wants or needs it. And in this way, World Mobile will open a new world.

Andrew Soper
Andrew Soper is the Chief Commercial Officer of World Mobile. He has over ten years of on-the-ground experience providing renewable energy and telecoms in Africa. His clients have included the United Nations and Airtel. One of his most notable projects was the Elon Musk sponsored XPRIZE, which gave thousands of children in Tanzania access to education via scalable, technological solutions.