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Solar-Powered Televisions Brighten Homes in Rural Kenya

  • Reuters

Solar collector pane

Solar collector pane

Violet Mwikali's new television has not just brought entertainment to her home. It has ushered in peace, too.

"The whining has stopped now. I was put on the spot for a while as my two children went to the neighbours' to watch television," Mwikali said as she adjusted her new 16-inch solar-powered television.

Mwikali is one of many residents of Lukenya in Machakos County, east of Nairobi, who have bought televisions from M-KOPA Solar, a Nairobi-based company that sells solar-powered products in places not connected to the national energy grid.

The digital flat-screen television, added to the product line in February, comes with a solar panel and a portable battery that also controls a lighting unit and has a socket for charging mobile phones.

Margaret Nduge, another solar TV owner, said she had long resigned herself to never being hooked up to the national electricity grid. Before buying the solar kit, Nduge used a generator for power, but it was smoky and noisy, and the cost of fuel was a drain on her finances.

"My neighbors didn't believe that I could afford to power my house silently," she said.

The solar television works even when there is little or no sun, she said, allowing her to keep up with her favorite gospel channels and the national news. The battery lasts for four hours when used for lighting and watching TV simultaneously.

Television reaches less than a third of Kenya's adult population on a daily basis, with the rest lacking power or a TV set, according to 2015 data from the Kenya Audience Research Foundation cited by M-KOPA.

Leapfrogging the grid

The whole M-KOPA kit, including the television set, costs about $530, and customers make an initial payment of up to $79, followed by installments of as little as $1 a day.

Kit owner Raphael Makau said the $148 minimum fee levied upfront by the Kenya Power and Lighting Company to connect a home to the national grid was too expensive. It would have taken him years to afford access to electricity were it not for the solar kit, he said.

Makau also likes the convenience of making his daily payment to M-KOPA through his mobile phone.

Jesse Moore, M-KOPA's chief executive, believes poorer nations will lead the way in switching to green energy use.

"In Africa, (we are going) directly from limited energy connections straight to renewable," he said.

According to Moore, the company has sold over 6,000 television sets, and plans to scale up production to meet rising demand.

The company hopes to reach 3 million households out of the 5 million yet to be connected to the grid in Kenya, Moore told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Target areas are mainly rural because many residents there are poor and need affordable energy products. Allowing payments via mobile money transfer helps attract customers, Moore added.

Better batteries

Consumers are already identifying improvements they would like to see in the next generation of solar products. Mwikali wants enhanced battery life to expand the amount of time she can use her TV, because the current four hours is not enough for her family's needs.

Makau echoed the suggestion, saying he is sometimes forced to use backups such as kerosene lanterns when the solar battery runs out in the evenings.

M-KOPA is seeking to boost the quality of the solar television sets and enhance their features, Moore said. But he warned the price may not come down as the cost is already low considering the capabilities of the whole system.

The company is now working out what to do with the solar batteries when their five-year lifespan ends, and has engaged another business to recycle the batteries to help conserve the environment, Moore said.

M-KOPA is hoping to expand access to its solar televisions to Tanzania and Uganda, and to start manufacturing all the components in Kenya. More solar products for the poor are also in the pipeline, Moore said, declining to elaborate.

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