Challenging Assumptions through Community Engagement

At Smart Villages Research Group, we truly believe in the importance of a community-led approach. We always start by asking the community to tell us about the challenges they’re facing, through focus groups and service value tests. This helps us ensure that any technology or system we develop will definitely provide value to the community, and meet their highest priorities.

As we’ve found, sometimes the system we had in mind might not be the right fit for the community, and that’s ok. It’s equally acceptable to take a step back after the initial research and consultation phase, and decide not to proceed with implementation in a community, if we can see that they won’t really want the system as their priorities lie elsewhere.

The idea for the Mobile Minigrids project in Kenya was developed from past experience working with remote Maasai communities in Northern Tanzania. We’d assumed that most remote communities in Kenya would operate in a similar way, with the same key needs and priorities, but after beginning the community engagement with local partners Chemolex, we started to see key differences. Rural electrification in Kenya is much further reaching than in Tanzania, so most mid-sized communities with a market day have grid-power. Even for those communities which are beyond the grid, the wide prevalence of M-Kopa (a pay-as-you-go energy provider) means a huge number of shops and homes already have small-scale solar systems for lighting, music, and phone charging.

Our focus groups showed that unlike the Maasai communities in Tanzania where any form of power provision was desired, in Kenya, the focus was on consistency and reliability. Grid electrified towns often have power-cuts several days a week, and individuals using M-Kopa solar home systems complained about the weak storage capacity and solar power, rendering the system useless beyond 5pm, or during the rainy season. For these customers, a high-power mobile solar system which only delivers power one or two days a week could never provide the consistency they desired, nor could it provide power as extensively to all the houses and shops currently using M-Kopa or the grid (Electricity distribution over long distances is too time-consuming and complex for a system designed to move locations every 1-2 days).

Focus group held in Mageta Island

Despite this, after surveying several potential sites in Western Kenya and around the Maasai Mara, we were able to find a group of non-grid connected Maasai communities who could still benefit from the system. This is where we will continue our testing during the duration of the project. Although it appears the technology will not have as many direct applications as we’d hoped in Kenya, we’ve had lots of interest from skilled craftsmen/builders wanting a smaller version for off-grid working, and we are relatively confident that there are promising applications in Tanzania, where we first observed the uneven power demand profile which inspired the project.

All important learnings, and it shows that you should never assume a technology is right for a community until you’ve really asked them!

You can read more in the Community Site Survey report, here.

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