Juabar’s “Media Hubs” bring women’s health TV and Swahili “Sesame Street” to rural Tanzania

Interview with Olivia Nava

Co-founder and CEO, Juabar

Location: Oakland, California / Tanzania

“Anywhere where there is mobile money, there is a potential for services in delivery and market opportunities.”

Juabar is a solar entrepreneurs’ network which has been based in Tanzania since 2013. The three-person company behind the initial model, of a solar panel attached to a hand cart, has swiftly progressed into the rural development world. 

Today, for example, women in off-grid, predominantly Muslim communities can watch programmes on menstrual health in all discretion, as powered by Juabar’s solar network systems. Increasingly, solar is the solution for anyone who craves more information in rural communities, explains Oakland-based CEO Olivia Nava. 

“When you tell someone in Swahili how your day was, and that you just came from work, their cultural response is to say sorry”, laughs Nava, whose work in Tanzania started after collaborating with a local solar company with two other social ventures students in 2011. Graduates from the California College of the Arts in San Francisco might not be the typical solar entrepreneurs, but the three women who launched Juabar (“sun bar” in Swahili-English) spotted that it could be a popular idea from the get-go. Today, the mobile-phone charging kiosk has moved back towards its designed roots, and away from being just another solar company.

Created in a burst of pop-up shop flavour, the pilot project leased solar-powered kiosks to entrepreneurs in Tanzania, who put down monthly payments. Nava points out that other initiatives at the time, like d:light or Barefoot Power, simply weren’t working in rural markets. “People didn’t know about these quality products being deployed in East Africa. They weren’t being penetrated into the areas that they were needed in.”

A crowdfunding event (raising around $5,000) ensued, funding a further trip to Tanzania. Sums were also raised on platforms such as the international non-profit site Kiva, which works to alleviate poverty (and which raised a whopping $3,000 overnight), as well as via a convertible note round.

Juabar was launched as a multi-franchise model in 2013, hiring two local project managers. 50 W solar photovoltaic panels were attached to an initial fleet of ten light blue kiosks. 20 phones could be charged per device, no matter the model. The entrepreneur’s revenue streams were anything between US$60 or US$160 per month, changing the game in Tanzania, where previously, 25% of a person’s costs went to phone use, and paying people to travel to an outlet to charge the phone. At its peak, the solar mobile kiosk initiative reached around 4,000 people on a large scale basis, with kiosks rolling into villages like Chambezi on market day.

Installation of solar panels on Juabar media hub
Installation of solar panels on Juabar media hub

Growing into a scaleable solar community hub

Initial challenges included experimenting with solar suppliers and managing the costs of kiosk maintenance, not to mention transporting the kiosks individually to entire off-grid villages, to communities who could be reached only via complex road systems. “Yet ours was a very replicable type of idea”, says Nava, who took stock of the business model after two years. Also, the “Juaprepreneurs” were increasingly meeting small-time competition in the field; 60%, or 22 million people, own a mobile phone.

To make Juabar more sustainable, and empower the communities further, an extra, more social dimension was added. “Our revenue source could no longer be so dependent on the entrepreneur in a community, but on showing information, on dissemination, which is useful and entertaining to people’s lives”, says Nava.

In a robust, multi-pronged move, the Juabar business model evolved to suit the smaller market, by encompassing two ideas: solar satellite television, and a move into broader electronics sales. With a clear focus on mobile technology and connectivity, the strategy began with developing Tanzania’s middle-class economy. Nava says it was important to find entrepreneurs who had experience in outside business, or who had a side-business like a shop, restaurant or local community structure in place – and thus providing them with connectivity. “This is a value we really believe in”, she adds, “to develop the middle-class economy in rural areas”.

Kiosks slowly began being replaced by the solar-powered “Media Hubs”, a satellite, TV, and phone charging system, which made it easier for Juabar to work with even more people on the ground. Juabar’s role today is to support these teams and help with fundraising efforts. According to GSMA, an association of mobile phone operators, 35 million households in Tanzania have at least one person using mobile money. In a country where a small minority have access to energy and power, that presents quite a disparity.

“We don’t directly do the banking for people, but for example are implementing a pay-as-you-go solar system, bringing original content to people. We are providing a service with mobile money outlets. It’d be ideal to bring in a tablet or modem which could download into a wireless hub, but people don’t really own smartphones—currently we sell what’s popular, which is feature phones”. Feature phones stand somewhere between regular mobile phones and smartphones; with memory chips, a basic Facebook app, and music and video recording options.


Reaching more women and children

The new Media Hub solar-powered television infrastructure appeals to everyone in the community, including the youngest. Juabar partnered with Ubongo Kids, an educational cartoon series created from a social enterprise. It’s a sort of Swahili Sesame Street which pays Juabar to provide the lacking infrastructure. Juabar thus has had an impact for local children without electricity to be able to watch programmes. Commercially, the venture allows for advertising, and socially, for a set-up of entertainment facilities.

In Morogoro, a region in the east of Tanzania, Nava says, it has created an enabling environment. “We’re working in locations where there are around 300 to 500 households, and people don’t have to go and charge their phones somewhere during the day, or pay someone to do it for them. It saves them time, and gives them access to electricity at their doorstep. Entrepreneurs are now making double what the current Tanzanian per capita GDP is”.

Nava adds that a lot of people live in predominantly Muslim locations in Tanzania. “The community members pay for entertainment, so if there is a football game or movie on, they can ask community members to pay”, explains Nava, who last visited Tanzania in June.

“However in families, it can be less of a sell – the men tend to make a lot of financial decisions. Women are interested in seeing programmes on women’s health, agriculture, their children’s health; they crave information. If we’re relying on revenue from livelihood NGOs, it makes more sense to target women and cultivate the energy of the television. We explain that they can get paid by bringing women and children to a location and have them sign in with some basic demographic information”.

In Juabar’s early days and phone charging era, only two of the 30 entrepreneurs they worked with at one time were women. “There is more of an impact from having electricity and connectivity for rural development and economy. Then again, whilst these initiatives to educate women, say on safe birthing methods, exist in the urban areas, if we look at the rural areas, we are also thinking about how to teach women to use the internet, especially since a lot of content is not in Swahili”.

Solar has a high potential for original manufacturers, says Nava. “We never really tried to get into the solar space because we’re not engineers creating an original product. It always made sense for us to partner with those companies, to find a market advantage for them. Increasingly, with the rise of pay-as-you-go technology, anywhere where there is mobile money, there is a potential for services in delivery and market opportunities”.

Nava’s interest in the global rural economy has deepened, with her current work developing a medical device for communities in rural Nigeria. “We essentially have not succeeded”, laughs Nava, “but we have learnt a lot. Tanzania is really a difficult market. We come from a design background, and we really believe in the Media Hubs. We believe in it from a design point of view, rather than a business project. We’re really interested in the human design part of this”.

—Nabeelah Shabbir, @lahnabee

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