Solarkiosk: Innovative “connected solar market centres” drive small businesses, solar energy

Marc Zedler, Project Manager, Connected Solar Market Centers (CSMC), Solarkiosk

Location: Berlin, Germany and across Africa

“Focus on a core group of entrepreneurs who engage with the community”

For Marc Zedler, there is a bigger picture at Solarkiosk, a German solar company operating in multiple African countries. Having a service which provides rural communities with a source of renewable energy via mobile kiosks has been a “revolutionary tool”, according to the Berlin-based project manager. In one of Solarkiosk’s notable recent projects, this bigger picture extends to valuing the potential of a plot of land around a kiosk itself.

Creating a “living breathing downtown location” in rural communities is an attractive next step, says Zedler, and it also solves the issue of using up extra energy. “Once the kiosk is set up we provide consumer goods, followed by energy services, but over time we realised that we had a lot of excess power going untapped. We wanted to take that to another level, empowering entrepreneurs around the kiosk by providing energy to their business”.

Zedler has been with the German company since it started in 2012, when it sent out designed containers to Ethiopia. Spiess has said in the past that Solarkiosk is aimed at the almost 4 billion people who live at the “bottom of the pyramid”, 1.5 billion of which do not have access to energy. For his part, Zedler has spent the past year rolling out this new project, called “Connected Solar Market Centres” (CSMC). The Berlin team includes 30 employees in the Berlin office, including architects, engineers, and business development managers amongst others. Local construction teams for the CSMCs work with a basic premise: pave the grounds, power plot lights, and add other “infrastructural tools” such as tables, plants, chairs, and plants to a sealed off spot around an existing kiosk. A customer in the rural community will have an enclosed space where they can have a drink whilst they learn about the benefits of solar products and cookstoves that are for sale. There is an interview process, as well as checklists, but top priority is interaction with engaged community members.

For the first year of this hub-style project, the CSMC team focused on a few core types of small, local businesses. “We invest in basic infrastructure and analyse what we could bring in that community is demanding—say, a tailors, a small restaurant, or a barber shop which might be using a diesel generator. We attract them to the plot space, and advise them on how to be more sustainable. There is a guarantee of a flow of customers, and the only provision is that they pay rent.” Funding for this project and others at Solarkiosk comes from grants from larger organisations such as the European Commission as well as private investors and companies themselves. Solarkiosk works in partnership with Coca-Cola or Ericsson, and has worked in over ten countries.

Photo courtesy of Solarkiosk

CSMCs started in Gasanga, Rwanda and have expanded to Ethiopia, Kenya, and most recently the village of Matipwili in Tanzania. “The dynamics vary from country to country; we wanted to find the primary baseline rules, to tailor the centre for different countries”, explains Zedler. “The food on offer in some restaurants in Rwanda, which often require a big grill, varies from that in Ethiopia, where there might be a specific need for stoves to make flat bread such as the local injera bread. Clean cookstoves, or at least clean charcoal, are a priority for us too.”

Zedler will spend a month on location and return a couple of months later. “You really see a tangible impact”, he says. “It’s also about personal interactions. People can be so inventive and proactive. Once given an opportunity, people are willing to use it.” In villages such as Olkiramatian, the awareness of solar is proven by the fact that every second or third house is using the lamps, says Zedler.

Now that the base and community dynamics have been established, Zedler says the stage is set to make a stronger impact for 2017. One idea is to bring in more learning elements, such as adverts during the interval of a televised football match for example. Viewing halls are an increasingly attractive proposal when it comes to working within a community. This, along with more CSMCs and a wider range of businesses, will be part of Solarkiosk’s extended push to create smarter villages. With recent visits to the Kenyan head office from the likes of Rachel Kyte, CEO of the Sustainable Energy For All UN initiative, this startup is proving itself as an established player.

—Nabeelah Shabbir (@lahnabee)

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