Village Energy is working to ensure that there is a skilled solar technician in every village across Uganda that, together, will form the basis of an elaborate national network of micro-franchises that provide the required information, technologies, installation and after-sales services to last mile clean energy consumers.
The New Idea
Abu operates from the unique perspective that clean energy should not be an end in itself, rather as a critical means to development goals such as healthcare, access to education and employment for energy-marginalized communities. Village Energy produces and distributes locally made solar energy products that provide innovative solutions to energy needs and contribute towards positive educational and health outcomes for rural communities. Unlike other clean energy models such as Solar Sister and Solar Kiosk, Village Energy’s local production and distribution chains enable it to innovate and produce new clean energy solutions to local development issues that commonly affect off-grid populations in Uganda.
After years of iteration, Abu has diagnosed that the rate at which clean energy solutions will scale in developing countries is directly proportional to the numerical growth and geographical spread of skilled solar technicians to win and maintain trust of the last mile clean energy consumers. He recognizes that this lack of trust in clean energy products inhibits the adoption of these crucial technologies that will yield environmental, economic and social benefits. Abu is working to build a network of last mile technicians in rural villages that provide technical services and after-sales support to consumers and collectively, build consumer confidence in clean energy products. He has developed a curriculum to train and certify existing village electricians who run village radio shacks, the best of which become Village Energy franchisees. In this way, he is improving the skills of these local technicians who become knowledgable on clean energy products and how to repair them. In the long run, this network of tecnicians will ideally contribute to new ideas and products in the clean energy space and assisting customers with their after-sales needs, thereby enabling the normalization of clean energy across Uganda and beyond.
There is a critical need for clean energy solutions in Uganda. According to government sources, only 15 percent of the population in Uganda (independent sources put this as low as 9%) has access to electricity. This translates to 29 million people - mostly low-income populations in rural areas and urban slums - who burn fossil fuels, usually kerosene, for light and heat. It is estimated that 1 million liters of kerosene are burned daily in Uganda alone.
Households and small businesses that rely on kerosene for lighting spend up to 20 percent of their annual incomes on energy. They spend more on medical bills due to the negative impact on health outcomes from kerosene fumes. 30 percent of the population that uses kerosene report having lost property to kerosene related fires. Although the market for clean energy products is growing in Uganda and East Africa, this growth is biased to the supply-side where there has been a notable increase in foreign solar products. However, on the demand-side, there have been low adoption rates of these new technologies outside of core urban areas despite the benefits that they could bring.
Abu has diagnosed that the low rate of adoption of clean energy in Uganda, and much of Africa, is a result of common mistrust in new technologies at the last mile. This low confidence is caused by the critical lack of skilled human resources that can help with these products (both in terms of sales and repairs) within the communities that desperately need these technologies.
Currently, most distribution chains focus on recruiting rural entrepreneurs – normally storekeepers – who dedicate part of their shelf space to vend solar lanterns. Even if these products reach a few last mile consumers in villages, they do not fulfill the need for technical expertise at the last mile. Consumers, therefore, fail to get the after-sales services from storekeepers that they need. This leads to an accumulated distrust of the products and technologies behind them, which ultimately holds back the clean energy market in Uganda and beyond.
Abu believes that Village Energy must achieve three objectives in order to ensure the large-scale adoption of clean technology products across Uganda and East Africa. The first is to establish training courses on developing and repairing clean energy products across the country so as to ensure after-sales support services to customers. The second is to make the village-level micro-franchisees a viable business model to encourage more young people to choose it as a career so as to ensure that young electricians have a strong understanding of clean energy, create their own products and see this as a viable career option. The third is to broaden the number of participants in the clean energy distribution chain, including solar brands, microfinance and SACCOs, corporate institutions, community institutions, small businesses, schools and hospitals so that society overall begins to shift towards clean energy.
To these ends, Abu both invests in locally made clean-energy products, ensures a trained human resource base in rural areas to provide sales and post-sales support services and works at a sector-level to encourage others to adopt this model.
Beyond lighting and phone charging, solar technologies can provide the energy required to drive development in off-grid communities. Village Energy has created products for health, education and access to information in off-grid communities.Their solar solutions for remote off-grid maternity health centers are improving survival rates during child birth; Village Theaters are transforming the learning process and improving delivery of community based trainings for life skills. Village Energy also has innovations for education, computer literacy and functional skills training, access to clean water and microfinance.
Village Energy designs and assembles its technologies locally providing great economic opportunities to both young people working on the production line and in cottage industries supplying the production line. Abu’s organization is the first company to both assemble and distribute a locally made product. Abu is also working with microfinance institutions to provide valuable credit for clean energy products to last mile consumers to cover the upfront cost required for these investments.
Based on Abu’s insight into the low-adoption rates, Village Energy also trains community-based electricians before supplying them with clean energy products as micro-franchisees. These are mostly radio and phone repairmen who run their own repair shops and have a basic-level training in electrical engineering. Village Energy trains them on how solar technologies work using a curriculum that Abu developed to provide certification for pre-sale and after-sale services to end users. The most promising of these micro-entrepreneurs are eventually turned into micro-franchisees under the Village Energy brand.
A key strategy for Village Energy is to create linkages with solar brands that are struggling to reach last mile consumers and convince them of the viability of the Village Energy network of micro-franchisees for distributing products to the last mile consumers. Village Energy is part of a working group (B-Space) that brings together major solar brands and distributors in Uganda to explore better ways in which to reach last mile solar consumers. Through this, Village Energy hopes to scale as it creates the benchmark for ensuring that consumers regain and maintain their trust in clean energy technologies. Through B-Space, Village Energy is also pushing for better clean energy regulation policies from the government. Abu wants the government to formalize a requirement for vendors of clean energy technologies to have at least one competent technician to ensure that end users get the right products to meet their energy needs.
Village Energy currently has 9 active technicians in the Eastern part of Uganda who are working their way to becoming franchisees in early 2014. It also measures its success by the number of installed watts versus the number of complaints they receive from end users – this is currently limited to less than 10 percent. Abu expects to have 30 village technicians and 9 Village Energy franchises fully operational by June 30th 2014. Each of the Village Technicians and franchises reach up to 100 households, small businesses and institutions annually, having an impact on well over 500 people annually. To date, Village Energy has sold over 4000 solar technologies in off-grid communities. In five years Abu plans to have 200 Village Technicians working across the country and selling over 20,000 solar products a year. Village Energy is planning on entering Rwanda and training their first 30 Village Technicians there within the same five years. Abu is working to ensure that the Ugandan government puts a policy in place that ensures that each vendor of solar technologies must have a competent solar technician on staff.
Abu was fortunate enough to experience both rural and urban lifestyles while growing up in Uganda. He was often sent by his father to the village to experience life in rural areas and work on the family’s coffee farms. He would then be rewarded with some cash to cover his personal expenses. Abu noted that living off-grid, the early nights to bed and the stories aroudn the campfires made for memorable experiences. However, in his teenage years, he became aware of the disparities betwene living in the city and in the village. In the village, he could not read past nightfall, the number of hours using the radio were limited and communication beyond your village was impossible. Abu witnessed numerous cases of grass thatched houses and food stores razing to the ground from kerosene-related fires. It was also a common occurrence for people to sustain burns from such fires. Abu credits those childhood experiences for his deep understanding of personal drive to “energize” off-grid populations.
Abu spent much of his youth years engaged in developing platforms for other youth to provide opportunities for them to develop their own skills and leadership traits to become active agents of change. Most of these years were spent working pro bono for AIESEC, an international student organization. In 2003/4, he was the National Committee President of AIESEC in Uganda. He took the institution through changes that saw the introduction of development focused exchange programs after many years of focusing on corporate partnerships that didn’t fully address development issues in Africa but created new business managers on the continent.
Abu also started a juice making business that tapped into young people’s creativity to develop new never-heard-of recipes and creative distribution channels. However, he decided to shut down the business and move to Nairobi to help open Ashoka’s new East Africa office and continue with his career in social entrepreneurship. It was during his years at Ashoka that he would be re-introduced to the energy crisis in Africa. His first encounter was when he read about Brazilian Fellow Fabio Rosa who was working to address the energy gap in Brazil. He met and interviewed numerous Fellows and candidates working on this problem and got a deeper understanding of the extent of the problem and existing efforts to solve it. It was this that led him to resume his visits to his village to speak with those that continued to use kerosene for lighting. These interactions and a fortunate meeting with his soon-to-be co-founding partner (who had interned with him at Village Energy in Nairobi in 2009) formed the basis upon which he decided to formally start Village Energy. Initially, he worked on the same model as most other solar distributors but a number of frustrating months not reaching last mile users at a meaningful level, taught him the need for and power of skilled technicians who could stimulate markets in deep rural communities.