The first ever Lusaka Tech Salon was hosted on the 26th of March by Ben Bellows of the Population Council of Zambia and the topic was “What is the Solar Power Opportunity in Southern Africa?” with the lead discussants being John Fay of Vitalite Zambia and Bob Keating of Zoona.
We were introduced to an issue that is constantly being questioned in terms of viability, solar power technology, especially in Zambia.
One of the main points discussed was how most solar companies have noticed that people in Zambia, especially farmers, prefer solar to modern energy options. An example was given of a system that’s currently taking place in East Africa where solar power production and mobile money have joined forces, with people who own solar generators being able to pay their monthly Pay As You Go (PAYG) bills using mobile money. This is to avoid power being cut off if the bill isn’t cleared, just like our own Zambia Electricity Supply Cooperation (ZESCO) prepaid meters work when you run out of ‘units’.
The solar technology/hardware has to be first installed and is given on a rent-to-own basis where a user gets its and pays for it over a period of time.
Another discussant brought in the mobile money placement in this whole scheme and said even though some mobile transfer schemes currently don’t have a wallet service that would allow customers to save their money in a mobile account and pay as the bills come directly from their phone, they can possibly offer a merchant identity (ID) that will allow users of the solar power technology to pay their monthly bills into the solar company’s account or merchant ID by going to any mobile money service agent wherever they are located countrywide. It wouldn’t require one to sign up, as they would only need valid identification documents like a national registration card to make the payment.
There’s a need to understand that in Zambia, a majority of the population are unbanked, with no access to financial services except mobile money, which is growing steadily as the number of people with mobile phones increases.
While there are many solar power technology options available to choose from there are various factors to consider. Some of the points raised at the tech salon where:
Is there demand for solar power technology in Zambia? The answer was mostly ‘yes’ among participants, with many stating that there are so many areas in Zambia that remain unpowered by the main electrification company, and that even if powered, some would not really be able to afford the bills for what they need the energy for. Others preferred solar power rather than hydroelectric power because of the inconsistencies (AKA loadshedding) that we have lately.
Distance between banks and even mobile money agents and the consumer: Consumers may buy the technology but paying for its maintenance would be a trip, as they may have to walk distances to make/deposit a payment to keep their solar power equipment running. Even if they own a mobile wallet on their handset, at some point they have to travel to make a physical deposit into their account to facilitate this bill payment. Mobile money platforms/services are fast expanding and will soon reach all corners of Zambia so the distance issue will long be forgotten eventually.
Constraints to solar technology becoming big in Zambia, and southern Africa as a whole: It’s mostly financial issues, depending on whether the technology is expensive to make and if the end user can afford it and its maintenance costs. Yes, the solar energy is free, but the infrastructure isn’t.
Target market for solar power technology: This should not be limited to people in the far flung areas where there is no electrification grid, even the people who have electricity can see this as an alternative.
Conclusion: Solar power technology is a very viable solution to the problems Zambians face today when it comes to having their energy supplied with consistency. We would like to see a future brought close that has all these options available to users from all backgrounds, at available prices.
We look forward to the next tech salon.