Three Kenyan women — what one solar business means to them

By Neil Yeoh, of the Oxford MBA class of 2015–16

Ever since deciding to reconcile my interest in business with my passion for social impact I have asked myself the question: can for-profit businesses really do social good?

To help answer this question, I travelled east from Nairobi to Machakos, Kenya with M-Kopa Solar— an off-grid solar power company providing affordable clean energy through mobile payments. Along with Suraj Patel, MBA/MPH at UC Berkeley, Deenah Kawira, M-Kopa Solar Business Manager, and Felix Kyalo, M-Kopa Solar Field Sales Manager (pictured above from left to right), I got the opportunity to meet and hear the stories of three remarkable Kenyan women:

  1. Christine the shop-owner
  2. Eunice the side-hustler
  3. Jane the home-keeper

But firstly, what are customers buying from M-Kopa? One of the most common products is an M-Kopa 4, which comes with a small solar panel, battery pack, two LED lights, portable torch, radio, and phone charging cables. The customers pay an upfront cost of $50 and $0.50 a day for one year, after which the customer owns the device. Apart from the upfront cost, the daily cost is cheaper than paying $0.70 a day for kerosene, which is used if at all in the absence of M-Kopa.

1) Christine the shop-owner

Christine is a proud roadside shop-owner selling fruit and vegetables among other products and who has a personality that can overflow a room. She is a born businesswoman, who after hearing about M-Kopa over the radio, waited eagerly and waved down an M-Kopa vehicle passing the area in order to buy one.

Before M-Kopa, Christine used two kerosene lamps to light up her store — a significant business expense. When her phone, used to order stock and make sales, ran out of battery, she would lock up shop for three hours to walk to her neighbour’s, hoping they were home to help charge her phone.

With M-Kopa, she has replaced her kerosene lamps, now gathering dust in the corner of her store, with two bright LED lights. Her torch helps her to walk home safely at night; her radio blasting during the day attracts customers; and her phone charger means she never has to leave her shop, giving her time to sell more. As a true businesswoman, she now charges customers’ phones for $0.10 per charge, helping people in the area and helping her pay off the device.

After six months with her M-Kopa Solar device, Christine has saved and made enough money to renovate and expand her store, and she now has money to send to and support her two children and their families. Although this was largely a result of Christine’s individual business savvy, M-Kopa provided her with the platform to grow her business and improve her livelihood.

2) Eunice the side-hustler

Eunice is a struggling single mother of three who is forced to run a series of side-businesses (aka “side-hustles” in Kenya) to make enough money for the basics of food, water, and shelter.

Living in the isolated eastern foothills of Machakos, where getting clean water means traveling 5km across mountainous terrain, Eunice does what she can from breaking quarry stones and making mud bricks for construction, to growing herbs and crops for sale.

Through a woman’s chama, an informal finance vehicle where individuals pull funds together, Eunice was able to buy an M- Kopa device.

For Eunice there was no electricity where she lives and providing lighting for her family was a costly luxury. When night comes her home would become “lifeless,” quiet and inactive waiting for the light of day.

M-Kopa’s lights give her family the simple luxury of a common lit area in which to eat, talk and laugh together, and give her children the confidence to go to the bathroom alone.

Sadly, however Eunice does not have a steady income, and intermittently runs out of credit to power her M-Kopa machine. But M-Kopa means so much to her family’s safety, happiness and livelihood that she “would even ask neighbours to help her with payments to keep the lights on”. Far from ideal, this highlights the challenge M-Kopa faces as a social business managing the tension between profits and impact.

3) Jane the home-keeper

Jane is a mother of four children who lives with her husband in an isolated north-eastern village in Kangundo — an hour from Machakos along a rocky dirt road. Her husband works at a local quarry and she tends to their two cows and chickens to supplement their livelihoods.

For Jane, M-Kopa initially meant a device for affordable solar power. But after paying off the solar device, she found another opportunity through the company — to purchase a 1000L water tank. The closest watering hole for Jane is 1.5km across rocky terrains. Providing water for her family normally requires her to make the trip every 2–3 days — back-breaking work that she is becoming too old to manage.

Now with the water tank from M-Kopa, which she is paying for using the same daily rate of $0.50, Jane only needs to make the trips to the watering hole once every two weeks, and she can do so on the weekend when her children can help. She can rest her back with the comfort of knowing that she has enough water to wash clothes, drink, cook and feed her cattle. The water tank has also given her the opportunity to help her neighbours, which she does regularly, when they are short of water. She credits M-Kopa’s payment system with allowing her to afford a water tank like this and giving her the security of a sufficient water supply.

Closing remarks…

This weekend in Machakos was a remarkable and an eye-opening experience for me. It became evident that M-Kopa is an example of a social business that undoubtedly operates at the nexus of profit-making and impact-generating. However operating at this nexus also generates its own sets of challenges, even for these three women. For instance Christine has since had to fend off people looking to steal her M-Kopa device jealous of her success; Eunice has had to deal with the shame from family and friends of owning a device that she occasionally cannot pay off; and Jane has had to trust that her husband and her can maintain payments to pay-off the water tank over the long run whilst taking care of a large family.

However, with all this being said there is no doubt that this one solar business, established on a innovative for-profit business model, means a lot to these three women and has had an overall positive impact on their livelihoods. Now revisiting my initial question I have more confidence in knowing that despite the challenges that exist in social business, for-profit businesses can really do social good.

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