Powering entrepreneurs to hack the poverty line
Electricity can dramatically improve the living conditions of billions of people on the planet. If you want to learn more about that, check out my previous post! However, simply connecting a community to an electricity grid is never enough.
A few years ago, the UN issued a report reviewing 17 energy access projects across Asia and the Pacific. One of the key findings was that “energy services per se do not reduce poverty. Instead, they transform people from being ‘poor without energy access’ to ‘poor with energy access.’ ” As far back as the year 2000 (17 years ago — damn, time flies), Killian Reiche et al. already insisted on the importance of “bundling energy services with other rural services” so as to “boost living standards far in excess of the individual impacts of each service”.
The success of electrification programs in developing countries does not only rely on supplying affordable electricity to a community. It mainly relies on inventing new models that will allow people living at the Bottom of the Pyramid to access modern services, eliminating the poverty penalties that alienate them.
This challenge is what Power:On is all about. This is why we decided that the connection to our grid would be free for everyone: we wanted to make the transition from traditional and harmful fuels (candles, batteries, kerosene lamps) as easy and painless as possible. This is also why we sell prepaid contracts, so people can easily compare what they previously spent and what they would pay for electricity from our grid. Finally, we even have a microcredit program so even the poorest of the poor can access high-quality and efficient lightbulbs for a cheaper upfront cost than the low-quality, inefficient light bulbs found in rural Benin.
But what about other essential services? Lighting is the first thing to address, but it’s not enough. That’s why we don’t sell solar kits, but instead build real, powerful electric grids.
As an illustration, I would like to share another TED talk from the late Hans Rosling (as you may have guessed, I was a big fan. I am going to miss him :😥). This one is called “The magic washing machine”.
But a big question remains: how can families living below the poverty line (i.e., living on less than $2/day) access washing machines once they have access to electricity? They obviously will not be able to buy their own: the “wash line” is set at $40/day!
My solution would be to make a few machines available within the community. I can’t claim credit for this being an original idea: for us, it’s just called a laundromat.
But the thing is, I’ve never actually seen a laundromat in rural Africa. Maybe I didn’t look hard enough (tell me in the comments if you know of one), but even in Natitingou (the big city where Louise and Jean are from), where electricity has been available for decades, women and children wash their clothes by hand.
The main reasons for the lack of laundromats are that this kind of enterprise requires capital (enough to buy a few machines) and some know-how (to maintain and repair the machines when they break down). But it also requires the conviction that poor people are interested in this kind of service.
If you are unsure, just remember the wise words of Hans Rosling: “The people vote for the washing machines”! And the magic is actually happening: last year in Igbérè, 40 kilometers away from the electric grid, where electricity had only been available for a few weeks, a local entrepreneur came up with this exact idea. I didn’t have anything to do with it, but I was so proud. Meet Colas.
Colas started small. Last year, he built a small shop where he would wash motorbikes. It has been a huge success! Bikes tend to get very dusty on the local roads, and it turns out that the people of Benin are exactly like everybody else: they like to take care of their bikes and have them look nice and shiny :)
Today Colas is still looking for a microfinancing solution that will lend him the money to open his laundromat. It would be a great business: I am sure there would be plenty of customers eager to save a fair load of time and effort! It really is a no-brainer. I hope he will get the funding, and we will do what we can to help, because entrepreneurs like Colas are Africa’s most important resource. They find ways to hack the poverty line to the benefit of entire communities.
All it takes is a little imagination and entrepreneurial spirit. This is how Power:On will make a difference in rural Africa.
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