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What one solar business means to three Kenyan women

Yeoh

After finishing his Oxford MBA, Energy, Environment & Resources OBN Chair, Neil Yeoh, took a trip to Kenya where he spent time with a for-profit social venture, M-KOPA Solar.

Co-Founded by Skoll Scholar, Jesse Moore and London Business School graduate, Nick Hughes in 2009 with Oxford Saïd alumnus, Chad Larson joining in 2010, M-KOPA has gone from strength to strength; winning awards and rising to be one of the leading solar-power providers in East Africa. 

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?NYeoh_M-Kopa_Blog_Pic1To help answer this question, I travelled east from Nairobi to Machakos, Kenya with M-KOPA Solar – the leading ‘pay-as-you-go’ energy provider to off grid homes. 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

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But firstly, what are customers buying from M-KOPA? M-KOPA customers make a deposit of $30 followed by 365 daily payments of $0.50, paid using their mobile money. The solar home system comes with three lights, mobile phone-charging and a solar powered radio. Customers who complete their payment plans on time can acquire additional lights, solar TVs, energy-efficient cooking stoves, internet-enabled smartphones and water storage tanks.

Christine the shop-owner

NYeoh_M-Kopa_Blog_ChristineChristine is a proud roadside shop-owner selling fruit and vegetables, among other products. She is a born businesswoman with a personality that could overflow a room. After hearing about M-KOPA over the radio, she waited eagerly and waved down an M-KOPA vehicle passing the area in order to buy one.

Before buying 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.   The kerosene lamps, which have now gathered dust in the corner of her store, have been replaced by M-KOPA. 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, as well as 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.

Eunice the side-hustler

NYeoh_M-Kopa_Blog_EuniceEunice 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 travelling 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 home system gives her family the simple luxury of a common lit area where they eat, talk and laugh together. It also gives her children the confidence to go to the bathroom alone.

Despite the fact that Eunice does not have a stable income, she is committed to make her daily payments to keep the lights on in her home.  Far from ideal, this highlights the challenge M-KOPA faces as a social business managing the tension between profits and impact.

Jane the home-keeper

Jane is a wife and mother of four children. Her family lives 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.NYeoh_M-Kopa_Blog_Jane

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 terrain. 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 or over the weekends when her children can help. She can rest her back, 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 when they are short of water, which she does regularly. She credits M-KOPA’s payment system for 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 set 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 family can maintain payments to pay-off the water tank over the long run, whilst taking care of a large family.

However,  there is no doubt that this one solar business, established on an innovative for-profit business model, means a lot to these three women and has had a positive impact on their livelihoods overall. 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.

 

Follow Neil: @neil_yeoh

Read Neil’s Skoll World Forum session blog: Post-Paris Global Sustainability: how do we get there