Around 1.5 billion people live disconnected from the power grid. Thomas Gottschalk wants to change that, using solar panel systems paid in instalments.
Technology Review: How did you get the idea to supply rural areas of Africa with electricity?
Thomas Gottschalk: After university, I travelled around the world for one and a half years with a solar-powered vehicle. I noticed what people were lacking, and also had time to build up personal networks. In 2010, my co-founder told me about the idea of combining two current revolutions: the solar revolution of the past decade, in the course of which the cost of photovoltaic systems dropped by 90 percent, and the mobile phone revolution. In developing countries, the landline is becoming redundant, while in sub-Saharan Africa, for instance, more than 80 percent of adults now own a cell phone.
TR: Why should electrification presuppose cellphone service? Isn’t it the other way around?
Gottschalk: No, mobile phones are in fact far more common in rural areas than a household power supply. The mobile network is extremely important to us for a number of reasons. Firstly, with Mobile Money, a payment system established in Africa that makes our business model possible in the first place, customers can pay off the solar systems over the course of three years in monthly instalments from 10 to 45 US dollars. Organizing that with cash would be too complicated, and there would be a greater risk of money vanishing along the way. Secondly, the controls of our solar systems also rely on mobile technology. So we can use remote maintenance to see what might have to be repaired or replaced. Without that possibility, the service we provide would be far too expensive.
TR: But how do you control payment behaviour with no employees on the ground?
Gottschalk: We can also switch off every system remotely. Without that extra leverage, the incentive to actually pay regularly might certainly be smaller in some cases.
TR: Mobisol claims to have installed one megawatt of power in total. What difference does that make for the whole of Africa? In Germany alone, nearly forty gigawatts worth of solar systems are in operation.
Gottschalk: One megawatt is measly by comparison, certainly. But the decisive factor is not performance, but the number of households. Take our LED lamps, for example: They need one or two watts instead of the 60 to 100 watts that a regular light bulb has. Thanks to these sorts of advances in efficiency, our systems can power an entire household with only 30 to 200 watts of maximum power. We have electrified 10,000 households already, and we are expecting to make a million by 2018. And in the long run, we hope to reach a few hundred million.
TR: What happens when these households get electricity?
Gottschalk: In the beginning, I thought we were mainly helping to reduce carbon emissions. But we soon discovered that there is this massive social impact as well. Children learn better with LED light than with kerosene lamps. And a third of our customers use their power supply to operate small business – selling cold drinks, charging mobile phones for neighbours, and so on. That’s an average turnover of 350 Euros per client per year. Multiply that with the one million households we are aiming for – well, you can see how this could become a serious economic factor.