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Starting a new venture anywhere can be a daunting task, but factor in the tough environment of rural Africa, and an idea that’s as ambitious as it is technically difficult, and you have got a job on your hands. Undaunted, SOLARKIOSK has set out to deliver easy-to-install solar electricity and light-providing hubs that could help those in off-grid areas to develop their own businesses. The company is guided by the fact that those regions where electricity sources aren’t abundant are what could be considered a no man’s land – even more so when the sun sets and complete darkness descends. In actuality 1.5 billion people around the world spend their lives in such areas, where they have to walk for days to charge their phone, find refrigerated food or medicine, or resort to dangerous kerosene lamps for illumination. These communities have little opportunity to socialize, never mind set up a business.
SOLARKIOSK was first covered back in August 2012, when it had just set up the first of its booths in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. By the end of 2012 it had established a network of seven kiosks in the region and is hoping to add more throughout 2013. Sasha Kolopic, SOLARKIOSK’s Marketing Manager, says this year’s project to expand into Nairobi is already getting off the ground. “We have established our Kenyan subsidiary and our pilot project is currently under way, where we will implement five kiosks, starting [in April].”
Keeping the project going and finding the right location for each kiosk takes a lot of research, and a lot of time on the ground talking to locals. “We have invested a lot of time and effort into really understanding the needs of people who live in off-grid areas,” Sasha explains. As well as installing the booths, SOLARKIOSK also ensures that locals are trained in the maintenance and operation of solar products, as well as how to run a sustainable business. This enables them to autonomously run the kiosks without the help of the company once they’re established.
This hard work and commitment to each community is one of the central pillars of the startup’s ideology: “Such dedication is absolutely imperative in order to enable development and entrepreneurship in rural, off-grid areas by bringing clean solar energy, solar and consumer products, and various services to regions which have a lot of sun, but very little development or energy.” By paying attention to the immediate community’s needs SOLARKIOSK can adapt each of its individual hubs to cater for different environments. Locations with many school-age children can offer internet access to aid learning, while others can use the solar energy to power televisions and music players – acting as much needed social meeting places.
Even the design of the kiosks are adapted for each community. Since SOLARKIOSK’s founders include members of GRAFT Lab – which has led numerous architecture projects around the world – it is well placed to configure its buildings to the local terrain and climate. Each kiosk comes as a flatpack that can be transported easily – even on the back of a donkey if necessary. Each design also incorporates materials such as bamboo, wood, adobe, stone, metal or recycled goods sourced from the local area. Again, the individual build always takes into account its location and the needs of the end user. Sasha says: “We are continuously learning how we can adapt each individual Solarkiosk to best serve the needs of the specific community it is in.”
But what drives the team? One motivation is the ever-changing nature of the business, and the development of its ideas, according to Sasha. “Regardless of which stage the project is in, there is always room for continuous improvement.” Another is the positive state of the sustainable energy industry at the present time. Although mainstream Western society is only slowly coming to adapt to green technologies for its energy, the developing world is one where the rapid changes can be implemented with relative ease and where its effect is immediately recognizable for the communities that benefit. “Witnessing the impact that sustainable energy alternatives have on the development and evolution of an off-grid community has been incredibly motivating for us,” Sasha added.
With its Kenyan and Ethiopian subsidiaries now in place and the network of SOLARKIOSKs quickly expanding, the startup is hoping that these initial steps will provide the learning curve necessary when it come time to implement a large-scale rollout in the near future. The company is a great example of how – with a lot of work and determination – even the grandest ideas can become a reality, making a positive change even in the forgotten corners of the world.