It wasn’t until I talked to Mango Solar that I realized how long it has been. It feels like just a few years ago that the company was in the news for helping farmers in remote rural Africa stay connected using feature phones. Turns out that was nearly 9 years ago, and as it also turns out, feature phones are not cutting it anymore. For everyone like me living in a developed country, be that in Europe, North America, or Australia, it could be a bit hard to imagine what life is like in a remote rural African village. So here is an interesting example given to us — the example of a person on an errand for groceries: They walk for miles, leave their feature phone (or in some still somewhat rare cases smartphone) at a kiosk to be charged while they go through the market, and then they pick up their phone and walk back home.
Most people actually don’t even realize that large urbanized cities in countries like Kenya and Nigeria are not that far away from the modern world — it’s everything that is outside of those cities that is lagging behind. So, how do you lift everyone else up to the same standard of living as their city neighbors enjoy?
Well, according to the German/Kenyan-based startup Mango Solar, its all about understanding the problem better and truly catering towards the situation over there. What they have come up with is rather ingenious and consists of a few different steps. The plan the company has laid out has already awarded them with prizes from a bunch of different startup competitions, and they are starting to roll out their solution in the field. Currently, the steps of their plan are taking place a bit out of order because of the pandemic, but in the end, nothing changes and things are only going to improve.
The first phase of their plan originally involved building high-quality affordable devices — namely, what the company calls the Mango Combo Bundle that consists of a large portable battery that can be used as a lamp, an additional lamp that you can connect to the battery, a chargeable speaker with aux, radio, and Bluetooth functionality, and then last but not least a solar panel that can power it all. It’s an expandable and pretty well thought-through system, as you can add another lamp to each lamp to form a chain of them.
The smart part is making it affordable, but the ingenious part is making it smart. By smart we mean this system can be paid for in installments, making it affordable for even some of the poorest people out there.
The entire first phase of the business model revolves around the company’s cloud-based “Pay-As-You-Go” ecosystem. When choosing to purchase it in installments, the device is pre-programmed by a local distributor to lock up and stop functioning if the person stops paying their bills. The device will again start functioning when the bills are paid. Once the device is paid for in full, it remains unlocked forever.
Digitalization for End Users
In addition to electrification, Mango Solar also plans to offer digitalization. For end users, that means smartphones which can also be paid for in installments. They also lock up if the bills are not paid. Now, to us it might be unimaginable, but the cheapest smartphone offerings could go as low as $60, and better and more expensive smartphones and tablets will also be offered at various price points.
Together with these devices there will also be a lot of useful software bundles that Mango Solar has arranged for via partnerships with other organizations. This includes things like learning courses ranging from elementary school to the university bachelor level. It also includes things like teacher/parental controls. Interestingly, because it turns out that even in schools in African villages, if the kids have a smartphone or a tablet, making sure they don’t play Angry Birds during the lesson is no longer just a first-world problem.
The important part is that the software platform is in place, which the company will open up to partners in sectors like education, agriculture, and health. These partners can then have their apps pre-installed on the smartphone.
2 1: Digitalization for Distributors
So, the first phase actually ran into some delays due to the coronavirus. Because of that, the second phase is now ahead of the first and is already undergoing trials. This phase is all about digitalization and understanding the problems local distributors on the ground are facing. Those problems are logistics and decentralized information. The people trying to sell items don’t always know what they have in their warehouses, nor do they know what people are lacking and where. There might be demand in an area but no supply, or vise versa, a lot of people in an area might have already bought specific products and a distributor doesn’t know that he shouldn’t waste his time there. Alternatively, with this information, he could instead offer the next upgrade appliance, like a fridge or even a TV.
The centralized system Mango Solar is developing will keep track of who bought what and where. If a certain item sells well in a certain area, that is useful information. If a house has already bought all of the basics, then you know that you don’t have to waste your time there. It may sound rather simple, but it hasn’t really been done.
When You Put It All Together
The solution Mango Solar offers should help under-developed areas catch up to the modern world more rapidly and contribute to the Sustainable Development Goals of the UN. This ecosystem empowers local distributors to sell items in installments, and that also includes products not made by Mango Solar. They are planning to partner with a wide range of manufacturers so that local distributors can also sell items like clean cookstoves, because if the installments aren’t paid, it all stops functioning. Clean cooking is actually a pretty important problem in that part of the world, but that is a whole different subject. The system might not be 100% foolproof in the odd case if a person just takes off from where they live, but the risk to the local distributor’s bottom line is now significantly lowered, so they can afford to take more risks and also gain a greater profit. In fact, paired with the good information provided by the centralized sales database, everyone will benefit. This really could supercharge business and development in the poorest and most remote areas of the developing world.
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