Kenya’s national energy grid reaches less than 20 percent of the country’s population, leaving millions of people in remote locations without access to energy in Africa. Because of this, many turn to alternatives sources of energy that are much more expensive and harmful to the environment, such as kerosene and diesel.
Developers have strived to solve this problem with solar micro-grid technology. However, in remote areas, it is difficult to keep a system working reliably and keep customers paying regularly. Recognizing Kenya’s utilization of mobile technology, the founders of SteamaCo have created technology that eliminates the necessity for constant outside intervention. SteamaCo’s development allows remote-management capabilities of monitoring, control, and payments for micro-grid owners via mobile technology.
This technology allows micro-grid operators to monitor grid performance via SMS updates on their cell phones and allows customers to manage their payments over mobile payment plans. Over 1,000 households and businesses currently depend on this technology, which is used at 25 sites in East Africa. The company’s software, Steama, facilitates 100 mobile payments and 4,000 messages regarding data per day.
While the company initially focused on the production and installation of renewable energy systems, it strayed to micro-grids in order to increase electricity access on a broader scale. Micro-grid owners buy the hardware and then SteamaCo licenses them the software on a monthly basis.
The company’s hardware switches on and off services remotely, while the operators can watch and control the system remotely in real-time using the cloud software. Steama processes monitoring information and payment notifications from mobile-money providers, updating the hardware accordingly when payments are made.
The software allows operators to view their micro-grids and extract data from the Steama dashboard, which provides them several options to observe and analyze system performance. Steama sends data regarding individual power usage, overall system performance and individual payments. It can also be programmed to send custom alerts. SteamaCo sends data via SMS messages because it is known to be one of the most reliable forms of communication off the grid.
These features allow micro-grids to function much more efficiently. The technology allows micro-grid owners to troubleshoot problems before they grow too serious, therefore saving companies time and money. It also helps them better analyze system capacity to see how they can expand the services they provide.
The technology provides consumers a cheap and reliable energy alternative to diesel, kerosene, and other popular systems. While in-home solar energy platforms are available to provide lighting and charge mobile phones in many locations, it is too expensive for most individual users to manage these off-grid systems. SteamaCo provides flexibility for customers who can prepay using mobile money programs in small amounts. The software also provides free balance checks and reminders when credit is low, all via SMS.
Payment depends on the micro-grid owner, but most customers pay a connection fee of approximately 10 U.S. dollars and then pay between two to four U.S. dollars per kWh used. By enabling customers to provide prepayments for small increments of power using mobile money, SteamaCo is opening up many possibilities for poor people in remote locations.
Along with increasing household convenience, increased access to energy in Africa also opens up many new business opportunities in remote areas. The technology allows high-power equipment to be used, including music systems, televisions, irons, and hair-dryers. The increased access to power has enabled local entrepreneurs to open up hair salons, electrical repair shops, and night clubs, all boosting the economy.
Not only does this technology bring more reliable energy to current users in Africa, but this reliability also provides a solution to a large issue seen by many potential investors in micro-grid technology. Because of this, Ashden International awarded SteamCo the Ashden International Gold and Business Innovation Awards for the company’s success in building technology that helps investment in micro-grids, therefore expanding the potential reach of electricity access significantly.
“SteamaCo’s innovative product is helping to take energy access in off-grid rural areas to the next level,” the Ashden judging panel stated. “By developing hardware and cloud-based software to remotely monitor energy use and payments, it has overcome one of the key barriers to making micro-grids investable.”
In its two years of installing these systems, SteamaCo has partnered with several micro-grid investors to increase grid efficiency. The company designed the hardware to be used with various types of technology, so several SteamaCo management systems are used in many off-grid areas. The company is looking to expand its opportunities in other remote areas to increase its reach and impact.
– Arin Kerstein