We’ve all heard about the solar classroom – but what are the realities of solar power, from a businessman’s perspective? Is it really the answer to affordable and sustainable energy – or are there hidden costs involved? The eLearning Africa News Team’s Kwesi Brako caught up with Edward Ntumwa to find out.
So for those who don’t know, can you tell us a little bit about the work that you and your company have been doing in Uganda?
EN: We bring power at scale to off-grid customers in rural emerging markets, providing basic needs that are regarded as routine in more developed countries.
We develop and manufacture solar power technology that is transforming the opportunity in off-grid emerging markets, enabling users to benefit from clean renewable energy and simultaneously halve their energy spend.
In Uganda, we have been distributing these technologies to the people that need them the most. We have worked with our distributor in country, who through scratch card agents and installers has made sure that this service is readily accessible by the Ugandans who stand to benefit from it the most.
How do you think your work has improved the lives of Ugandans?
EN: Our work has helped students extend their study hours by on average two hours per evening. This has helped them study better and improve their grades. The teachers are also in a better position to prepare for their lesson and use the daytime to concentrate on the actual teaching. We have seen head teachers advocating for our technology to be used in every school.
With our clean lighting, the children, mothers and fathers benefit from clean air in their homes. This has contributed to the reduction of chances of catching respiratory diseases.
We have also come across customers, especially students who say that now their eyes do not have to itch and catch all those other eye diseases as they study. Under the kerosene lamp, this was a sure possibility and a dangerous one.
As you know several of our houses in rural Uganda are grass thatched and very susceptible to burning. With our technology, this is mitigated.
Do you know what kind of people are benefiting from your work?
EN: The people that have benefited from our product are based in rural areas where there is no access to grid electricity. The end-customer is typically a rural famer earning US$2-3 per day who would struggle to afford the initial cost of a typical $70 solar home system. We have seen benefit from parents and children, men and women of all ages. As part of the service model, we ensure that our customers can easily access their local scratchcard seller to purchase weekly credit.
What kinds of difficulties are these people facing, and are there ways that your current product(s), or any in the future, can make their lives less difficult?
EN: Well, the difficulties vary widely, but include:
The need for clean, safe, bright and ‘permanent’ (as opposed to intermittent) light. This has been a challenge especially to children of school-going ages, business people who want to work for longer hours and farmers who need to attend either to their birds or animals in the night.
The need to spend less on lighting and phone charging. Many customers have had to travel long distances to buy the kerosene and charge their phones.
We have also noted that there is a great need and desire to access information. We are developing larger systems and products that will enable rural families to access information within the context of their rural environment; bringing the benefits often associated with urban life to rural communities. As one of our customers said, “Today I live in the city”.
Finally, can you share any information at all about any future plans or developments that might be taking shape in Uganda?
EN: There is a huge demand for solar power across rural parts of Uganda. We will continue to expand our activities in Uganda and Sub-Saharan Africa and impact the lives of thousands of off-grid households. We see the transformational impact of lighting and the aspirations of our customers to access the knowledge economy. As consumers rise up the “Energy Escalator” of technology access, so they benefit from a virtuous circle of reduced spend against less efficient alternatives, increased earning potential and access to knowledge.
Reliable power combined with relevant devices and useful media delivered through an affordable pay-as-you-go model can enable rural Africans to access the knowledge economy. We believe that eLearning has the potential to play a powerful role in accelerating Africa’s economic development. The combination of technology, media and content can break down the barriers to access, enabling individuals to not only receive information but also to share, discuss and create content, developing community-based learning.
With a large proportion of our customers being small-scale farmers, we are particularly excited by the potential for solar combined with useful content to increase agricultural yields, helping farmers to move up the value chain to deliver higher value products.
We would like to thank Mr. Edward Ntumwa of Azuri Technologies Ltd. for his time and cooperation on this interview. We are anxiously looking forward to any future endeavours and developments, which will greatly benefit not just Uganda, but all of Africa. Learn more at eLearning Africa 2014 in “The solar classroom: alternative energy for learning“.