We could all do with a few reasons to be cheerful right now, so today we’re sharing some incredible inventions that are helping to solve global challenges – and that years ago wouldn’t have been possible.

In sub-Saharan Africa, more than 620 million people – about two-thirds of the population there – lack access to an electricity grid. Their primary source of energy is kerosene, a fuel whose noxious smoke irritates the eyes and throat and pollutes the atmosphere with CO2. It’s expensive, too.

According to Bloomberg, an average off-grid household in Kenya spends about $164 a year on kerosene. That’s a sizeable chunk of money when the average income is less than $2 a day. The question, then, is how to provide off-grid African households with access to a clean and affordable source of energy. 

Virgin Unite, Sustainability, MKOPA

Virgin Unite, Sustainability, MKOPA

Alas, as the Economist noted, extending grids across the continent remains costly and unrealistic. “On current trends it would take until 2080 to link all Africans to the grid”, it reported. Yet if the idea that off-grid systems could fill the gap once seemed “preposterous”, the Economist added, the industry has evolved fast, fuelled by three significant developments: an 80 per cent drop in the cost of solar panels since 2010; the “pay-as-you-go” business model; and the development of devices that use less electricity – and light-emitting diode (LED) bulbs, in particular.

M-KOPA leases pay-as-you-go solar-power systems, via a financing model that makes them affordable for rural African households

Cleverly harnessing all three developments into one potential solution is a company called M-KOPA Solar. It combines two relatively new technologies – mobile phones and micropayment – to provide access to a third one that scarcely existed a few years ago: off-grid solar energy. In particular, M-KOPA leases pay-as-you-go solar-power systems, via a financing model that makes them affordable for rural African households. (“Kopa” means “to borrow” in Swahili.)

Virgin Unite, Sustainability, MKOPA

Virgin Unite, Sustainability, MKOPA

Each basic system costs $200, and includes an 8W solar panel, three LED bulbs, an LED flashlight, a rechargeable radio, a battery, a phone charger, and a SIM card that communicates with the company’s Nairobi headquarters. Customers buy a system with an initial deposit of $35, then make 365 daily payments of almost $0.5 (less than their daily spend on kerosene).

When a customer makes a payment with their mobile phone, a signal from the SIM card activates the solar-powered battery. After completing those daily payments, the customer owns the solar-power system outright. Those with good payment history can upgrade their repayment plan, allowing them to buy additional LED lights, energy-efficient stoves, smartphones, and solar TV sets.

Consider the social, economic and environmental benefits of this solution. The company says 97 per cent of customers report reduced energy costs. In fact, M-KOPA reckons that by switching to its system, customers save about $750 over the first four years – or $248 million in total – based on an average of 125 hours of lighting per household per month. The company has also created 2,500 jobs in east Africa.

Virgin Unite, Sustainability, MKOPA

Virgin Unite, Sustainability, MKOPA

What’s more, customers are using a clean energy source, instead of kerosene lamps – which is better for their health and the environment. Indeed, one study that M-KOPA did found that by replacing 160,000 litres of kerosene daily, its solution had reduced carbon emissions by 260,000 tonnes since its introduction in early 2012. The company also claimed 92 per cent of its customers reported an improvement in their health and their children's ability to study following the removal of kerosene lamps.

Little wonder that M-KOPA is growing fast. In fact, it signs up 500 new households in East Africa to solar power every day, and its aim is to reach one million homes by the end of 2017. As solutions go, it’s not just an exciting one in its own right, but also an excellent example of what can be achieved when new technologies are cleverly harnessed.

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This innovation is part of Sustainia100 – a guide to 100 leading sustainability solutions from around the world. The guide is produced annually by Sustainia, working with public and private organizations to create a more sustainable tomorrow by building on the solutions available today. This year’s Sustainia100 study is freely available at www.sustainia.me Discover more @sustainia and #100solutions