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7 renewable energy startups trying to revolutionise the way Africa keeps its lights on

Africa has a serious energy problem. This is ironic considering the abundance of natural resources available, from coal in South Africa to oil in Nigeria. It just so happens that both of these powerful economies rely on limited, environmentally-unfriendly resources, struggling to keep up with economic growth. This might start to change.

Earlier this year, billionaire futurist Elon Musk geared the world’s attention on the real potential of renewable energy with the introduction of the Tesla Powerwall — the battery set to revolutionise the way people use electricity grids around the globe.

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Musk believes that the Powerwall could not only become the key to solve climate change in the long-term, but also a game-changer for remote areas from islands in the Pacific to villages in Africa and the Middle East.

The Tesla founder explained at the Powerwall’s debut earlier this year:

What we’ll see is something very similar to what happened with cellphones versus landlines where cellphones actually leapfrogged landline and there wasn’t a need to put landlines in a lot of countries or in remote locations. I think it’s going to be incredibly helpful to people who don’t have electricity today.

While everyone waits to see the US conglomerate’s real impact, there’s already a crop of savvy entrepreneurs from Africa changing the way people keep the lights on with innovative, renewable energy solutions.

Could some of these African startups beat Elon Musk to the chase?

Off Grid Electric

The Tanzanian-based solar-as-a-service company has made a lot of waves in 2014. Using a pre-paid solar power system, Off Grid Electric hopes to reach 200 000 homes by the end of this year. Each household takes advantage of a low-cost, environmentally-friendly alternative to handle their lighting, cooking and mobile phone charging needs.

A US$7-million investment round in March last year was quickly followed up by another US$16-million in August. More recently, it received a US$4.5-million loan from IFC Cleantech Innovation Facility together with a US$2.5-million loan from Cordiant Capital of Montreal in Canada.

A large portion of the company’s investments comes from US-listed SolarCity, which Elon Musk is also a co-founder of. Last reported, it has distributed 35 000 solar home systems in East Africa.

M-Kopa Solar

Based in neighbouring Kenya, M-Kopa seems like it is in a race with Off Grid Electric. So far, the Safaricom-backed venture is leading with 200 000 homes connected with solar systems. Relying on a patented mobile payments system, it introduces a pay-as-you-go business model. It takes about a year’s worth of regular payments for the customer to attain full ownership and thus access to free solar electricity.

The award-winning company’s latest product is the M-Kopa III which has an eight-watt solar panel, two LED lights, a USB phone charger, and solar-powered radio.

Jesse Moore, co-founder of M-Kopa Solar, said in a recent blog post: “It took us two years to connect our first 100 000 homes and just eight months to connect our second 100 000 homes.” After the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation-backed company raised US$20-million in 2014, it’s gunning for one million homes across East Africa by the end of 2017.

Shakti Energy

Shakti Energy is a South African company that offers LED powered lights which are said to provide up to 20 hours of light. It also distributes the Nuru PowerCycle which uses human pedal power to recharge Nuru lights and mobile phones.

“We are aiming to create energy entrepreneurs in the townships and rural areas across South Africa, who will be able to earn a sustainable income as well as provide a solution to a pressing social problem,” the company writes on its crowdfunding campaign.

Breaking its R10 000 funding goal on Thundafund last year, Shakti Energy raised a total of R20 000.

Freedom Won

Better known for its advances in electric vehicle technology, the South African company seems inspired by Tesla. Its FreedomCOR wall-mounted battery system is a direct competitor of the Powerwall. The battery uses lithium-ion cells which can help household and businesses get off-the-grid using solar power or as a backup in case of power outages.

According to MyBroadband, Freedom Won has received an undisclosed amount of funding from Wesbank in Botswana and Sasfin SA. The batteries are said to be available in July this year.

African Renewable Energy Distributor

Mobile phones are a big deal in most parts of Africa. African Renewable Energy Distributor‘s (ARED) Mobile Solar Kiosk wants to be Rwanda and Burundi’s “one-stop shop” for mobile users. The startup’s off-grid kiosk offers a range of mobile phone services including charging, mobile money transfers, airtime sales and plans on including Wi-Fi distribution.

ARED hopes to have around 400 of these Mobile Solar Kiosks on the ground, offering a license fee deal to partners that would like to expand on its franchise model.

Ugesi Gold

With a keen focus on poor or rural communities, the South African company introduces a unique solar battery charging station. Instead of households connecting to the grid, off-grid stations or SolarTurtles are used to charge battery packs which are then carried home.

Ugesi Gold gives an apt description on its website, using the analogy of a water well: “The SolarTurtle serves as the source of electricity (well), which the local community visits with batteries (buckets) for recharging.”

The company’s energy distribution packs are designed to be owned and operated by women from off-grid communities. This way it also helps create entrepreneurs. In 2014, the SolarTurtle won the Climate Solver award from the WWF.


German company Mobisol offers customers in Africa solar home systems using a mobile phone payment plan. As mentioned on its website, the solar home systems provide enough electricity to power bright LED lights, radios, mobile phones and a variety of household and consumer appliances. Though it also has larger systems on offer for small businesses.

After recently partnering up with MTN, the company introduced a 600Wp Solar School System to power eight schools in rural Rwanda. So far, Mobisol is said to have installed over 15 000 solar home systems in Rwanda as well as Tanzania.

Image by Eric Wüstenhagen via Flickr

Update: The article was updated to include Mobisol.

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