Thinking outside the (service) box…

In 2012/13, Henri Nyakarundi won an empowering people. Award with his innovation the “Mobile Solar Kiosk ” (MSK). At the time, the MSK primarily offered a mobile charging point, which could be attached to bicycles and mopeds. The micro solution was used to quickly charge cell phones for people on the go, using renewable energy technology. Four years on, Henri has taken his solution to the next level and has founded the Rwandan-based company, African Renewable Energy Distributor (ARED). What started out as a one-stop kiosk, has taken a huge developmental leap providing even more people at the base of the pyramid with essential services and, more importantly, access to vital information.

As a member of the empowering people. Network, we are in close contact with Henri and have accompanied his amazing progress. Here’s a small insight into what’s been happening with him and his product over the last couple of years.

Henri, you founded the African Renewable Energy Distributor (ARED) a while back. What does this company focus on?

We won the empowering people. Award with the Mobile Solar Kiosk, which was our starting point. However, as a company we now develop hardware for the kiosk as well as provide services from it. Before the business was all about charging, we still provide that service but we also make other services available such as Wi-Fi internet, intranet and each kiosk also has a service which stores content. What I mean by this is that although more and more people have smart phones in Africa, they don’t have much money to use the internet. Not having ready access to the internet means that they cannot get important information. We allow organizations like NGOs or health organizations to store content on our built-in intranet server in our kiosks and then people can access it via our wifi network. This is especially important when it comes to health bulletins or educational content or even news. When one person has the information, it can bring tremendous value for low income people in rural and semi-urban areas.

The latest solar kiosk with wifi, audio system and 150 watt solar system

However, it isn’t as straightforward as I’ve just mentioned: it is also important to incentivize users to consume this important content. Most people just want to watch entertainment so an incentive scheme is vital. We do this by giving people credit. They can win air time to watch what they want if they view this more valuable content.

Of course, not everyone has a smart phone, so we also provide audio messages using a built-in speaker system.

The kiosks are run as micro businesses with individual franchisers. Do you have a hand over their operations?

Yes, because we want to maintain quality. We’ve actually also developed a new M-Shiriki software and three mobile apps. The first one is for the kiosk operator so they can provide more virtual top up services such as airtime, mobile money …. This helps to increase his or her revenue.

There is a built-in credit system on the app to allow the micro franchisee to borrow services to resale to the consumer. This is important as they need to pre-buy services and then re-sell to them. Essentially we give them interest-free credit and they have to pay it back within 48 hours.

The second application allow any user to access our intranet system through a user interface. It is similar to the content management system in planes: when you want to watch a movie or a show on the plane, you can do so by using a touch screen user interface. On our system you use a smart phone or tablet to access the content.

We have also developed a third app which helps us monitor staff performance. This is an important feature for us so we can see how sales are, if the kiosk is being kept clean, if the operators are wearing their uniform, and so on. If we see that some staff aren’t performing, we can visit them and if necessary, replace the micro-franchiser.
The app also offers a training component and we’ve found that it helps people stay focused on their work.

What are your plans for ARED in the future?

We currently have a team of seven people working on the ground and have launched a crowdfunding campaign so that we can expand. The recognition and publicity we achieved during the empowering people. Award helped to put us on the map with large organizations such as Greentec, who have also supported us. The prize also enabled us to learn about the market. Back then we only had five kiosks now we have 30 kiosks.

What are you currently working on?

Well, if our crowdfunding model is successful, there’ll be a lot to work on. At the moment we are working on a new pilot scheme and are ready to scale up and develop a business model for expansion.

We would like to develop a franchise business model that will provide technical support to the kiosks and we are aiming to expand to 20 countries in the next 10 years. We want to shift our focus to the digital market as hardly anyone has access to digital but it is an opportunity to tap into this market. We aim to develop the WiFi market in Africa and we want to bring digital connectivity solutions. By doing this, we can analyze data, for example, what contents is being accessed from which country and for how long. This is of particular value to large corporations such as Telekom or NGOs, which want to target urban areas. Their need is to build their brand by adapting their portfolio to the public and their preferences – all information that has been gathered by collecting the data on the services we provide. We’ve actually been given access to the Microsoft cloud system and their technical support if we encounter any issues.

Our intranet system is free to access for the user, the way we plan to monetize on the platform is through advert and survey. Corporations, NGOs, or the government pay us to either distribute certain content, use the service to build their brand through advertising or they are interested in collecting specific types of data. It is a different model of content delivery specifically developed for the people at the base of the pyramid.

Where does your solution have the most social impact?

The solar kiosk is a business in a box and especially empowers women and disabled people. We aim for it to mostly impact the most vulnerable groups. Our customers are the micro-franchisers who focus on semi-urban and rural areas or even places such as health centers or wherever there is traffic and the solution can have a bigger impact, i.e. reach as many people as possible. We cater for people the BoP, which make up around 70% of the population. Our aim, of course, is to create economic as well as social impact by offering income-generating services which allows people to practice business.

ARED management team: Henri Nyakarundi (right) Tubemaso Jonas, technician (center) Nasser Kanesa, business development (left)

What have been the greatest challenges you have encountered a social entrepreneur over the last few years?

One of our biggest issues is that there are a limited number of tech companies in Africa so we had to get these skills from abroad, for example, Germany.

Finding money to develop this technology was a challenge as well because grant programs for product development are non-existent in Africa so we have to look for funding overseas such as Europe or the USA. This is extremely challenging. Hiring skill sets on the ground isn’t easy either and raising funds to expand is what has led us to recently start the crowdfunding campaign with a view to expanding to 40-50 kiosks in Rwanda and Uganda within the next few months. This is an exciting phase for us but a phase where we are dependent on funding. We hope people can believe in us and contribute so that we can sustainably help others with all the services we can provide in the kiosks.

If you’d like to join other crowdfunders and help the project expand, you can contribute here.