Winning numbers: Customers enter a numerical code to access power for lights and a mobile phone charger.
Each week, users buy a scratch card for about $1 from a local vendor. It gives them a number that they text to Eight19 for verification. The company sends them a verification code that they enter into a keypad on the battery pack. The code electronically unlocks the device for a week, allowing the battery to supply power to the LEDs or to a phone charger.
Several other companies, including major telecoms, are trying variants on this pay-as-you-go approach. One thing that sets Eight19 apart is that after a customer has covered the cost of the device—typically in about 18 months—he or she can trade up for a bigger one with a larger solar panel, a bigger battery, and more lights, and the capacity to power a small radio. In this way, using only the money they would have been spending on kerosene or for renting phone chargers, they can gradually get to the point where they have enough power for, say, a refrigerator, or a money-making appliance such as a sewing machine, says Simon Bransfield-Garth, CEO of Eight19.
Eight19 has tested the system with several hundred customers, and it is starting a project to sell 4,000 systems in cooperation with the NGO Solar Aid, which will help with distribution.
But Eight19 is a relatively small player so far. More established companies such as D.light have sold over one million solar lighting systems. Bransfield-Garth sees a lot of room for growth. “The poorest people are paying disproportionately high prices for their needs,” he says. “Solar power works well in this market.”