A-R-E-D's Mobile Solar Kiosk Interview

The Rwandan Mobile Solar Kiosk (MSK) by ARED

 Henri Nyakarundi of ARED Investigatively Interviewed by !Africa!Think! Scitech

Mobile Solar Kiosk

If we recognize the truth in the saying that Technology is the engine of prosperity, then the scarcity or relative lack of the profligacy of Technological and Scientific innovations and inventiveness especially at the “grassroots” level on the African continent is and should be a source of serious concern to Africans and friends of Africa.

Here and there one does occasionally find a ray of hope if one looks hard enough. But we have to admit we are nowhere near the level we need to be at.

For some time now,  we at  !Africa!Think! have made it our business to look for and promote individuals or organizations involved in  scientific ,technological innovations and inventiveness as well as entrepreneurship on the African continent.  We try to look for technological innovations and inventiveness in overlooked places in the belief that it is through small incremental steps, especially at the “ grassroots” level that technology actually takes hold and flourishes till it permeates all of society. In short , we believe in the bottom up approach, rather than the top down one. However, we welcome all and any approaches to technology in Africa, it just that we believe that the "little" guy needs more help in accessing media outlets and gaining exposure and may in the long run have more impact on society than say a government supported mega project which in the long run may well turn out to be just another White Elephant type project.

Our continuing pursuit  and search in this direction of seeking out grassroots innovations and inventions has now taken us to East African and it would appear that  perhaps although not fast nor effulgent  enough for our liking the spirit of innovation is also alive and well in East Africa, especially perhaps in  Rwanda .

This is very encouraging as the news we are probably more used to hearing  about Africa and which we expect as if by reflex is one of war, famine, war, famine and even more war and famine.

However, we now  follow developments unfolding in Rwanda with regard to what is being called the Mobile Solar Kiosk (MSK). The MSK is a contraption  being developed and marketed by an organization know as African Renewable Energy Distributor (ARED).

The MSK and ARED  are  primarily the brainchild of Henri Nyakarundi.

And what , if we may inquire is the MSK ?

The MSK  is an innovative platform which makes use of Solar Cell Technology to offer low-cost mobile phone charging, as well as mobile phone, electronic airtime sales  as described on the website of the company founded by Henri to promote the product ( www.a-r-e-d.com ) .

In the near future, the MSK  may well be upgraded to also function as a mobile WIFI hotspot location.

Although the MSK  is not a new invention, nor is it even the only concept out there that uses solar technology , it can still be considered an intelligent adaptation of  existing technology to suit the needs of local communities in Burundi and perhaps the East African sub region when we consider its compact size, its mobility and simplicity. We believe it has good technological and entrepreneurship potentials worth publicizing and exploring .

 In the words of A-R-E-D, the MSK is an innovation that:

 “seeks to provide stable and reliable energy solutions to rural and urban areas in East Africa

www.a-r-e-d.com

The impact of the MSK on local communities could go well beyond the technological alone. A-R-E-D is determined to partner with and engage the local communities with regards to the MSK. It intends to create employment, small business ownership and franchising opportunities. This is what A-R-E-D has to say in its  own words:

“The Mobile Solar Kiosk presents a fantastic opportunity for those aspiring entrepreneurs looking to be their own boss, but cannot afford to open a brick and mortar shop.  …

……..ARED aims to expand rapidly in Rwanda and the East African Community, but still remains fully committed to franchisees. In addition to our simple business model, we offer our comprehensive trainings, full technical support, and a franchise agreement that benefits the franchisee, not just the owner. Interested in becoming a Master Franchisee for your country”

 

!AfricaThink! first became aware of Henri Nyakarundi and the Mobile Solar Kiosk  through an article by Michael Aboagye of Silicon Africa and the idea of further investigating the MSK concept took root in our mind. We wanted to know more about the MSK, its creator, ,  investigate how and where it is manufactured, gain an overview of  his thinking about the state of technological innovations in Africa in general . We  made contact with Henri  Nyakarundi of ARED and requested an interview. Below is the interview which was graciously granted to us by Henri. We also hope to conduct more interviews as more questions come to mind.

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The Interview

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1. Personal/Background :

!AfricathinkScitech!  :- Please tell us a little about yourself and your experiences growing up..Were you born in Rwanda? Was your early education in Africa?

Henri :-   I was born in Kenya, grew up in Burundi , my parents were refugees in Burundi from Rwanda. I did all my studies in Burundi at Ecole Francaise the Bujumbura till I was 19 then i moved to the states in Atlanta. 

 

2.Business and Financial :

!AfricathinkScitech!  :-  What has been the reaction to your Mobile Solar kiosk? Has the market response met your expectations and has it been as successful as you hoped? Do you now have a lot of Franchisees or is it not quite as successful as you had expected?

Henri: -: Well the reaction was great, we only been in business for  (about) a year (about 18 months only just to clarify). So just like any business we spend most of the time testing the kiosk, the business model , developing partnerships. So we still in early stage. We learned a lot on the ground such as franchise business model is new to people at the BOP. So we had to develop a training program. We also change the structure along the way. With high unemployment rate you always have success if you bring a platform that can help people generate income. The challenge is on the structure and cost. 

!AfricathinkScitech!  :-  What has been the most difficult challenges and obstacles (if any) you have faced in making a marketing success of this product?

 

Henri: - the challenge is on the business model, structure and cost of the business and also the partnership development with large companies such as telecoms and micro finance. When you bring a new platform on the ground people want to see proof of concept. But I would say the biggest challenge is the mentality of large company that you have to be a large company or be a foreign company to have a good product or concept. We still have this idea that doing business with SME is not worth it. That is why u do not see a lot of innovation on the continent because it is not well funded or supported yet but things are changing. 

 

!AfricathinkScitech!  :-   Funding - How is financing of your product been achieved? Do you have access to investor  financial funding or  Is there any plan to either seek investment partners or go public? Or even to use recent financial innovative products like crowd-sourcing?


Henri: - Well the all business is self funded right now, we raised money on crowd funding campaign. We are recipient of several international awards that has cash incentive on it. But we just started approaching investors slowly, and applying for grants program to further develop the technology. But the challenge with investor is to find the right one that have social interest and understand this space of solar kiosk. The innovation is not only on the kiosk itself but the business approach we bringing on the ground. And anytime you do something new people tend to see and wait. 

 

3. Marketing and Publicity

!AfricathinkScitech!  :-  What are the marketing strategies you've been adopting in order to further expose your product to the market place?

 

Henri: - Winning competition has put us in several media outlet. We do promotion on twitter facebook, but our client is our franchisees at the BOP. So we do radio campaign and we developing a partnership with Airtel Rwanda to scale our business much faster and that will be the next step. Then We will expand outside Rwanda


!AfricathinkScitech!  :-  Have you considered entering your product into various competitions? For example, I'm aware of the Africa Innovation Prize.

Henri: -. We already won several competitions, we will apply to the innovation for africa innovation prize, but a lot of competition tend to have different focus. We notice Africa innovation Prize is really focus on Agriculture type of innovation but will see. We tend to look more for grants now

!AfricathinkScitech!  :-  Have you made much contact with government agencies or NGOs in promoting this product?

Henri: -. We have not been contacted by any of those entities, they tend to focus on solar lights, and home Solar systems. Kiosk is something new so it will have to scale up before those big organization comes knocking on our doors. 

 


4)Technological/Manufacturing questions

!AfricathinkScitech!  :-  You mentioned that your Mobile Solar Kiosk is currently being manufactured in Poland , wouldn't this pose  serious challenges in terms of maintenance, access to spare parts and local know-how? And how do you overcome these challenges.

Henri: - They started being manufacture in Poland, but now we manufacture in China. The technology is like anything else, you need to have spare parts in stock to fix any issue. There is no specific challenge in that area. We have train technician to fix problems since solar technology is not new, the growth of course has to be done in stages, as we grow some of the part will be manufacture in house using 3D printing technology but we not there yet. 


!AfricathinkScitech!  :-  You also mentioned that you hope to in future to manufacture the Mobile Solar Kiosk in Africa. What time frame are you looking at making this manufacturing transition? And are you looking specifically to manufacture in Rwanda or East Africa?

Henri: - I’m not sure where you saw we want to manufacture the kiosk in Rwanda, we will do the assembly in Rwanda but no manufacturing. Our company is a design and engineering new technology for the African Market. Manufacturing is not something I am interesting in because it is cash intensive and our kiosk have so many components it will cost us too much to do it. I believe in efficiency and I am not trying to do everything.

Unless we find manufacturing companies in Africa that gives us good price, and (until) when the shipping cost among African countries are cheap enough will stay with china. We have to be realistic; it cost more to ship from Kenya to Rwanda, then China to Rwanda. It is ridiculous but thats the reality we live in.

 Other countries have subsidies, and government support but we not there yet. Until the African governments wake up and fix those small issues, then we have to go where it makes sense. 


!AfricathinkScitech!  :-  In order to hasten the manufacturing transition are you open to the suggestion of manufacturing in a place like South Africa in the near future? For example Solar Panels are already being manufactured in South Africa. I also believe a couple of African countries also already manufacturing batteries.

Henri: - The manufacturing is not the issue, it is the logistics and the cost of shipping. For the battery, we use lithium phosphate battery which is the best technology so far and they do not manufacture it in Africa yet. My goal is to develop the best product and make it cost effective for our franchisees. Unfortunately Chinese manufacturing companies benefits from subsidies and that is why their prices are so good. Until African governments wake up and do the same we will not be able to manufacture it on the continent. 

 

!AfricathinkScitech!  :-  In general what is your outlook for the prospect of technology in Africa? What do you think can be done to advance technological know-how in Africa?

 

Henri: - The outlook is great i meet a lot of young people that are coming up with great ideas, prototype etc.... But Africa is focusing too much on Apps and not enough on product development. When I go to forums or I see the companies that market products on the continent in the solar space 90% are from overseas and that is because the infrastructure is not there.

Even product development capabilities are very limited.

 

I haven't heard of  3D printing in East Africa yet, or a product development company that can design, engineer and build prototypes, but this is ultimately what I plan to do. However, it will take some time. We are developing a partnership with a US engineering company that will help us set up a product development structure.

 

Africa as of right now is a continent of consumption and not yet production, plus we allow cheap and dangerous products in.

The government have to be more aggressive and do a better job to develop subsidies and grant programs that are  finance and control by African countries, but not done by western countries. For example most of the grant we apply for are European grants, it is sad to be honest. The fact that we believe we poor just show me how mentality have to change, the only thing poor about Africa is the way we think, and that is my personal opinion of course. 

 

 

5) Additional Improvements


!AfricathinkScitech!  :-  You've talked about continuous improvements to the Mobile Solar Kiosk. In order to improve mobility of the kiosk, have you considered the possibility of maybe using some of the solar power already available to power maybe an attached solar powered motorized bicycle or somehow making it self propelling?

 

Henri: - . I like to work on technology that is not there yet, for example the next generation kiosk will be much smarter. Will be able to collect data, offer internet access, etc.... No one is doing it yet.

 

Electric bicycle is already on the market, and competing with larger company with bigger budget will not make much sense for us. We find a niche and we trying to run with it. However, when we finish building our foundation with the Solar kiosk I plan to develop more product such as grid production system using concentrated solar technology that (we) will be developing ourselves and make it more efficient, and portable mosquitoes zapper system using an innovative system.

 

 My ideas come from day to day experience and what I see is needed on the market. In the future will be able to develop products based on other people ideas. I can’t get into detail but it will be a game changer. 


I truly believe is there is a huge opportunity for Africans to come up with new product development instead of following a trend.

 

We are as a continent the underdogs , so we have to be smart not to try to compete with existing technology but come up with new ones. Until we have backing from the government, and African investors that understand this innovation space and opportunities we have to be smart in what product we develop and who we competing with. 

 

 

I hope that helps. Thank you .

 

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End Interview

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