This system’s use is limited exclusively to Africa as I write, but, according to Wired magazine and The Washington Post, it is being purchased, sampled and tested by international entrepreneurs from all over the world. There are still a few glitches in the way that it works, but nothing major. The M-Kopa system comes in two models: one consists of a control box, solar panel, USB phone-charging cable, and three LED lights. The other adds a portable lamp, and a solar chargeable radio to the mix. The control box itself is a lightweight, hardcover book-sized gadget with a strong, sustainable and rechargeable battery, a GPS cell modem, LCD status screen, and connection points for a 4-watt solar cell and LED lights, which are designed by another startup, the American company d.Light Solar. Additionally, each M-KOPA Solar device is set with a unique customer ID number and a special chip that is used to add credit to the user’s account, which is also trackable in case of theft.
Currently available only in Kenya, where the device’s innovative payment plan arguably has the biggest impact, the cheaper version of these two solar systems retails for 2,500KES (Kenyan shillings), roughly US$30. That initial price, however, is actually a deposit that has to be paid to take the device home. After that, customers need to pay 40 shillings per day (about 45 cents), to keep the device operational. To give you a perspective on what that means for Kenyans, according to CIO East Africa, there are “an estimated 3 million Kenyan homes or 80 percent of the population living off the power grid which spend an average of 70KES daily on kerosene and phone charging.”
The M-KOPA pricing model, like the ubiquitous prepaid phone card all over Europe, means that these daily payments to licensed retailers make it so your daily payments are part of your “rent to own” agreement with M-KOPA, so that after you buy 360 days’ worth of electricity, you finally own your system outright, and no longer have to make daily payments. As all payments are made through a single corporation, the M-Pesa mobile payment system, customers can make easy convenient payments through their mobile phones. In a country like Kenya, where so many people still live rural lives, it becomes part of a system that is working hard to keep some parts of the youth population back and ‘down on the farm’. Better yet. M-KOPA’s built-in modem checks your payment status on a regular basis, and the number of days of credit remaining is clearly shown on the control box’s display.
My friend René, back in the States from visiting family in Burundi and Nairobi, brought in this new toy for me to play with. After buying an adapter I tried a dry run using an iPhone5. It fully recharged the phone in three hours, using up about half of the M-KOPA’s built-in battery. The M-Kopa’s USB cable offers a series of connectors for charging almost any mobile phone: Micro USB, Mini USB, Nokia 3.5mm and 2mm, a standard USB port, and Samsung’s feature-phone charging connector.
The unit sustained several days’ worth of sitting in my back yard over erratic early autumn days of alternating sunshine and brutal rainstorms. The control box, ridiculously weather-resistant, both portable and lightweight, was immersed in rain, cold temperatures, and direct sunlight and stood up just brilliantly.
The three lights in the kit are made of a bright red plastic. Each one comes with a 10ft-long, heavily insulated cable ending in a standard 3.5mm phone connector – the standard headphone jack used in most audio equipment. It’s an unusual choice for a power connector, but it gets the job done and is cheap should it need to be replaced. Each light also has a 3.5mm headphone jack, allowing the three to be daisy-chained together when necessary. The light itself is provided via a single white LED, which can be dimmed via any one of four settings, ranging from “reading light” to a surprisingly bright room light.
Yes, there are a few minor bugs: The LED indicators, which are supposed to show each port’s connection status, never light up, and the LCD’s battery strength indicator showed “full” even though the unit was not completely charged. Such minor glitches, however, are just minor imperfections in an otherwise amazing and versatile gadget.
Families in Africa looking to set up a simple and low-cost home lighting and phone charging system won’t find a more innovative, portable, and rugged system than the M-KOPA. No doubt the same can be said for the U.S., Canada and Mexico if licensing agreements can be reached and investment partners located. This is a product that would definitely be a big hit in the U.S. A fantastic utility of an easy-to-use, well-built solar charger, whether you’re camping off the grid, or you’re in need of some extra light in your garage.