By Maina Waruru
KAJIADO, Kenya, April 16 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - In a dusty trading centre at the foot of the Entasopia escarpment in Kenya's Kajiado County, John Pambio is deeply engrossed in soldering together a customer's phone at his electronics repair kiosk.
Until nine months ago, Pambio would have had to send the job to a repair shop in Kiserian township 95 km away, due to a lack of power.
But in July 2014, Kenyan renewable energy firm SteamaCo set up a solar microgrid in Entasopia, and Pambio was able to use electrical tools for the first time.
"Now I can handle any kind of repair work my customers require," he said.
The 24-year-old is one of some 70 people in Entasopia benefiting from SteamaCo's solar microgrid project, which aims to provide reliable power to residents of the remote area on the southern savannah.
According to SteamaCo's website, the company operates 23 power and water microgrids in East Africa and Nepal.
Tapping into Kenya's abundance of sunshine, the company has installed high-capacity solar panels at power hubs, where energy is stored in high-voltage batteries.
Each hub can harvest up to 5.6 kilowatts of power, enough to supply electricity to nearly 100 households and businesses, depending on their usage and distance from the hub.
According to SteamaCo founder and technical director Sam Duby, the company is currently serving around 700 customers, with its hubs producing a total of 61 kilowatts.
"From the power hub we use underground cables to supply electricity to homes and businesses," Duby said. "We provide basic wiring in each customer's premises, but any further wiring or extension is done by the customers themselves."
Customers pay a connection fee of Ksh 1,000 ($12), a paltry sum compared to the Ksh 35,000 ($385) they would have to pay the local power utility, assuming the national grid was even within reach.
To help get power to those who have never had it before, SteamaCo is utilising Kenya's reputation as a nation that lives and works by mobile phone.
By linking customers' phone numbers with their local power hub, the company enables them to prepay for their electricity using the popular mobile banking platform M-Pesa.
"As soon as the payment is made, power comes on and the only thing one needs to do is flip the switch and enjoy the electricity," said Duby.
"No contracts, together with pre-payments for small units of airtime, revolutionised access to mobile telephone services in Africa. We believe the same will be true for energy services," he added.
By tapping into Kenya's fast-evolving mobile culture, the company can also instantly communicate with its customers, sending text reminders when users' accounts are running low so they can top up.
SteamaCo does not have to send out bills or hire meter readers since everything is automated and customers only buy power when they need it.
The company's web-based monitoring system also means it can keep a constant check on its network and deal with any problems in real time. A site agent stationed at each power hub responds to customer issues such as outages or delays in loading units, Duby said.
According to the World Bank, 68 percent of Kenyans have no access to grid power while around 95 percent are mobile phone users.
SteamaCo's use of ubiquitous technology to help find a solution to Kenya's energy crisis is one reason UK-based sustainable energy charity Ashden has shortlisted the company for its annual £40,000 ($60,000) award.
"This model where no cash is changing hands and relying on the telecoms network to do business makes doing business easier, even more sustainable and convenient for both parties," said Anne Wheldon, knowledge and research adviser at Ashden.
Entasopia residents like Jane Musyoka would agree. For years, the petrol-pump owner had to measure out fuel in containers before pouring it into her customers' tanks. Now she can pump the petrol directly into the vehicles.
"I used to lose a lot of fuel by using calibrated containers... plus a lot of it would go to waste via evaporation while in the jerricans," said Musyoka. "But with power available, I now simply use the automated machine."
Musyoka said access to power has changed Entasopia. People can do more at night, including bar owners who are able to play music louder and for longer, making the trading centre livelier and more vibrant.
With each solar microgrid system costing between $15,000 and $20,000, including distribution, SteamaCo intends to raise at least $1 million from equity funds to bring a new burst of life to other communities across East Africa.
"This business is breaking even and making a small profit already," said Duby. "At this early stage, we feel encouraged to scale up because we realise the microgrid business is sustainable." (Reporting by Maina Waruru; editing by Jumana Farouky and Megan Rowling)
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