Solar power – from London to rural Kenya

Jul 5, 2012   //   by Nicholas Milton   //   Blog  //  2 Comments

Today it has been announced that the new Blackfriars Station which is being built across the Thames will be the worldest largest solar bridge. It shows that solar power has really come of age since I first worked on the technology back in the late 1990s for Greenpeace. But solar is also bringing power to some of the poorest communities in the world.

Last week I saw a new solar lighting system which is being trialled in Eldoret in Kenya. Its been developed by a company called M-kopa (M for mobile, kopa is Swahili for to borrow) and was only introduced at the begining of June. M-kopa are a mobile technology company based in the capital Nairobi whose aim is to help “Kenyans acquire solar power products by offering innovative payment plans and a distribution model tailored to the needs of rural Kenyans”.

M-kopa provides 3 bright lights and a mobile system for charging, enough lighting for a family. They charge 40 Kenyan Shillings (Ksh) per day (about 30p) making it affordable to even the poorest Kenyans. If the trial is successful it could kick start a solar revolution which brings light to many poor people throughout Africa.

Christophers Flowers, the Operations Director of Eastern Produce Kenya whose tea estates in the Nandi Hills are being used in the trial, told me that the technology has already made a big difference. “In poor parts of Kenya people go to sleep when it gets dark and wake when the sun comes up. Giving them lighting could help improve their lives in so many ways, for example by allowing children to do their homework at night. It also shows that the private sector are willing to lend to poor people who before they would have considered too high risk. The technology has the potential to allow even the poorest farmers in Kenya to install their own lighting”.

The team developing the solar lighting includes Nick Hughes, the founder of a mobile-phone based money transfer service called M-pesa (M for mobile, pesa is Swahili for money). Nick is based in London and was formerly the Head of Global Payments at Vodaphone. M-pesa is very popular in Kenya and allows users to deposit, withdraw and transfer money easily with a mobile phone via Safaricom (Kenyas leading mobile phone network owned by Vodaphone).  Safaricom now reaches many remote parts of Kenya allowing poor people to pay for goods and services without exchanging money.

While it is right to be sceptical about big private sector companies making money out of poor people, it is also a fact that governments in developing countries often struggle to bring even basic services to people living in remote rural areas. People wanting to install the solar lighting will pay a small deposit of 2500 Ksh and then pay-as-you go using M-pesa until they have completed paying for the system which usually takes a year.


  • I like this innovation. I work with Practical Action in Nairobi an INGO involved in promoting access to energy services in East Africa. I would like to discuss more on what you are doing and explore areas of collobration

  • Innovative and will greatly improve rural peoples’ lives. I have been supplying solar lighting for rural homes in Rwanda, Burundi and Eastern Congo for several years. I would like to collaborate with this project to improve my products and services. I would appreciate contact with Mr. Hughes.

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Nicholas Milton

I am a marketing and communication expert with over 20 years experience. Over this time I have campaigned on issues I feel passionately about - conservation, climate change, racial equality, land reform, rural poverty and most recently international development. I am also a successful freelance journalist and have been published in the Guardian, Times, Daily Telegraph and the Independent.

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