OK, so you are a cell-phone user in rural Nigeria or Zimbabwe, and your provider is Econet Wireless. You've been a customer for a while, so you've accumulated loyalty rewards, just like airline frequent flier points. You live in a small hut in a village with no electricity, so you can't use your phone as much as you would like, because you can only charge it on market day at the district headquarters.
But now you can get a big discount on a solar lantern, or if you have enough Bonus Points, a rooftop home solar system from Econet -- electricity has become an added feature of cell phone service. But the wrinkle is that having electricity enables you to use your cell phone when you want to, instead of hoarding a charge -- so Econet can afford to discount the price of the lantern or home solar system dramatically, so that even the poorest cell phone customer can afford it.
The leader behind this model -- loyalty rewards that enable cell phone users to get clean solar electricity in remote villages -- is Strive Masiyiwa.
And today Econet launched its latest initiative, an affordable Home Solar Station, electricity in a box, which enables a poor family to electrify without paying the upfront costs of solar power -- they just pay for the electricity as they use it, thanks to a "slave sim card," which bills their cell phone account for each kilowatt hour, but at a rate low enough that even if the lights are left on all day the monthly bill is only a dollar, far less than poor families currently pay for candles or kerosene.
The basic Home Solar Station has four LED lights, a rooftop solar cell whose size varies on the household size, and an outlet which can be used to charge a cell phone, run a fan, or power a small computer. Larger versions can actually power a television which Econet is designing for this low voltage market. Masiyiwa is crystal clear. His business is not selling handsets, or solar panels -- it's selling airtime, or in the case of the Home Solar Station electron time. Customer loyalty is his holy grail -- and how better to obtain that loyalty than to provide his cell phone customers with light, fans, and electrical charging capacity in their own homes, however humble. (The systems are designed for the basic informal urban slum dwelling, the kind that fills the slums of Lagos or Harare -- or for rural huts. He'll also offer much larger systems for middle-class customers. This is power for everyone.)
It's a radical notion, and if he has the economics right, will transform the lives not only of his customers, but potentially of all 1.2 billion of the world's population who are currently denied light and electricity. Econet will license its technology to other cell-phone providers, and if the model takes off, competitors are sure to spring up.
And Masiyiwe understands that this model -- renewable power for the poorest -- is the key strategy to breaking the stranglehold of expensive, dirty fossil fuel technologies which in Africa keep the poor even poorer, because most of the continent must rely on expensive, imported coal, oil and gas. (In Kenya, for example, the bill for imported oil is one and a half times the country's entire trade deficit.) He has ambitions to replace the diesel generators of Lagos and other African cities with inadequate grids -- generators so prevalent that he says when the lights go out the entire city hums like a swarm of mosquitoes -- with roof-top solar systems that will dramatically reduce Africa's desperate power deficit.
Econet is also beginning to swap out its own diesel generators which currently back up the power for its base stations for solar.
This is the most exciting example I've seen yet of the much talked about, but still elusive concept that just as poor nations in Asia and Africa "leapfrogged" the conventional wired land-line telephone and went directly to cell phones, the emerging world could so the same with energy and spare the globe the catastrophe of compounding the climate crisis unleashed by the rich. Distributed solar charged to cell phone systems could scale, is affordable, and doesn't depend on the increasingly impossible vision of running an expensive copper wire attached to remote, dirty and unaffordable coal-fired power plant, to get a few kilowatts to village far from the city. The International Energy Agency admits that fully half of the 1.2 billion currently without electricity will never get wired -- but thanks to distributed renewables, they can be empowered.