Azuri Technologies was selected as one of World Economic Forum’s Technology Pioneers for 2013. Pippa Bransfield-Garth, Project Consultant, and Wanda Halbert, Marketing Manager talk about the necessity of solar energy and the need for new thinking in ‘bypassing’ the grid.

For the 1.3Bn people without access to electricity, waiting for the grid to arrive is not an option. Technology solutions such as solar already exist but their growth has been restrained by a lack of affordability. Innovative business models are needed to bypass the grid but a couple of Western views hamper progress in rural electrification.

The first is that extending the grid is the solution. This is both impractical and cost inefficient in rural areas where populations are sparse. The World Bank predicts over a billion people will still be off-grid in 2030 as the increase in electrification is unable to keep up with population growth. Azuri’s vision of the “un-grid” is one where developing countries can effectively leap-frog the grid and benefit now from the communications revolution of the developed world.

At the bottom end, a number of organisations are seeking to replace kerosene with clean lighting using small scale solar lamps. While this is an excellent first step, in and of itself it does not take into account the growing needs of the rural consumer. One such need is that of mobile phone charging, which is critical to enable access to modern communications and, increasingly, commerce. The 600m off-grid mobile phone users spending $15-35 a year on charging costs show how power has an importance beyond just lighting.

Indigo introduces a new approach to distributed power. Through Indigo, customers pay for their solar power as they use it, with the option to progressively upgrade as their energy needs grow over time. Known as an “Energy Escalator” model, it recognises the individual aspirations of each consumer to grow their usage of power from basic needs such a lighting to later include media, information and communication. Watching television, listening to the radio or surfing the net are not only Western ideals. By treating users as consumers with aspirations as opposed to individuals with a specific point problem, we can create a sustainable route to providing the benefits of home-electrification over time.

“Today I live in the city.” These are the words of Samuel, one of the first users of Indigo in Kenya. Why shouldn’t every rural household have the benefits normally associated with urban living while still living in the country? With pay as you go solar power, a rural farmer with access to the un-grid can have all the benefits of connectivity whilst still preserving traditional ways of life. Instead of being the end point, lighting is the starting point of a journey towards empowerment and economic development. When we raise our sights in this way, we change the game for users by unleashing the full power of off-grid electrification.

About the authors: Pippa Bransfield-Garth and Wanda Halbert are the Project Consultant and Marketing Manager for Azuri Technologies, a company that brings power at scale to off-grid customers in rural emerging markets.

Photo: Reuters / Ali Jarekji