The Innovator Interview Blog Series is a platform for program managers to share successes, challenges and key lessons learned from operating their programs with other members of the Center for Education Innovations (CEI) community.
The ARED Micro Franchise Program is a ‘business in a box’ solution with smart solar kiosk used for selling services at a fee. The ARED team focuses on providing people at the base of the pyramid, especially women, refugees and persons with disabilities, opportunities to earn a living as micro entrepreneurs.
We spoke with Henri Nyakarundi, Managing Director of ARED (African Renewable Energy Distributor), about his program’s use of solar-powered technology, the importance of entrepreneurialism for marginalized groups, and their exciting plans for expansion.
CEI: Thank you for taking the time to speak with us today. Solar kiosks play a central role in your micro-franchise model. How do the kiosks work and what kind of services can they provide?
Henri: The solar kiosk is a unique hard-tech solution. First it is a system on wheels - its mobility was developed to allow the micro franchisee to keep the kiosk safe after working hours. There is a charging compartment to allow phone charging, up to 30 phones, and extra battery capacity so operators can work when there is low sun or at night. Which is important because most micro franchisees operate after hours.
At the top of the kiosk we have a speaker system so we can distribute audio content. We also have our Wi-Fi router system to offer internet and intranet connectivity and also our IOT hardware to better monitor the kiosk. For example, we incorporated motion sensor to know how many people are around the kiosk, a charging sensor to know how many phones are being charged at any given time, and a temperature sensor to better monitor the equipment electronic system.
Finally, at the top we have our solar panel that turns sunlight to energy while shading the kiosk’s operator. This gives the kiosk 150 watts capacity and it powers the whole system.
CEI: Your model places a special focus on entrepreneurial opportunities for women, refugees, and persons with disabilities. How do you reach these often marginalized people?
Henri: In Rwanda we work with local government, cooperatives and NGO’s that operate in refugee camps such as UNHCR. The key to building a successful social impact enterprise is to partner with different organizations that are already working in those areas or with those different groups. No organization has all the solutions, and our goal is to find different partners that have experience with our target communities and specialize in training, recruiting programs, and more.
Then, after we connect with these specialty partners, we usually do a presentation in the field with a kiosk and educate the people about the opportunity. Then we select the candidates and we start our work.
CEI: Are there different considerations or challenges when establishing solar kiosk businesses in urban areas versus in rural communities?
Henri: Yes, there is, urban areas adopt technology more easily compared to rural areas. Rural areas can be more skeptical when it comes to new technology, and of course it varies also based on age. So, we spend more time educating our candidates in rural areas, demonstrating the kiosk and its benefits.
Finally, we work with local government to validate that we are a trusted company. Excitingly, the work becomes less challenging as we have more and more kiosks now on the ground that people can visit and see for themselves its impact and need. Also, business wise, it is easier for us to operate in rural rather than in urban areas. A lot of capital cities now want to ban outdoor kiosk business because they claim it affect the beautification of the city. So, some of our micro franchisees deal with police harassment. We are fighting for the law to change in Kigali.
Henri: Without those two companies we would not have the next generation kiosk that is smart and adapted to the African Market. Most start-ups cannot be good at everything; we understood early on that even though we had an idea, it would be costly and time consuming to build our own engineering team and develop the product. So we decided to outsource, and the best way to find partners is through recommendation so a good friend of mine recommend us XP wallet, and Techsolute was recommended to us by our German investors.
CEI: Your program started in Rwanda, but has recently expanded into Uganda as well. How did you know you were ready for the challenge of an additional country, and how is the expansion going?
Well, no one is 100% sure when is the right time to expand. I always believe the time is now, meaning if you have an opportunity to expand then take it. We have been operating in Rwanda since 2013, so we know the market well, we had a good understanding of the challenges. My goal was always to prove that the concept can work outside Rwanda, so I picked Uganda because of its proximity and similar market. We had an opportunity to pitch the expansion to coLABS at Gray Matters Capital, and they were willing to finance the pilot so we could open shop there.
I work best under pressure - complacency kills progress - so it was time to add another challenge! And now, our activities in Uganda are moving faster than Rwanda. We have brought on new board partners in the last 4 month than we did in Rwanda in the last 3 years. However, there is still a lot of challenges, it’s a new market, and we are still in the learning curve stage. The initial pilot will be 10 kiosks in Kampala, with a goal of increasing to 3,000 throughout the country by 2020.
CEI: That’s amazing! Thank you so much for sharing your perspective with us today, and we look forward to following your continued progress and impact.
Henri: My pleasure, and thank you also for the opportunity.
Photo Credits: ARED