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The solar-powered cart that can charge 80 cell phones at once

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Mobile solar-powered kiosks can charge up to 80 cell phones at a time

Though 70% of Rwandas have a mobile phone, only 18% have electricity

New model will bring wifi and intranet to rural communities

CNN —  

Henri Nyakarundi never wanted a job.

Born to refugee parents from Rwanda, he grew up in Burundi until civil war again forced the family to move on. Relocating to the US, Nyakarundi studied computer science at Georgia State University and by 19 had founded his first start up.

“I was not a job type of guy,” laughed the entrepreneur. “I think it’s my personality, I’ve always liked to make my own decisions.”

Yet his product – a solar-powered mobile kiosk that charges cell phones and connects communities – aims to create thousands of jobs across Africa.

READ: Kenyan company launches solar TV

It has received numerous energy innovation awards and grants from the likes of Microsoft.

Solar kiosk franchisee, Jeanne Marie Uhiriwe, on the streets of Kigali, Rwanda
Tom Gilks/ARED
Solar kiosk franchisee, Jeanne Marie Uhiriwe, on the streets of Kigali, Rwanda

“My vision is to create at least 50,000 to 100,000 micro businesses across Africa,” Nyakarundi told CNN.

“It’s doable. You’re looking at a population that’s going to double in the next 25 to 30 years.”

The idea

Returning to Rwanda or Burundi for holidays, Nyakarundi noticed that while many people had cell phones they often struggled to charge them.

In Rwanda, industry analysis estimates that roughly 70% of the population have a cell phone, yet only 18% have access to electricity, according to the World Bank.

Sketching the first design on a piece of paper, the entrepreneur devised a solar-powered kiosk that can be towed by bicycle and provides simultaneous charging for up to 80 phones.

Business in a box

His company, African Renewable Energy Distributor (ARED), operates under a micro-franchising system that leases the kiosks to agents.

Micro franchisees earn money from mobile charging and selling add-ons such as mobile credit, government certificates and prepaid electricity.

“It’s a business in a box,” said Nyakarundi, who moved back to Rwanda in 2012 once his prototype was ready. “I was looking to do something that would not only solve a problem but also had a social impact by creating micro businesses for people.”

There are currently 25 kiosks operating in Rwanda, many in rural areas where the population is dependent on cell phones to communicate and send money.

But after four years of carefully testing his business model, Nyakarundi said he is now ready to seriously scale up. He plans to have between 600 and 800 kiosks in place by the next two years.

Free opportunity

To run them, Nyakarundi says he looks for people who desperately lack employment opportunities.

The agents make just a $100 down payment followed by $200 in installments to lease their kiosk from ARED. From that, the company says existing vendors are making between 30,000 to 85,000 Rwandan francs ($38-$107) a month – enough to pay rent and feed a family.

But strikingly, for micro franchisees who are women or have disabilities, the opportunity is absolutely free.