How do you charge a cell phone when you don’t have electricity at home? In Rwanda, portable solar-powered kiosks are one option.
Known as “Shiriki hubs,” the mobile kiosks are powered by 100-watt solar panels and can charge up to 30 phones at one time. They can also serve as Wi-Fi hotspots.
Users pay 5 cents to fully charge a phone and 3 cents for 10 minutes of Wi-Fi at the kiosks, developed by African Renewable Energy Distributor (ARED). Users can also buy phone airtime and subscriptions to StarTimes, a popular TV network in the region.
ARED’s hubs serve a key role in keeping Rwandans connected in a place where mobile phones are popular but keeping them powered isn’t necessarily easy. In 2017, there were 72 mobile phone subscriptions per 100 people in Rwanda, according to the World Bank, yet only 34% of the population had access to electricity.
Henri Nyakarundi, an entrepreneur who was born in Rwanda, grew up in Burundi and later moved to the United States, says the need for charging stations became apparent to him on a visit home. Seeing an opportunity to start a business that could also provide jobs in his native country, Nyakarundi returned to Rwanda in 2013 to launch ARED.
ARED leases the hubs to agents through a franchise model, collecting an average of 1% commission on the agents’ sales. Ads displayed on the side of the kiosks are another source of income for ARED. It now operates 68 kiosks in Rwanda, up from 23 in 2017.
The kiosks have served 200,000 customers in the last six years and processed close to 500,000 digital transactions, Nyakarundi says.
In rural areas, many Rwandans rely on cell phones to make payments and communicate, says Nyakarundi. “Connectivity has increased dramatically across Africa,” Nyakarundi told CNN. “That’s the space we wanted to be in.”
Two years ago the company expanded into Uganda with funding from US-based impact investor Gray Matters Capital. and now operates 10 kiosks there. ARED has also received support from Microsoft’s Affordable Access Initiative Grant Fund, and raised almost $275,000 on a German crowdfunding website last year.
Although a for-profit business, ARED hopes to make a social impact. The kiosks are foldable and mounted on wheels, which Nyakarundi says makes it easier for women and people with disabilities to become agents. Additionally, they provide health and educational content from government services via an app offline, so users don’t have to pay for WiFi access to get it.
The kiosks are also leased to charities and refugee camps in Uganda.
“They used to have to walk miles to charge their phone, then miles to get access to air time,” said Nyakarundi.
Ultimately, Nyakarundi wants the kiosks to provide their own local network, which can host third-party apps. App developers would pay to be featured on the network, and Nyakarundi hopes the revenue will eventually allow ARED to provide users with up to 30 minutes of free Wi-Fi.