Living off the grid is one thing; not having a grid is another. Areas in Africa, where up to 80 percent of the population lacks access to an electric grid, are beginning to light up and get online with energy provided by solar kiosks, a steadily growing trend in power distribution for remote areas.
Imagine a kiosk roofed with photovoltaic panels — about the size of your average county fair booth — turning sunlight into electricity. In remote locales, the kiosk can charge batteries, run a television and a web-connected computer or power a refrigerator to store medicines — perhaps the only one for miles around. The shop maintains sustainability by charging for services and selling energy-related products, such as batteries or cell phone minutes.
A German firm, Solarkiosk (www.solarkiosk.eu), makes kiosk kits for entrepreneurs who train villagers to operate and maintain them. After opening its first booth in Ethiopia in 2012, the company has added sites in Kenya and Botswana. West African telecom giant Rlg Communications has located a solar kiosk in Gambia and will site more in Ghana and other nations to serve as charging stations, repair shops, and retail shops selling its products.
A partnership led by Eqnon (www.eqnon.com), a Dutch social enterprise, is spreading kiosks across the African nation of Malawi. Customers pay a deposit, rent charged batteries, and return depleted ones to be recharged for a fee. The booth can be scaled to the area’s population, erected in a week or two, and pays back its cost in three years or less — all while making power affordable for families that manage to survive on a few dollars a day.