Rwanda's 'solar smart kiosk' provides digital solutions to rural mobile phone users

International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde learns about a mobile solar kiosk from Henri Nyakarundi, founder and project manager of African Renewable Energy Distributor in Rwanda. Photo by: Stephen Jaffe / IMF / CC BY-NC-ND

Mobile phone prevalence is on the rise in Africa, but charging devices can be a struggle, especially in areas with limited access to electricity. More than 640 million people remain without power, according to information from the African Development Bank.

Entrepreneur Henri Nyakarundi created a “solar smart kiosk” out of frustration from his experiences struggling to find a place to charge his Blackberry in Rwanda. His solution was a stand-alone cart that runs on renewable energy and serves as a one-stop digital center for mobile phone users in semi-urban and rural areas.

In addition to offering an unlimited charging space at a flat fee, clients are also able to buy airtime and make mobile money transfers. The latest kiosk model also offers access to digital content — from educational and health content to videos and music in local languages — via an offline mobile application. 

ARED, the parent company behind the solar mobile kiosk, worked with German hardware developers to create a process where content is stored on a server then distributed via a WiFi system installed on the cart using an intranet system.

When the business first started, Nyakarundi said customers were constantly requesting access to internet or access to content. He realized that available internet services were expensive for the majority of his customer base and that he could expand his business model beyond charging stations.

“That’s the challenge when you do business at the base of the pyramid, you have to have multiple streams of revenue to be sustainable, so we developed a low-cost internet access,” he told Devex.

Advertisements sold to government entities, NGOs and the private sector generate a bulk of the revenue for the business. Not only can organizations use the mobile platform to distribute content but also to collect information by conducting surveys. 

Nyakarundi said his “business in a box” has become a win-win situation for clients, kiosk operators and for ARED. “There’s a huge problem with unemployment in East Africa, and Africa in general, with the youth population increasing so fast,” he told Devex. “We solved this problem of unemployment by creating micro-entrepreneurs that is very low cost.”

Kiosk operators work as franchisees and make a commission on every transaction made on the kiosk. The company provides training and monitoring support to keep kiosk operators current on the technology.  

ARED has been recognized in the development space. Charging stations were used at Rwanda Red Cross refugee camps housing Burundi immigrants fleeing their country’s violent political crisis, where most adults had cellphones. Refugees were trained and worked as operators, earning income from the kiosk. The group was also approached by United Nations Development Programme Senegal last year, according to Nyakarundi.

The International Committee of the Red Cross showcased the solar mobile kiosk during a convention last year, as a way to distribute content to areas in crisis. “It has a lot of applications, and that’s what we have learned,” Nyakarundi said.

He told Devex that what makes ARED unique is the system that allows users to access digital content at a low cost. “Not only do we have just a social impact but an economic impact and an environmental impact, what we’ve added now is the technological impact,” he said.

ARED has 30 kiosks across six districts in Rwanda, with two in Uganda. Nyakarundi said they have a mandate to expand up to 500 kiosks between the two countries by the end of the year.

Among the persistent challenges is that of expanding with an outdoor business, for example when government regulations on street vendors have tightened in Kigali. He also noted high costs of internet to transfer data to the kiosk and difficulties negotiating with telecommunications companies.

However, his biggest concern is keeping up with technology. At times, he struggles to find local software and hardware developers with the right skillsets.

“It’s not like back in the day when you could have a 10-year window to innovate and implement,” he explained. “We just want to make sure we position ourselves to have an edge on our competitors when they come.”

Funding also remains limited, Nyakarundi said. To overcome this hurdle, he suggested partnering with major telecommunications companies to reach larger communities. “Big companies in Africa have to learn to work more with innovative companies like they do in the United States or Europe, instead of having this mentality they can do it all themselves.”

Nyakarundi mentioned competition as another challenge. He recalled examples of solar lighting companies in Kenya that he said “died” when big companies came in and flooded the market. “Luckily we picked an area and a sector that no one is catering to right now and that’s the solar kiosk business, but this remains a challenge for African companies because it’s a global economy so we are competing.”

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About the author

  • Christin Roby

    Christin Roby worked as the West Africa Correspondent for Devex, covering global development trends, health, technology, and policy. Before relocating to West Africa, Christin spent several years working in local newsrooms and earned her master of science in videography and global affairs reporting from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. Her informed insight into the region stems from her diverse coverage of more than a dozen African nations.