Olou J. Koucoi is a social entrepreneur who is working with his own company, Focus Energy and in association with Shinbone labs to make solar power accessible to communities in Benin, West Africa. He is hip to circular economy strategies and has implemented a “pay as you go” system to help make power affordable to communities. His model works with communities that agree to initially sign up at least 15 families into the pay as you go program to get started. This model is close to the micro-financing model in that is relies on group accountability to pay monthly fees for solar service. Paying with mobile money has made this much easier for customers and the business as well. Once communities sign on, a local business representative comes out to set up and train community members about the system. If payment is not received remote technology has made shutting off the system from an internet connected computer available. This is a key feature of the business model. Currently, the communities are able to pay off the cost of their solar panels, inverters, and batteries in a few years and then own them. Olou hopes to make this business model more circular by having the company own the hardware and therefore be responsible for fixing it, replacing it, and refurbishing it for continued use. This ownership by the company and a take-back program for their subscribers will ensure the high-quality standards for manufacturing and would ensure that spent batteries will be properly handled and not become dangerous waste in these communities.
This solar business is providing light, cellphone charging, and power from appliances such as TVs. Focus Energy and Shinbone are working to add a Wifi feature to the hardware to provide internet access through their solar systems.
When asked what the main challenges are for this type of social enterprise Olou offered a critical insight that providing power for light and cell phones does not help address the deep problem of poverty. Africa is a producer of raw materials and in the capitalist system raw materials are not valued, instead, value added products are what makes money. For example, raw cashews and cocoa coming from West Africa, for example, are sold to India and China and then made into products that sell at a higher price. He hopes that providing machinery to make oils, and other goods with appliances that run on DC solar will provide a real opportunity for locals to create value-added products from their locally produced materials. This will actually address poverty with the productive use of solar energy now available.
I believe that these development projects with companies such as Focus Energy and Shinbone and others are where the circular economy can really shine. I am very grateful to Olou and his dedication and vision for this work. I hope to be on the ground in West Africa to see these circular economy strategies in action while researching and developing programs to further provide accessible and long-term processes for thriving community development.
More at Focus Energy's Facebook page: Focus Energy