Solar-powered data gathering
Two-thirds of Sub-Saharan Africa’s households live in rural areas on small, variable incomes. Barely able to afford basic goods and services, about 110 million households in the region still depend on high-cost kerosene for lighting. In Kenya, 5 million off-grid households spend a combined 1 billion USD, or USD 200 per household, on kerosene for lighting annually.
Apart from their high cost, kerosene lamps provide only low-quality light and pose serious health and safety risks due to smoke fumes and open flames. Solar-powered lamps provide much brighter, more reliable illumination at lower cost whilst posing virtually no risks to users. Many households nevertheless rely on kerosene lighting because they cannot afford the up-front cost of buying a solar-powered lamp.
M-KOPA, part of LGT Venture Philanthropy’s social impact portfolio, is a for-profit social enterprise that facilitates access to solar-powered home lighting and phone charging systems for off-grid households. Its model combines mobile money payment platforms and global mobile communications technology to offer innovative asset financing of solar home systems on an affordable, one-year payment plan.
M-KOPA has the broadest distribution of mobile-connected solar systems in Kenya and is already capturing large quantities of solar panel voltage data. This raises the exciting possibility of leveraging the systems to capture solar intensity and other weather- and climate-related data that could benefit thousands of the region’s farmers in addition to insurance firms, meteorological planners and environmental agencies. With the Swiss Re Foundation’s support, M-KOPA ran this project to test the feasibility of capturing weather-related data through its solar-power home lighting system.
M-KOPA successfully proved that its units could be turned into mini-weather stations that capture weather- and climate-related information and send that information to its central data infrastructure at a fraction of the cost of the weather stations currently deployed in East Africa. Collected using relatively inexpensive remote sensors (such as rain gauges and soil moisture probes), the data were of sufficiently high quality that, with strong calibration work and the benefit of a large network of sensors, M-KOPA’s approach could meet the requirements of organisations that rely on such information.
Applying this technology for insurance-related data collection would be challenging, however, due to the intricacies of the weather insurance industry, satellite technology advances and weather data ownership rights. In brief, to be a primary source of weather insurance claim verification, a technology needs to have a verified track record of at least 5-10 years, which would mean a long wait for commercialisation. As satellite technology is rapidly becoming more granular and accurate, it would also be difficult for M-KOPA’s ground-based hardware system to replace satellite data as the de facto standard for weather insurance policy claim validation in Sub-Saharan Africa. Finally, all weather data in Kenya are owned by the Kenyan Metrological Services (KMS), and companies that wish to sell any weather-related information must go through a long registration process.
M-KOPA still sees potential interesting applications of the technology developed in this project. One possibility is that insurers may be interested in buying data collected using M-KOPA’s weather-data units as a secondary source for claim validation provided that data accuracy can be demonstrated.