87th Agricultural and Commercial Fair

This past weekend the Zamsolar team attended the 87th annual Agricultural and Commercial Fair in Lusaka. The fair showcased different talents, products and businesses from across Zambia. Attendance was in abundance as thousands of Zambians of all ages came to shop and enjoy themselves.  

We took part in the fair as well, showcasing our company and products in a brightly designed booth. Among the face-painting and bouncy castles that surrounded our stand, Zamsolar definitely stood out as a leader in solar energy products. As the fair went on and more and more people came to our stand, the need for solar energy and our products became evident.

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As exhibitors, we all had the chance to not only display and sell our products, but also to meet with other businesses and establish connections, both friendly and professional. One of our neighbors stayed the night with his goods at the booth, and we offered him a Sun King Pro to use at night. Upon returning the next morning, he was raving about how great and useful the product was. It was exciting feedback from someone who had not previously considered using solar lighting. 

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My timing was impeccable; I arrived in Lusaka to begin working as a fellow at Zamsolar only a few days prior to the fair. It was an amazing opportunity to experience such a unique celebration, and it was definitely a warm welcome to Zambia. I’m looking forward to more events that can ultimately heighten the awareness of Zamsolar among people in Zambia. 

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-Anna Meyer

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A Journey to Eastern Province (Part II)

ImageSince that first journey out to Sinda, I have been back twice myself to gather information about energy consumption, income, and the geographical layout.  My first trip was for 2 nights and three days.  To get out there, I catch a bus out of Lusaka to ride for seven-plus hours along Zambia’s Great East Road.  As the only paved road out to Eastern Province, the shoulders are slim at best.  But that doesn’t stop people from walking right next to the road as cars whiz by at 70mph.

It feels like a small miracle each time I make it out there without incident.  Sinda Village is right along the Great East Road, and all it takes is a wave to the driver and I get dropped off right in front the house of my host.  As one of the best English speakers in the village, Mr. Chola Banda has graciously put me up in his guesthouse for each of my visits.  He and the headman have taken the time in the middle of their harvest season to show me around the village, introduce me to dozens of residents, and feed me delicious Zambian food.  They even waited patiently for me as I try to hand-draw foot-paced maps of their houses.

Twice now, they have gathered a crowd of residents so that I can present our idea for a mini-grid to everyone and give them a chance to ask questions.  This is all with a translator, of course.  They speak Chichewa, one of Zambia’s main languages.  I’ve tried to learn as much as I can, but each time I learn a new phrase it seems to fly right out my other ear.  Even though I’ve been quite nervous addressing such a large crowd, their overwhelmingly positive response to a mini-grid made it much easier.  They are so eager for power, I feel bad that our first system won’t reach most of them.

Although there are many mini-grids all over world, mobile technology has made it possible to sell power on a prepaid basis only in recent years.  This is a huge step, as it allows people to buy electricity as they need it, slowly paying back the cost it took the developer to install the mini-grid.  It brings solar to people who do not have the means to buy the whole system upfront.  With the Lumeter meters, each person in Sinda will have the ability to buy exactly as much electricity as they need to use right from their village.

To add credit, they will go to the agent we hire in Sinda with cash.  That agent will then wire us the money electronically from their mobile money account. The Lumeter server will immediately send them back a numeric code in a text message, which the customer records.  The customer will then go back their home and punch in the code on a remote.  This will unlock their meter, allowing them to use exactly as much power as they purchased.  It works just like the mobile phone pre-paid plans that are already immensely popular here in Zambia.

Because this is our first time doing anything of the sort, the mini-grid in Sinda will serve as an example for many mini-grids to come.  We hope to learn how much energy people will actually consume for a given price to optimize the design on future grids.  Furthermore, we hope to prove the economic viability of a pay-as-you-go mini-grid to secure funding for what will hopefully be hundreds of more mini-grids.  In a country where less than 1 in 4 people have access to grid-power, we hope to leap-frog the grid here entirely, just like cell phones leap-frogged land-lines, and bring electricity to the millions.  Our work for the next few years is certainly cut out.

Stay posted for more updates!

– Isaiah Lyons-Galante (Engineering Fellow)

A Journey to Eastern Province (Part I)

ImageA couple weeks after arriving here in Lusaka, I made my first trip out to Sinda with Thomas and Charles.  Sinda is a farming village of about 500 people out in Zambia’s Eastern Province.  Charles is our contact at Musika, the aid organization that is funding this project.  He had a connection in Sinda and therefore suggested it as the site for Zamsolar’s first solar mini-grid.

After talking with the village headman and a few of its residents, we realized how much money they were spending on inefficient forms of energy like candles and car batteries.  Without grid power, the only way the could watch TV was to travel 10km to Sinda Town where it costs about $1 to charge up a 12V car battery.  This was good for just over an hour of TV. Some people would do this almost everyday.  As experienced maize farmers, most residents have enough income to pay for grid power, but not for the fee it would cost them to bring the grid to their village.  With relatively clustered houses, we decided this was the prime spot for our solar micro-grid.

My main role at Zamsolar this summer is to make this project happen.  Although the installation will only be a few days in mid-July, this project has been in the works for a few months.  I am coordinating efforts between three other companies, each with a unique and essential contribution.  One company is PowerGen, a renewable energy firm based in Kenya. They will be providing the technical expertise needed to design the system. Next is Suntech, also a renewable technology supplier based here in Lusaka.  They will be sourcing all the solar equipment.  Last is Lumeter, a California based company that is the developer of the metering technology that makes it possible for customers to pre-pay for electricity.  My job is to conduct this symphony of companies to meet the energy needs of the people of Sinda.

– Isaiah Lyons-Galante (Engineering Fellow)

Taking Marketing on the Road

24-IMG_0825 2Within the last month, Zamsolar has started working full-time on its marketing strategy. Since the literature on Bottom of the Pyramid marketing, especially in southern Africa, is scant, we are trying to learn the best methods through observing other companies and through experimentation.

We held our first roadshow in the center of Kabwe’s market. The event involved playing music while an MC advertised our products and engaged the audience through games and dance. The roadshow drew around 500 to 1,000 spectators throughout the morning and early afternoon. We made over a dozen sales at the event, but the greater success of the event was the exposure it provided to the Zamsolar brand, as most of the spectators had never heard of the company before the event.

We also used the event to collect mobile phone numbers which will be used by the head office to advertise promotions and by the agents to make sales. It has been clear that the event increased our sales and will continue to do so as we know of at least 10 potential customers who learned about us through the roadshow and plan to buy in the future.

– Michael Palisano (Marketing Fellow)