After two years of market analysis and prototyping, three students of the University of Applied Sciences Neu-Ulm founded the tech company mango solar to energize remote African villages. Intelligently controlled via a cloud platform and at costs no higher than running kerosene lamps.
Steve Jobs named his tech company after a fruit – Apple. Why not doing the same? Indeed: The startup “mango solar”, which the three students from Ulm in Germany are about to register neither sells sun-ripened mangoes nor specializes in solar drying systems for tropical fruits. Its all about tech and digitalization, bundled with a social mission. Mango Solar’s mission is to provide households across sub-Saharan Africa with clean and affordable energy, while creating a new job segment for independent distributors who sell the rental solar home schemes and manage them through a cloud-based app and platform. The customers pay via mobile phone. In the end everyone benefits. By replacing harmful kerosine lamps through sophisticated solar lighting, the rural families as well as the environment probably benefit most.
Mango Solar’s core product are battery-powered lamps that are charged via a solar cell. They are sold in sets, such as 2 lamps plus a torch with integrated powerbank (the “mango Combo”). If desired, a radio with Bluetooth connection or a smartphone, which is considered “indestructible”, can be added.
While simple mobile phones are widespread and used even where there are hardly any possibilities to charge them, smartphones with internet access are still rare in many parts of Africa. Despite the high mobile phone density, a large proportion of the population does not benefit from the new possibilities of the online world. For this reason, the mango solar team is working on offering end customers the smartphone which was designed for originally for their distributors only.
«It’s a paradox. There is mobile phone coverage in many remote regions, but often no electricity to charge the devices» Rebecca Bregant, mango solar
Mango Solar follows three design principles:
- Made to last: Robust by design. Resistant to water & dust. 10 years expected lifetime.
- Sustainable: Responsible sourcing. Local production. Repair- & recyclable. Circular economy.
- Affordable: Pay-As-You-Go financing. Flexible instalments. Mobile money.
The team now has its first sales representatives in Kenya. However, the company does not want to do the distribution to the individual villages itself, but rather focus on the core competencies of product and software development. Mango Solar is looking for distribution partners who have the appropriate reach, such as organizations that equip remote villages with mini-grid power grids but cannot cover the surrounding areas, which often make up to 40% of the population. In the end, Mango Solar is about to design a social franchise model in which distributors – equipped with the cloud-based app and platform through which they measure all customer data and sales – take over distribution in the so-called “last mile”. Apart from the benefits of creating access to energy, Mango Solar also creates new employment opportunities in a fast growing market.
Mango Solar is by far not the only supplier of solar lamps or autonomous energy systems in Africa. Companies like Little Sun, d.light or WakaWaka also market solar lamps, have high ethical standards and use high-quality technologies. There are also companies such as Mobisol or – even more strongly involved in “frontier markets” – Africa GreenTec, which supply villages with solar energy and also control their systems digitally in order to allow their customers to rent or lease the devices instead of buying them (which most people could not afford). Others, like Solarkiosk, create individual solar hubs rather than aiming to supply a whole village. This could help to operate charging stations for mobile phones or ensure cooling chains for medicines.
In this colorful market environment, Mango Solar seems to have identified an untapped market niche. One the one side, their products are so simple and small in size that they are attractive for people at the base of the income pyramid. For example, the operation of powerful solar lamps is cheaper than the cost of kerosene lamps, apart from the fact that they shine 40 times brighter and the light can be adjusted individually. The key innovation, however, is about how Mango Solar overcomes the challenge to overcome the “last mile”, to effectively reach people in dispersed regions. Its cloud technology provides the basis for building a wide network of independent distributors that serve regional markets and digitally control customer revenues, cash payments and maintenance requirements.
«1.2 billion people in the world have no access to electricity. Most of them live in rural areas in sub-Saharan Africa. They use dirty fossil fuel sources such as kerosene lamps and diesel generators, which severely affects their quality of life.» Rebecca Bregant, mango solar
The founding team of mango solar got to know each other during their joint master’s degree program at the Neu-Ulm University of Applied Sciences. After more than 2 years of market analysis, organizational structure and product development, mango solar will now be spun off as an independent company in August 2020. After the first target market Kenya, the start-up company plans to expand into other countries in East and West Africa, depending on the respective sales partners. Initial exploratory talks are currently being held in Zimbabwe, South Africa, Nigeria and Mali.
Mango Solar is the winner of the Gexsi Impact Challenge #2, which we conducted jointly with the team of SensAbility – Impact Summit of the WHU Business School in July 2020. Apart from the 2.000€ award the project is featured currently on Gexsi.
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Dr Andreas Renner, Co-Founder Gexsi: email@example.com
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