Sara Ruto and the cell phone…

Posted on December 28, 2010 by

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Here’s an opportunity (or three) for Silicon Valley – small, self contained solar generation.

As the rain fell in San José on Christmas Eve I learned about Sara Ruto, an entrepreneurial woman living in a remote Kenyan village. Ms. Ruto would walk two miles on dirt paths and take a 3 hour motorcycle taxi ride to recharge her cell phone. All for a whopping cost of 30 cents. Due to the demand for phone charging Ms. Ruto would sometimes get stuck in a 3 day queue. Ms. Ruto’s story, and the tale of solar in developing nations, enchanted me – and provided entertaining holiday meal conversations.

Seeking a more elegant solution, Ms. Ruto purchased a small, both in size and output, Chinese solar panel – attached it to the tin roof of her home and created a phone charging business in her village. The solar panel cost her $80 but brought with it $15 monthly savings on kerosene and battery expenses along with a $20 savings for each 7 hour trek to recharge her cell phone.

You might ask why Ms. Ruto  would need a cell phone in a remote Kenyan village in the first place. Hers is a farming village, the phone allowed her to find the best prices for her product as well as do money transfers. Remember, Ms. Ruto is an entrepreneur. Her success was transformative for her family: her older children do better in school because they now study by electric lighting, her younger children are no longer in danger of kerosene lantern burns, and she eliminated 14 hours of travel time to recharge her lifeline – in addition, 63 families in her small village are also installing their own small solar panels.

Ms. Ruto is not alone, across Kenya, and other developing nations, women are creating their own solar energy plants. Phoebe Jondiko, Joyce Matunga and Phoebe Akinyi brought solar power to the remote Kenyan villages of Olando and Got Kaliech. With nearly year round sunshine, solar is an obvious choice. Water is scarce and rainfall unpredictable, besides, hydroelectric requires transmission lines as does access to the national power grid. Less than 20% of Kenya is connected to the national power grid and the likelihood of a dramatic increase in that number is, well, let’s just say I have a better chance of winning the lottery. Over past 4 decades more than $520 Million was invested in the power infrastructure and the projection for getting much more of Kenya’s remote rural communities connected is dismal.

The Barefoot College has trained over 100 women in remote villages in 15 countries to become solar engineers. Together they have electrified over 5,500 homes. And, engineers from Dartmouth’s Thayer School have been traveling to Africa since 2007 to install solar panels to provide power to water pumps – eliminating the need for a 3 mile round trip schlep carrying liters of water balanced precariously on the heads of women and children.

While microfinance is experiencing its own crisis, investing in distributed electrical generation looks like the path of doing good while doing well.

{When not indulging at one of San José’s great coffeehouses, Lisa Jensen manages a consulting firm where she has the honor of helping great candidates running for office. Lisa serves as Chair of the Planning Commission for the City of San José and is a member of San José’s Envision 2040 General Plan Task force. She looks forward to the gleam of solar panels on rooftops across Silicon Valley.}

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