The Sun in Zambia’s Rising: How one Social Enterprise is rekindling the hope of the marginalized.
Humans have been known to follow the light for centuries. Cities have been built, industries solidified and migration increased by the presence of electricity in selected areas. While any form of development is a reason to rejoice, there’s also reason to lament on the other end of the growth spectrum. Urban migration leads to the underdevelopment of rural areas, which in turn leads to massive disparities in earning capacity between communities. An estimated two billion people lack access to electricity globally and alternatives such as kerosene have been identified as unhealthy, dangerous and contributors to global warming. The premise of Kukula solar is to distribute solar products to low-income families in Zambia.
Kukula founder, Francis Mbewe started with USD1000 but the enterprise has grown into a USD300,000 company. He used to miss school due to sickness stemming from fumes that come from using kerosene and this triggered a quest for better solutions at the tender age of 13. Fast-forward to adult-hood, and voila! Francis discovered solar power, a phenomenon he came across while studying in the city. The best social entrepreneurs are able to change lives and test their ideas with a small audience and a limited budget. Francis went back to his village with 3 solar lamps, lamps which according to him, were “life-changing” for his brethren. Thus began the quest for capital with a certainty that no-one people had to suffer the way that he did.
A transition into the meaningful non-profit world taught Francis valuable lessons regarding social enterprises and the struggle to build sustainable business models, lessons that would shape the way his businesses operate. As is the case with many founders, Francis left the cushy life and embarked on the complicated journey that is social entrepreneurship, learning and iterating on the way. His initial model for Kukula Solar was selling solar products on a cash basis but after realizing that villagers were struggling to make purchases, Francis pivoted into a rent-to-own model which helped low-income families to transition successfully into sustainable energy.
Kukula shared its model with the United States Africa Development Foundation who awarded them USD25,000 to scale and increase impact. The enterprise has since moved to empowering communities through employing community members and continuing the cycle of change-making through traditional leaders, local women, and youth who are all part of a chain of distribution, awareness, and monitoring. To date, Kukula Solar has distributed over 4,500 solar units impacting 30,000 lives directly and over 400,000 indirectly by providing light for women-led businesses in Western Zambia. The Kukula model has been so successful that it has been replicated in neighboring villages and most recently, Malawi. The enterprise also continues to tweak their offerings, creating customized models like a Solar for Harvest offering for farmers who have the option of paying for their solar products once-off after harvest.
The learning curves continue to come and one of the key lessons has been that the rent-to-own model is more viable because Pay-As-You-Go leads to customers reverting to kerosene when money for power runs out. Kukula’s efforts have not gone unnoticed and they have won multiple awards such as the prestigious Seed Africa award in 2019..Their goal is to distribute 1 million solar products by 2030 and plans are underway to scale to more countries such as DRC, Zimbabwe, Ghana, and Uganda. We are excited to see Kukula’s light shine even brighter!