Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Harnessing pedal power to light up Africa

By Robyn Curnow and Teo Kermeliotis, CNN
August 8, 2012 -- Updated 1228 GMT (2028 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • 589 million people in Africa live without access to a public electricity facility
  • Nuru Energy has created a pedal generator that allows light and mobile phone recharging
  • The company says its products are more affordable and reliable than other energy solutions
  • It has set up a network of micro entrepreneurs who sell and recharge the lights

(CNN) -- When night falls over Rwanda, many rural communities far removed from the country's electricity grid descend into darkness.

Unplugged from the power lines, households in these areas rely mainly on fuel-based devices such as kerosene lamps for access to light. Such lanterns, however, are polluting and costly: They emit toxic fumes, pose fire hazards and also put a strain on family budgets.

But recently, an innovative solution has emerged to offer affordable and efficient electricity to low-income households while benefiting the communities by providing jobs to local populations.

Called POWERcycle, Nuru Energy says it has developed "the world's first commercially available pedal generator" -- a foot or hand-powered device that can recharge up to five modular light emitting diode (LED) lamps in approximately 20 minutes, as well as power mobile phones and radios.

Read also: Bamboo bikes put Zambian business on right track

The company says each of its portable LED lamps provides one week of light to a rural household. It also claims that its products are more affordable and reliable than other forms of off-grid offerings that have been developed in recent years, including solar lamps or home solar lighting systems.

"We looked around and said, well, what is the one energy resource that's untapped in this environment? And human power really came to mind," says Sameer Hajee, chief executive and co-founder of Nuru Energy.

Nuru Energy is a company offering affordable and efficient electricity to low-income households in rural Rwanda. Nuru Energy is a company offering affordable and efficient electricity to low-income households in rural Rwanda.
Nuru Energy
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
>
>>
Lighting up rural Africa Lighting up rural Africa

"We thought, well, if we can harness human energy in a way that we can create economic opportunity and low-power electricity, wouldn't that be a game changing solution?"

Watch: Can handmade bicycles change lives?

According to Lighting Africa, a joint World Bank - IFC program developed to increase access to clean sources of energy for lighting, 589 million people in the continent live without access to a public electricity facility.

It's a huge value proposition for the customer and for the entrepreneur.
Sameer Hajee, Nuru Energy

The group says African poor rural households and small businesses pay $10 billion per year for lighting purposes, while communities not connected to the grid spend $4.4 billion annually on kerosene.

Read also: Pay-as-you-go solar power lights up rural Africa

Looking to address the issue of energy poverty, Hajee, a social entrepreneur with a lot of experience in international development, spent more than a month in Rwanda in 2008, trying to figure out what were the energy needs of the country's off-grid population.

What he found out was "actually quite basic [energy needs]," he says. "It's light, it's cooking, it's mobile phone recharging and radio."

Read also: Unplugging from the world's power lines

Life in Rwanda on two wheels
Rwanda's first professional cycling team
Cycling the rainy roads of Rwanda

With help from the World Bank, Hajee co-founded Nuru Energy and in 2009 the company started testing its products in the field.

Hajee quickly realized, however, that innovative technology was not enough for the project to be successful in a place like rural Rwanda. His company also needed to adopt a creative approach in the distribution front.

Read also: Rwanda's B-Boys

"We couldn't just sell product -- we had to actually get involved in the value chain downstream," he says. "We thought, well, if the generator can recharge five lights so quickly, could this not be the basis of a recharging business for a local entrepreneur?"

As a result, the company decided not to sell its products directly to customers. Instead, it set up a network of village-level entrepreneurs who are responsible for marketing, selling, and recharging the lights.

Read also: Experts warn Africa must learn from India's microfinance problems

Hajee says this unique model of distribution has revolutionized the lives of both micro-entrepreneurs and customers.

"If you look at this from the standpoint of the customer," says Hajee, "they would purchase the light for $6 and then they would pay about 20 U.S. cents per week for lighting. This is compared to about $2 a week that they would spend on kerosene before. So it's 10 times cheaper solution for them.

"From the entrepreneur's perspective, in 20 minutes of pedaling, they're recharging five lights, earning about $1 -- any of us that work in Africa know that that's much more than people make in an entire day. So it's a huge value proposition for the customer and for the entrepreneur."

Opinion: Could Africa be world's next manufacturing hub?

Hajee notes that this model can easily be emulated across rural Africa. He says that Nuru Energy, which currently focuses on East Africa and India, has already been approached by a number of potential joint venture partners to roll out the project in other parts of the continent.

"I really hope that what we're providing here is a stopgap solution to the immediate energy needs of...rural populations," says Hajee. "What I would really hope is that, you know, there's certainly effort needed in providing grid quality electricity to these populations. It'll take some time."

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
Marketplace Africa
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1114 GMT (1914 HKT)
In Uganda, a group of landmine victims are using banana fiber to create rope, profit and community.
September 25, 2014 -- Updated 1337 GMT (2137 HKT)
What does it mean to be Nigerian? That's the question on the lips of many in Nigeria as new national identity cards are being rolled out.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1105 GMT (1905 HKT)
 General view of an oil offshore platform owned by Total Fina Elf in the surroundings waters of the Angolan coast 15 October 2003. The 11 members of the OPEC oil cartel have agreed to slash output by a million barrels a day, the OPEC president said 11 October 2006, in a move aimed at shoring up sliding world crude prices.
Six of the top 10 global oil and gas discoveries last year were made in Africa -- but can these finds transform the continent?
February 20, 2014 -- Updated 1121 GMT (1921 HKT)
A South African app allows buyers to pay for goods using their phone, without having to worry about carrying cash or credit cards.
February 19, 2014 -- Updated 1523 GMT (2323 HKT)
A Zambian computer tablet -- known as the ZEduPad -- is trying to open up the country's information highway.
January 9, 2014 -- Updated 1057 GMT (1857 HKT)
South Africa may be the dominant force in Africa's wine economy, but other countries are making inroads in the industry.
January 6, 2014 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
Commuters aboard an overloaded passenger train 03 February 2004, celebrate after arrival at the train station in the centre of the capital Nairobi.
A $5 billion Chinese-funded railway project in Kenya could transform transport in east Africa.
December 13, 2013 -- Updated 0027 GMT (0827 HKT)
African astronomers want world-class observatories to inspire young scientists and build a tech economy.
November 27, 2013 -- Updated 1029 GMT (1829 HKT)
A new report praises South Africa's economic transformation since apartheid. But enormous challenges remain.
November 22, 2013 -- Updated 1718 GMT (0118 HKT)
zword app zombies
From zombie spelling games to walking snails, Africa's mobile gaming industry is taking off across the continent from Uganda to South Africa.
November 8, 2013 -- Updated 1146 GMT (1946 HKT)
Ethiopia is turning to renewable energy technology as the East African country looks to become a powerhouse for its regional partners.
November 4, 2013 -- Updated 1216 GMT (2016 HKT)
Downtown Johannesburg -- once a no-go zone riddled with crime -- is undergoing urban restoration.
October 16, 2013 -- Updated 1412 GMT (2212 HKT)
Using helicopters and night-vision, crime syndicates are taking rhino poaching to a new level and conservation parks are struggling to keep up.
October 10, 2013 -- Updated 0927 GMT (1727 HKT)
Eko Atlantic city design concept
A lack of infrastructure has hindered Africa's development, but a series of megaprojects could change that.
Each week Marketplace Africa covers the continent's macro trends and interviews a major player from the region's business community.
ADVERTISEMENT