“Mwangaza ina heshima.” This light has respect.
If not for an engineering decision, Machakos could have been Kenya’s capital city. It was the first up-country trading post established by the Imperial British East African Company (the private company granted a royal charter by Queen Victoria to act as the government of what is now Kenya and Uganda). The Akamba people who live in the Machakos area were already renowned long-distance traders, carrying a variety of cargo—ivory, precious stones, millet, sugar cane wine, brass weapons, tools, and jewellery—back and forth between the interior and the Arab and Swahili towns on the Indian Ocean coast. The British built the railway linking the coast to the interior in order to dominate the overland trade, and to extend it deeper, into what’s now Uganda. But when they did, and because of the engineering decision to put the railroad where it would be put, Machakos would be off the main route by 16 kilometres, no longer the center of overland trade. Instead of Machakos, the capital of Kenya would be the city that sprang up (roughly) on the halfway point, Nairobi.
Of course, Machakos’s marginalization only begins with being bypassed by the railway. For decades after independence, official development policy privileged areas that grew cash crops like tea, coffee, and maize. Kenya’s Sessional Paper Number 10 of 1965—which served as the government’s planning tool for socioeconomic development until a new constitution came into force in 2010—explicitly marginalized some areas over others. “One of our problems is to decide how much priority we should give in investing in less developed provinces,” the paper reads. “To make the economy as a whole grow as fast as possible, development money should be invested where it will yield the largest increase in output. This approach will clearly favour the development of areas having abundant natural resources, good land and rainfall, transport and power facilities, and people receptive to and active in development.”
Machakos and its greater hinterland, Ukambani, did not have the natural resources or good rainfall that the government deemed necessary to participate in “development.” There was less investment in roads, water, schools, and hospitals; and poverty deepened in the region. Even more egregious, some Kenyans were designated as “receptive” and “active” in development; others were not, presumably with rainfall and land fertility being the determining factor.
It’s a subtle but effective bureaucratic dehumanizing, and its impact runs deep and wide. How can one exist as a human in a country that determines your worth by your proximity to and ownership of natural resources and physical infrastructure?
These questions are now playing out in what might seem like an unlikely place: the rapidly growing sector of off-grid solar electricity. The number of Kenyan households with access to solar power has increased from 3 percent in 2013 to 15 percent in 2016; aggressively expanding solar companies like KENSEN, Sunlar, M-KOPA, Go Solar Systems, and PowerPoint Systems provide access to electricity, off the grid, for low-income families. But if, on the surface, they might seem to provide a technological solution to an infrastructural problem, this growing market takes us right into questions about how people locate their humanity and dignity in relation to natural resources, market logics, and the idea of “development.”
Off-grid solar technologies are growing rapidly in many African countries; it’s a natural solution on a continent where nearly two-thirds of the population lack access to electricity, about 600 million people. The continent’s traditional energy grid is marred by insufficient capacity, unreliability, and high costs. And so, if the national power grid is not an option, an individual solar-energy unit provides a workaround. In 2016, total sales amounted to over 30 million solar devices and an estimated $1 billion in revenue. And as the market has grown, so has the supplier base: 60 dedicated solar suppliers in 2010 have grown to over 330 today.
A place like Machakos, with its relatively poor electrification but well-connected mobile infrastructure, as well as a semiarid climate and bright sunshine for most of the year, would seem to be the perfect place to try and scale. But the major impediment to mass adoption of these solar products is the upfront cost to the household: one home system I saw at a Machakos retail store—comprising a battery pack, three lights, an FM radio, and a solar panel—had a cash price of KSh 9,500 ($95). This is far out of reach for most households in the region; the same lack of development that precludes investment in energy infrastructure also means that not many households can pay the upfront cost of an individual solar-energy unit.
The answer has been pay-as-you-go (PAYGo) kits, touted as a deft technological solution: the solar package is sold on credit, embedded with a lockout technology, and linked to a user’s mobile money account, which allows families to pay back the lights in small daily instalments (and the company to lock them out if they don’t). The same solar package with a PAYGo system requires only a down payment of KSh 1,900 ($19), with subsequent daily payments of KSh 45 ($0.45) spread over nine months. Combining the daily payments with remote lockout technology not only solves the problem of access—at least from the perspective of the solar companies—but it also helps to improve debt collection: if you don’t pay, the lights automatically go off, reconnecting only when you send your payment through.
For the solar companies, this solar loan is “financial inclusion,” allowing poor families to move from dirty fuels to clean light, bringing “development” to the region and raising the social status of individual households.
But can you really borrow your way out of poverty? The underlying poverty remains intact, which should complicate this rosy narrative. Solar companies are attracted to Machakos precisely because people are not able to easily pay for individual systems up front. Is being “included” in the financial system, through debt, a path to “development”? Can the market develop human dignity?
Gideon Mwanzia lives in Machakos, just off the highway to neighbouring Kangundo. A pastor at a local church, he lives with his wife and his four children, though the older two are often away in boarding school. His rural home is 175 km away in the much more remote Kambu village, and having almost completed paying back his PAYGo home solar system, he’s thinking of buying a second unit for his Kambu home.
“This solar is good; you don’t have the problem of handling kerosene every day,” he tells me.
After a mishap with a kerosene lamp almost burned his house down a few years ago, the whole family was shaken and looked for an alternative. His first try was Kenya Power, the national electricity utility, since he lives close to Machakos town, which is connected to the grid. The bureaucracy exhausted him—the requirements seemed to change with every visit to the Kenya Power office in Machakos—but the high cost of connection was the biggest hurdle. Until 2015, the cost of connecting a home to the Kenya Power grid was KSh 35,000 ($350), and in many cases you had to pay for “pulling” the electricity to your home (including buying the poles and wires to your house).
To explain this tangled mess of policy failures would require an entirely different essay. And yet the question is worth lingering on. Three years ago, the government began a subsidized electricity connection for KSh 15,000 ($150) that could be paid in instalments as part of your monthly electricity bill. It was lauded as a pro-poor move; it was also still out of reach for many of the target families. It could require waiting for a transformer to be brought closer to your home in order to be connected, or shouldering the cost of buying the transformer yourself, in the range of KSh 100,000 ($1,000). Even for poor families who are connected to the grid, struggling to make ends meet can mean they are unable to make use of their connection; in March 2017, nearly 1 million new customers had not purchased prepaid tokens for months after being connected, making them “zero vend” customers. This means that even the government’s effort to subsidize the “last mile” connection does not translate into real widespread accessibility for poor families with low and irregular income streams.
To make matters worse, electricity tariffs have risen dramatically over the past year; the government overestimated power demand growth and has had to pay power investors for excess capacity. But making consumers bear the burden of the market’s fluctuation is the standard response; indeed, sometimes it’s the cause of the price hikes. In September, kerosene prices rose to an all-time high of KSh 108 ($1.08) per litre, after President Uhuru Kenyatta increased the VAT on petroleum products by 8 percent: unscrupulous fuel traders were using cheaper kerosene to adulterate diesel fuel, went the argument, and bringing the two prices closer together would remove this profit incentive. But why should the cost of protecting diesel consumers—used by heavy industry and SUV drivers—be paid by the poor, who use kerosene for cooking and lighting?
Against such a backdrop, solar can seem like a miracle solution, energy from the sky; instead of relying on the government, and the market, you can procure your own solar energy unit. And so, when a friend suggested solar energy as an alternative to Gideon’s power problems, it seemed like a perfect idea. “Mwangaza ina heshima kwa jamii. Kuna kiwango unaonekana umetoka,” Gideon tells me. This light brings me respect from the community. There’s a level you are seen to have left behind.
These sentiments are common. A reliable source of energy can transform people’s lifestyle, as researchers have found; it gives them a strong sense of pride, dignity, and achievement. Customers show off the systems to their visitors and make them feel more welcome, something highly valued by the families interviewed in “Escaping Darkness: Understanding Customer Value in PAYGo Solar.”
Yet if dignity—in Kiswahili, heshima—is a key motivation, heshima is also Mwanzia’s main complaint. The PAYGo product he uses is set to be paid back in fixed daily payments; you can pay a little more in advance when you land a lump sum of money. In an economy where incomes are unpredictable, it is common to do so; you might have KSh 1,000 ($10) today, and nothing at all a few days later, so many users pay for the light in irregular amounts. Income and consumption in the typical Kenyan household fluctuate dramatically (income fluctuates ± 55 percent from month to month, and consumption similarly fluctuates ± 43 percent). That’s a lot of uncertainty, and so the advance payments should be a way to even that out. But as Mwanzia complains, there’s no warning when the lights are due to go off; there’s no advance SMS warning, or small screen counting down your “light credits” as you use them, not even a light that blinks when it’s almost time to pay.
It might seem like a small thing to complain about. But small engineering decisions can have huge consequences, as when Machakos was bypassed a century ago, and the priorities behind apparently technical decisions tell you everything about whom progress is designed for. How would such a feature have been omitted? What presumptions inform the construction of a device that communicates only one message to its user, “off”?
After all, low-income people have dignity, and they cultivate and fiercely manage their social status. Researchers in Langa township in Cape Town, South Africa, found that poor residents were willing to spend to buy an expensive phone, for example, but were perpetually short of airtime; the phone was “smart” but the owner could not actually call, text, or browse. “Having sufficient airtime and access to electricity to charge phones . . . for some residents, seemed secondary to actually owning a phone,” as Dr Crystal Powell puts it; the mobile phone was not a means to an end but an end in itself, a device primarily used to mitigate the social exclusion the township residents live with every day. For residents of Langa, mobile phones were “the great equaliser,” a way of broadcasting their dignity to the more affluent Cape Towners.
The advantage of solar is that produces no smoke, no odor, and no permanent residue left clinging to walls and roofing sheets; kerosene lamps create the risk of fire. It’s also brighter. But a disadvantage is that—in contrast to the dim kerosene lamps—solar light is bright enough that people in the community notice when it is turned off. It’s humiliating when people can see that “darkness has returned to your home,” as Mwanzia tells me. But because of the unpredictability of incomes, this may happen frequently, even every few days; sometimes he may have the money in cash but still need to find a mobile money provider to make a payment.
“People know I have light in my house, then they see darkness. . . . ”
If the sun is a natural resource, it is not like land that you can fence off or a river that you can dam and control. The sun is up there, unreachable and untameable. But remote lockouts, and the debt model they sustain, not only seek to discipline people, they strive to discipline the sun itself, funnelling both people and natural resources through this narrow straitjacket of market logic. And yet the market doesn’t even deliver the cost savings it promises. If solar units provide cleaner and better-quality light, the debt-for-profit model means there is often no actual cost savings for many years: the solar companies’ profit must take priority.
The grand humiliation of poverty can make the small embarrassment of remote shutoff seem like something not worth bothering about. But we should think again. It’s not just a technological problem that an SMS advance notice would fix: Mwanzia’s complaint suggests a deeper, more fundamental problem that goes beyond the technology itself, locating his struggle for dignity in the same dehumanizing logics that framed Kenya’s Sessional Paper Number 10. The remote lockouts operate on the assumption that people like Mwanzia—the kind of people who would need solar as an alternative to grid electricity—are inherently defaulters, by virtue of their material poverty. Because low-income people are not “receptive” or “active” in development, they must be disciplined into progress by the humiliation of the lockout.
Why should heshima be the price Mwanzia pays for progress?
I reached out to a number of solar tech firms to discuss how the question of users’ psychological dignity features in their product design. None of them got back to me.