Talking Points: Chris Longbottom, Mobile Power
Mobile Power provides electricity to off-grid customers in sub-Saharan Africa through an innovative business model involving solar-powered pay-per-use battery sharing. In this latest Talking Points interview, we talk to co-founder Chris Longbottom about bringing this novel energy access solution to life.
Chris, both you and the co-founders of Mobile Power are from, and still based in, the UK. How did you come up with the idea of starting a battery-rental business thousands of miles away in West Africa?
Back in 2013, we spent time in Gambia and saw solar home system (‘SHS’) solutions start to gain traction in Africa. When we compared these products to the mobile phone revolution that had gone before, we didn’t see SHS solutions as analogous, since they generally require consumer debt and long-term commitment and can’t easily be sold on.
Looking around further, drinking water and washing powder gave us further insight into how our markets function. Many consumers don’t buy large bottles of drinking water or 5-litre buckets of washing powder, but instead buy packet water and single-use sachets of washing powder. These pay-per-use offerings confirmed to us that consumers want to match their daily spend to their needs on a range of products from airtime to drinking water.
We wanted our products to fit into this paradigm, so we found a way to offer consumers the simplest form of energy access with the fewest barriers to entry that wouldn’t require customers to take on debt or long-term payment obligations. That landed us on a unique model of pay-per-use battery sharing, powered by solar PV at a central location – which we call a MOPO Hub.
Mobile Power uses a pay-per-use rental model to supply smart battery packs at a price affordable to low-income households. For people who don’t know, please tell us more about how this works in practice, and how it complements existing energy access solutions already in the market.
It’s important to understand how difficult energy access is for many of our customers before renting a MOPO Battery is an option for them. Many had previously been using generator-run phone charging kiosks, a less than ideal solution given the cost, and also the fact that you must leave your phone at the kiosk. When a MOPO Hub is installed in a town, customers can register for free and start making savings from their first rental.
Customers pay our MOPO Agents in cash to rent a portable MOPO50 battery for 24 hours, after which it is returned and charged ready for the next customer. The MOPO50 has a bright inbuilt lantern as well as plenty of sockets for charging phones and running DC appliances such as fans, TVs, radios etc.
In a customer survey, 89% of respondents reported an improved quality of life, with respondents citing the convenience of charging devices at home, being able to access light in the home, and having a greater sense of safety and security. Furthermore, 11% of customers reported using the MOPO Battery for business or income generating activity.
This is just the sort of innovative thinking the world needs if we are to meet the UN Sustainable Development Goal 7, which is to ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all. For such a unique model the earliest days of the business must have been filled with uncertainty and unknown risks. What were the greatest challenges and what lessons have you learned along the way? Is there anything you know now that you wished you had known from the outset?
I have fond memories of those early days, but as you rightly point out, they were full of risk and all-nighters too. It’s been a huge challenge to develop novel hardware and deploy it successfully across multiple countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. In the very early years, we ran a small trial with some off-the-shelf batteries with no security or payments systems and just some manual records. The agent was able to manage the business well and earned enough to build his mother a new home. At that point we began to realise that this could really scale with the right business model and technology. Since then, we’ve consistently iterated and improved both the underlying technology and local subsidiary operations to a point where we have the capacity to deploy a Hub with 300x MOPO50 every week across all our subsidiaries and have them creating a financial return in under a year in many cases.
One interesting and unexpected thing we learnt along the way was that flexibility and portability of MOPO Batteries is very important to customers. Some customers rent multiple times a day and others only once a week. The highly portable nature of MOPO Batteries means that even customers with a SHS or mini-grid connection are often regular customers as they can use the MOPO50 when not at home.
Last December, Mobile Power completed on a GBP 2m Series A funding round, which was led by a GBP 1m equity investment from REPP. Why did you initially target REPP for leading the round, and what were some of the differences with raising institutional money compared to your seed round? How important has closing the funding round been in taking the business forward in 2021?
Raising funds from an institutional investor was a key milestone for the Mobile Power team, one which seriously validates our business model. We had come across REPP and its investment manager Camco Clean Energy some time before our series A and enjoyed working with the team, who understood how pay-per-use battery sharing could become a game changer. The series A has really allowed us to focus on growing the number of MOPO Hubs rapidly across our subsidiaries.
In early 2021, Mobile Power announced that following a successful initial pilot for a new e-mobility platform it had purchased additional bikes for a larger pilot. Could you tell us a bit more about this side of your business, and how it complements your energy access side of the business?
Absolutely I can. Given the success of our MOPO50 product, our primary focus is on scaling up that product across our subsidiaries; but the success of MOPO50 has also taught us some very fundamental (and hard-won) lessons about battery sharing in Sub-Saharan Africa. If battery sharing/swapping is going to be essential for e-mobility to really take off – which we absolutely think it will be – then we want to leverage that relevant experience, both for e-mobility and for productive energy use applications more broadly.
Our initial trials allowed us to test product-market fit for the vehicles, especially understanding acceptable range per battery swap which helped determine the specifications for the larger MOPO Battery. Customers were wild about it, which gave us the green light to import an additional set of 17 motorbikes which recently arrived in Freetown and will be launched later this year. In the longer term, it’s likely that many of our MOPO Hubs in each market will support the larger battery which we call MOPOMax.
Batteries and solar panels contain hazardous materials which can result in significant pollution and health issues if released into the environmental at end of life. What plans, procedures and training do you have in place to ensure this does not happen and that whatever components that can be reused or recycled, are?
E-waste policy is still in its infancy or non-existent in many of our markets, but as a company we are committed to helping solve these issues, even if it means we are the first to do so. The rental system by nature allows us to keep track of our assets, and MOPO Agents give us a permanent presence even in our remotest locations, making e-waste collection easier. We’re keen to lead by example and as such we are working closely with a leading consultancy on our end-of-life processes and preparing to export end-of-life equipment when the times comes for us to do this.
Back in June, Mobile Power publicly welcomed its first female MOPO Agent in Liberia, joining the growing ranks of female MOPO Agents across the organisation – a positive news story for an industry where female representation is often severely lacking. How is Mobile Power addressing gender equity in its projects? How are you monitoring and evaluating your performance in this area?
We have a target to achieve 50% female representation amongst our agents, which is an ambitious target as many of the local governance structures are patriarchal, so men are oftentimes more accustomed to being put forward for roles such as being a MOPO Agent. Over time, we have managed to improve our recruitment of female agents and a big milestone for us was our first MOPO Hub run entirely by four female agents, in Sierra Leone. If we can keep that up, we’ll smash through our target which would be great. In the early days it was tough to prioritise female representation when we were still working on the fundamentals of the product-market fit, but with that in our rear-view mirror we’re rapidly approaching our goal and are close to 40% at the time of writing.
How has the Covid-19 crisis affected Mobile Power’s operations and business plans?
The lockdowns in the countries our subsidiaries operate in have not been as long as in the UK, which is where we manage our global operations from. This has meant that the subsidiaries have been able to grow, and customer demand has not been dampened. Our main challenges have been with supply chain and component procurement, something our operations team have done a great job of dealing with.
And lastly, how do you see the energy access market evolving over the coming years? What new innovations – whether business models, financing, and/or technology, do you feel are still needed in order to reach universal access goals?
Universal access is going to be tough because many business models can’t cope with the amount of investment that is really required to make this happen. There’s a certain kind of consumer that will be well catered for by SHS products, and I think we’re seeing a lot of activity in weak-grid backup systems too, but there’s a risk that economic and population growth makes a mockery of these impacts. E-mobility also has the possibility to seriously change the market, as I think it works better in much of Sub-Saharan Africa, where fuel is often purchased in small volumes – much like the analogies I made earlier. The crossover between e-mobility and energy access is an area which holds huge potential for future innovations.
However, to really make a dent I’d love to see debt and equity funders more boldly embracing a multitude of new business models and solutions to achieve universal access, just as Camco and our other funders have done. Given SHS and mini-grid models do not currently serve all consumer segments in an optimal manner, there is definitely further scope for innovation and technology to increase penetration of energy access solutions. Consumers in developing nations deserve our best and bravest efforts to deliver clean energy access in a manner which works for them at their income level, as a foundation for economic development.
(This article first appeared on ESI Africa)
Read other interviews in the Talking Points series: