PicoPV for Mobile Charging
PicoPV systems are small systems with a power output of 1-10W and are mainly used for lighting purposes. However, some picoPV products also run small appliances such as mobile phone charging or running. The mobile charger is either connected to the main product (lamp) via a cable for charging from the battery or directly to the solar module. PicoPV systems provide an alternative pre-electrification option for the rural off-grid population and are cheaper, affordable and easily deployable as compared to the Solar Home Systems (SHS).
Although lighting is the key demand of the rural consumers, there are studies that suggest that the rural consumers also demand additional services such as mobile phone charging, which provides additional source of income. Therefore, this article provides an overview of the mobile phone charging aspect of the picoPV kits, including their challenges.
Need for Cheap and Affordable Mobile Charging for Rural Customers
Mobile charging is pretty expensive for the off-grid population in rural areas. For example, non-picoPV users in Kenya, Malawi, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia pay up to USD 0.66 per week and have to walk almost 28 minutes one way to reach the next charging stations. Mobile users in Cameroon pay about USD 1.93 per month while in Tanzania, mobile charging cost up to 50% of a person’s expenditure on their phone and they also have to travel on average 7-15 km to charge their phone. Similarly, users in Rwanda pay approximately USD 0.12-0.24 (100-200 FRW) per charge for charging their phone and have to walk one hour or more to charge their phone. Finally, in Kenya mobile phone charging cost about KES 60 (USD 0.7) per week.
Therefore charging a mobile phone is highly costly and time intensive for the rural consumers. PicoPV kit helps to solve this problem by providing an affordable and easily accessible mobile charging services. It also helps to reduce the time required to travel to charging stations. Along with charging their own mobile phones, the customers can also generate additional income by charging their neighbors’ mobile phones.
PicoPV kit with Mobile Charging Features
On average, it takes 1.5 to 2 hours to fully charge a simple mobile phone of 2W capacity. This calculation assumes that the phone has lithium batteries of 2.6 - 3.7 Wh capacity and 3.7 V, along with a charging efficiency of 90%. It should be noted that charging a smart phone will require roughly double the time.
As shown in Figure 1, a 10 W picoPV kit can be used every day for more than 10 hours for lightning along with charging a mobile phone every day for half the required capacity. However, it should be noted that while selling picoPV kits for mobile charging, the suppliers should calibrate the PicoPV so that it is compatible with the dominant mobile phones or else, there will be no uptake of the kit. For example, a randomized survey in Rwanda found that only 10% of the surveyed households used PicoPV kit for mobile charging and one of the reasons for this behavior could be the incompatibility of the mobile charger. Around 55% of the surveyed households said that the kit was either not compatible with the mobile chargers or even if the charger physically entered the phone, the charging would not start. Such situation could deter the users from using PicoPV .
Potential Collaboration between PicoPV Suppliers and Mobile Phone Network Providers
With the innovation of digital payments such as PAYG, the mobile phones are now also a source of digital/online banking. Customers who previously did not have credits or bank accounts can now use their phones to transfer money. However, mobile phones require electricity for regular charging and as described above, charging mobile phones could take a lot of time and money, depending on the country. As more mobile networks are offering mobile money services, it is in their best interest to boost the use of mobile phones in rural areas for both communication as well as online banking. In 2015, 69% of the moible money services launched were operated by mobile network providers. 
Therefore, there is an opportunity for both mobile network providers and picoPV suppliers to collaborate with one another to promote both the use of mobile phones as well as the PicoPV products.
- For example, SNV has collaborated with MTN (a local telephone company in Benin) to promote picoPV kit for mobile charging in rural Benin. As part of the cooperation, MTN provided a solar-powered mobile carts for its agents, who then used them to provide mobile charging services. The aim of this cooperation was double fold: to provide mobile charging to rural population as well as to increase the sale of PicoPV by practical demonstration of PicoPV usage.
- Likewise, in Kenya, Toughstuff collaborated with mobile service providers such as Orange, as a distribution partner for their mobile charging devices.
Hence, such a collaboration is beneficial to both parties: the picoPV suppliers can tap into the existing distribution market of the mobile network companies while the mobile network companies could provide better and cheaper charging services to its customers.
Challenges for Using PicoPV kit for Mobile Charging
- Since PicoPV kits are dependent on solar energy, on days with minimum or no sunlight, there is no opportunity to charge the mobile phones.
- Since the kit is mostly used for lighting sources at night, it is also not advisable to charge the cell phone at night. This limits the time frame for mobile charging.
- If the kit is used for lighting, there might be less charge available for mobile charging (the charge avaialbe depends on the use).
- There are different types of mobile phones and therefor the mobile charging unit has to be compatible with the dominant mobile phones in the targeted region.
- The solar panels have to be manually put in the sun and these panels could be easily stolen.
- Most of the picoPV kits are made from plastic and the batteries have toxic metals. The question of electrical waste and how to recycle the products should be taken into account. Read: Recycling of PicoPV Systems
- The PV market is flooded with cheap bad quality generic products. This has lowered the customers trust on the products. Therefore, there is a need to regulate the market and introduce new lab and field tests to ensure the quality of the products and provide a benchmark for the products.
With the widespread penetration of mobile phones, mobile phone charging will become a priority for many rural consumers. Therefore, PicoPV kits with mobile charging can tap into this market and provide affordable and cheap solutions to the rural consumers. However, the kit needs to be calibrated to function properly with the different mobile phones. Since, lighting is the biggest demand of the rural consumers, there might not be enough charge left for charging the mobile phones and it is necessary to advise the users to charge their phones during the day or to devise picoPV with greater capacity. Also, there is a possiblity for mobile network providers and picoPV suppliers to collaborate together to promote the use of mobile phones via PicoPV kits with mobile charging units.
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