The SolarHome 620 can transform an off-grid structure into an electrified home – and it all fits in the size of a shoebox.
This solar lighting system was designed for households living in energy poverty across sub-Saharan Africa, offering a safe, affordable, and reliable alternative to dangerous and expensive kerosene and is currently used in 5,000 homes in western Kenya. An easy-to-install 6-watt solar panel powers a system of 3 daisy-chaining hanging lights, one of which includes an optional motion sensor that users can activate for extra security. A central control box enables users to get real-time feedback on sun-strength and battery capacity (the system stores power via a 20 watt-hour battery, hence the name 620: 6 watt panel, 20 watt-hour battery) as well as access to FM radio and MP3 capabilities, and 2 USB-charging ports to keep phones and other devices charged. Each light has an individual on/off switch and three brightness settings so users can have full control over how they light their space. The lights' 18ft cords enable multi-room illumination all from a single centralized power source. The modern industrial design feels both aspirational and approachable, made from durable materials that invite daily use for longterm adoption.
In November 2017 BioLite released its first-ever short film, The Power of Home, documenting the work of BioLite Field Technician Kennedy Yamame as he installed SolarHome 620s in his childhood region of western Kenya.
Through firsthand customer feedback, small-scale prototyping, and rapid testing, BioLite undertook five phases of product development and refinement to land on a final design that met performance and durability requirements aligned with customers' real-life needs. Working closely with a local partner, we were able to achieve beta and pilot testing, collect data and insights on usage and quality control, and develop financing opportunities –all in the span of two years – to bring this product to market by 2017.
It is through this in-depth fieldwork that key features like the motion sensor and FM radio were incorporated as well as smaller but equally important details such as the cord length for each hanging light.
Potential For Impact
The SolarHome 620 has the potential to revolutionize how people access the future of energy, offering a tangible solution to leapfrog traditional grids and unlock readily available energy.
In western Kenya, sun is plentiful, making solar a compelling and efficient solution. Rather than waiting for large scale infrastructure, the SolarHome 620 empowers families to power themselves and harness free energy around them to meet the growing electricity needs of the household. Many homes face an energy paradox where rates of cell phone ownership outpace rates of electrification -- phones are critically important to these homes as they not only enable communication and keeping in touch, they are also the gateway to digital payments, entirely bypassing the physical credit and debit card system we have come to know in the states. M-Pesa is a mobile money system in Kenya that dominates the market, offering cashless transactions that take can take place through a basic mobile phone. Whether you are in Nairobi or rural Bungoma, almost everyone has M-Pesa. With that in mind BioLite built a unique feature into the SolarHome 620: a mobile PayGo system that allows users to pay for the unit over time in small installments paid through their mobile device. This creates a path to ownership that even the poorest households can access, made all the more attractive by the fact that the system generates meaningful savings by avoiding expensive kerosene and off-site phone charging, effectively paying for itself in 6-8 months' time.
While the design is exciting, a product is only good if people actually use it – the innovation of the SHS620 is not just from the product itself, but from the business model BioLite has built and refined over the last five years to get it into the hands of customers that are typically very hard to reach. Through our model of Parallel Innovation, we've been able to take near-term sales from our Outdoor Recreational Market and reinvest it into market-building programs in sub-Saharan Africa. These programs have led to highly successful, and scalable, on-the-ground partnerships with local microfinance institutions that enable us to work with remote, rural customers and provide opportunities for the training, service, and financing that ultimately lead to long-term adoption. Thanks to these partnerships, well be in over 40,000 households by early 2018.
In the spirit of our Parallel Innovation approach, the SolarHome 620 is BioLite's first crossover product, available to outdoor customers in February 2018. The energy kit has applications for everything from sheds to vans to treehouses to the unexpected power outage (under your sink at the ready), and offers an easy, affordable introduction to solar for those new to the category.