1. Fred Migai - Solar plate panels for radios, etc.
2. Fred Ouko - Solar plate panels for radios, etc.
Report from a Nairobi newspaper:
A START-UP OUTGROWS ITS DREAM - from Nairobi's Nation
Solar panels dealer finds a huge market in rural areas which is powering its growth
In a cramped and sweaty one-room office at a Nairobi go-down, a sharply dressed man in a beige suit leads several dozen young men and women in a motivational cheer "Juice up! Juice down! Juice all around!" shouts Mr Fred Migai, founder and manager of Fomax Direct Units.
The gathered youths repeat the odd slogan gleefully, throwlng their hands up and down in unison.
On this Wednesday morning most of these young sales people are heading out across Nairobi and other parts of the country with a single mission: to sell inconspicous-looking black squares with several attached wires.
But looks are deceiving because, according to Mr Migai, the power these small solar panels harness from the sun can change lives and make him and his "youths" a tidy profit.
Kenya has major holes its power grid that may never be fllled due to the cost of extending lines into remote rural areas.
For people in those areas, radios and, more recently, cell phones are often the only connections to events in the wider world. But keeplng them powered usually requires expensive and short-lived dry-cell batteries.
Solar power, which came to prominence in the 1970s, has been touted as a potential solution, especially given Kenya’s sunny climate.
But this doesn’t fully explain the success of Fomax, shorthand for For the Maximum
"The secret of this product is it’s uniqueness," says Mr Migai in his office, where the walls are covered in inspirational posters. "At the same time it saves money because it’s renewable power, you use the sun’s energy to power all these things,"
He demonstrates how one of his panels can directly power a radio, re-charge a mobile phone or be used with a rechargeable battery to provide power even at night, "The cost of batteries is around Sh 5O for a pair," says Mr Migai.
With the panels, "instead of buying batteries you buy food for the family or clothing or other things".
Mr John Keane is a British volunteer who has been promoting solar panels in Kenya for nearly three years.
He is involved with projects in Kibera and Nanyuki to get youth to make and sell panels using DIY methods from British non-profit group BioDesign.
Mr Keane acknowledges that current cheap solar technology is limited to radios and small appliances but these can be vital tools, "Everybody needs radio and there’s lots that aren’t turned on in rural Africa because people can’t afford to buy batteries all the time,"he says.
Initial costs remain relatively hlgh, but they are 90 per cent less than when the technology first emerged in the 7Os.
Down the road, cheaper solar technology could meet more energy intensive needs like lighting and heating.
"The technology is improving and they’re getting more efficient. Who knows in 10 years what will be on the market," says Mr Keane.
Mr Migai, 28. previously worked in sales for a South African company that went under in 2004.
He was looking lor something new when he attended a solar panel workshop held by the longtime solar advocate and businessman, Mr Leo Blyth.
Mr Migai saw it as a perfect opportunity,"I just saw the potential in this because if I can learn how to go about this and make (panels) and assemble them, then I can also use my marketing skills to promote them, ’ he recalls.
After some basic training in assembling panels, Mr Migai invested Sh3000 in materials, enough to make three solar panels in his home.
When he sold out in Nairobi in three days, he went back and made 10 more.
Next he did 20 then 30, and then decided to try his luck outside of the capital.
In Eldoret and Kisumu, Mr Migai found even more interested customers.
He invested in a small workshop and taught his cousin to assemble the panels.
Three months after starting out with three panel sales were growlng and one sales person was no longer sufficient.
Today; through job postings in newspapers and shopping centres, Mr Migai receives hundreds of applications from young people.
Since many of them have no experience in sales, he and senior salesmen "trainers" teach them the arts of selling, marketing and basic management skills.
Fomax’s 45-member sales team range in age from 17 to 36, but Mr Migai calls them all "youths".
Many are still at campus, and can "make money during the holidays that can help them pay for college;"says Mr Migai.
Mr Walowa Geoffrey, a lanky 19 year-old, eagerly tucks four panels into his briefcase for a sales trip to Thika.
"l’m going to sell all of them,"he says. For each panel Geoffrey sells today he will get Sh 25O, a commission of around 16 percent.
That is why he likes his job. "I get some good amount of money here", he says .
At 28, Ms Rosie Ojiamho, one of several female sales people, is among the older Fomax staff.
Since joining the company in September, she says her life has been changed,
"I couldn’t talk to senior people in public," she says of her shyness before joining Fomax. "Now I can talk even to ministers."
Although it often means getting permission from worried parents before week~long sales trips up-country, hiring young workers is point of pride for Mr Migai. With rampant unemployment in Kenya, he says his company offers hope to youth who are willing to work.
"We are going to train youth so that they start getting self-reliance," says Mr Migai. "We inspire them that you can succeed when you are working hard."
Another successful project in Kenya is found at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/4001061.stm
An article about DIY Solar is found in Boiling Point 51 at http://www.itdg.org/?id=boiling_point