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Enabling clean and affordable energy in East Africa with the cloud

Enabling clean and affordable energy in East Africa with the cloud

John Muthiora, Head of IT Systems, M-KOPA Solar

M-KOPA Solar is recognised as one of the top 50 companies changing the world. As of May 2017, the company has connected over 500,000 homes to affordable solar power, with 500 new homes added per day, transforming lives in Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda.

Worldwide, 1.3 billion people lack access to electricity. People in Africa are reliant on dirty kerosene to power their households. This form of energy is expensive, unsafe, and can cause health problems. With the use of the sun, mobile phones, and Microsoft Azure, M-KOPA Solar is improving the lives of people in Africa while connecting them to the world.

“M-KOPA is the world’s leading pay-as-you-go energy provider to off-grid homes. We’ve developed a better way to provide affordable, safe and clean energy to millions of people. The majority of the homes connected to M-KOPA have per capita income of less than US$2 per day,” explains M-KOPA’s Head of IT Systems, John Muthiora.

Every battery-powered 8-watt system the company provides comes with three lights, mobile phone charging, and a solar-powered radio. There is also an option for a 20-watt system with digital television. These systems help unlock people’s economic potential by making them healthier, wealthier and more productive.

A solution to scale

M-KOPA Solar has grown rapidly in six years, expanding to over 1,000 full-time staff and an additional sales force of 1,000. Because of this, the company began looking for a technology partner who could help support their growth. “M-KOPA needed a hosting solution that would allow us to scale up and down quickly as we build out new technologies and expand to new markets. Typical data centre models weren’t working for us, so we decided to move to the cloud,” explains Jesse Moore, CEO, M-KOPA Solar.

The company had multiple requirements when looking for a cloud provider, as Muthiora outlines, “We were looking for a partner whose technology would re-use and grow existing skillsets and technology against a clear roadmap. We also considered factors such as speed of deployment, geographical proximity, scale, security, connectivity and total cost of the service.

“We needed to scale horizontally during peak periods and vertically (both up and down by increasing RAM and compute) when there is a brief and urgent spike in demand. We needed a platform that would deliver services to our employees and customers within East Africa.”

Microsoft’s announcement earlier in 2017 of plans to offer its services from local data centres in Johannesburg and Cape Town made them an appealing partner for M-KOPA Solar, “Microsoft demonstrated a commitment and presence in our core markets, and the scheduled launch of the first Africa data centres in 2018 will be key in us building resilience into our systems,” says Muthiora.

“Given M-KOPA’s investment in the underlying Microsoft technology and in the partnership between both businesses, Microsoft was the logical partner to host our customer- and employee-facing services.”

The technology life cycle

Muthiora continues, “We have implemented Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS), Platform as a Service (PaaS) and Software as a Service (SaaS) technology across the business. Microsoft solutions are deployed through the entire technology life cycle from project planning through development, testing, operational readiness, and actual deployment.”

The chosen solution leverages the hybrid cloud capabilities of Microsoft Azure to maintain a consistent experience between Azure and M-KOPA’s data centre infrastructure. This model enables a cost-efficient solution to reduce storage and increase manageability across all sites. M-KOPA’s home solar system, with the power of Microsoft’s Cortana Intelligence Suite, can receive predictive information about battery failures and payment assessments. This system provides a reliable and affordable energy solution for residents across Africa.

By leveraging mobile technology, IoT-enabled devices, and Azure Machine Learning, M-KOPA is able to understand consumer behaviour and provide continuous improvement to its product range. M-KOPA remotely controls the equipment, monitors its performance, troubleshoots issues and proactively intervenes to prevent system outages.

Expanding further on the technology that enables the company to remotely intervene and prevent system outages, Muthoria says, “We utilise GSM solutions for communication between our systems and our devices. Our devices are designed so that they are resilient to connectivity challenges that can occur in remote locations around the continent. Microsoft supports various flavours of Linux and other open-source technology, so we run both Microsoft and open-source solutions for workloads, including proactive monitoring of hardware and software systems.”

Upgrading the lives of customers

Connectivity and power in rural areas of Africa are not reliable. By leveraging Microsoft Azure and the sun, M-KOPA’s energy solution is providing reliable energy and expanding services to many in Eastern Africa. This system enables residents to access a cleaner and safer power option while expanding the potential services in their homes.

“The Microsoft cloud solution gives M-KOPA a single technology platform and solution partner whose technology can overcome some of the unique connectivity challenges faced by off grid homes,” says Muthiora.

“Through different capabilities built into the platform we are able to determine which cloud resources are available, when they are available and how long they are available for. We are also able to run analytics on usage and platform data. We are able to leverage some open-source solutions within the cloud to lower our total cost of technology services.”

“M-KOPA was born in the cloud and we are now the largest user of Microsoft’s cloud in Africa,” Muthiora continues, “We have enjoyed significant speed of deployment of new solutions and now we utilise the latest technology such as IoT, big data, machine learning in the cognitive intelligence suite and power BI to upgrade the lives of our customers. We are able to process than 1.5 billion data points a month.

“The result? Almost $200 saved annually per household annually, with around $375 million cumulatively saved by our customers since inception. Additionally, we estimate that our customers collectively enjoyed 62.5 million hours of kerosene-free lighting with M-KOPA in November 2017 alone.”

“M-KOPA is further using Azure services like Service Fabric, Data Lake, and Event Hub in new ways. We are leveraging many capabilities of Microsoft Azure such as App services, Azure functions, Azure SQL Database and CosmosDB. We also enjoy extensive support services for these solutions. These range from training and assistance with adoption, to design workshops and technical support escalations.”

In 2013, Microsoft launched its 4Afrika initiative, a programme designed to leverage Africa’s potential to create technology for the world. The initiative invests in three critical areas of development: world-class skills, access and innovation. Frank McCosker, General Manager, Affordable Access and Smart Financing, Microsoft Corporation, explains why M-KOPA Solar is a stellar example of what the programme stands for, “M-KOPA Solar is a real example of smart innovation for social good. They combine last-mile access technology with off-grid renewable energy and an alternative payment mechanism. These are all things Microsoft 4Afrika looks for when investing in local solutions – and M-KOPA have it all in one.”