Technology (3)

Battle for the solar market

 Solar wars heat up following German firm’s arrival into Kenya market. By achary Ochieg, Nairobi

THE STAGE is set for a major battle in the solar sector following the March entry into the Kenyan market of Mobisol, a provider of smart solar home solutions from Germany. By installing a free solar unit at a house in Juja, Kiambu County, about 50km from Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, Mobisol has ignited a price war that is bound to shake the market for sometime to come.

The solar unit - comprising a 120 watt solar lighting system and Mobisol-branded 32-inch flat screen TV - was installed at the one-bedroomed house of John Kimani Wanjiru, who became the company’s first customer in Kenya.

To witness the event were various high- profile guests, including Kiambu County deputy governor Gerald Gakuha Githinji, a member of the parliamentary committee on energy James Rege, Germany’s envoy to Kenya Jutta Frasch, and the director for renewable energy at the ministry of energy and petroleum, Isaac Kiva.

Kenya becomes the third East African country targeted by Mobisol, after the firm unveiled its products in Rwanda and Tanzania. 

Speaking during the pilot installation cer­emony, Mobisol’s CEO Thomas Gottschalk said that the Mobisol solar unit sizes are by “far the only credible substitute to grid elec­trification.

“We believe that ‘big is beautiful’ - our systems are designed to power entire house­holds and even businesses, with a variety of highly efficient DC appliances. Many of our customers in Tanzania and Rwanda not only run 32-inch flat screen TVs with their system, but also power haircutters and hair- straighteners simultaneously, while enter­taining their barbershop customers with music stereos,” continued Gottschalk.

Gottschalk noted that the company had realised a significant gap in the number of Kenyans connected to the national grid, especially in areas outside urban centres.

“More than 70 per cent of Kenya’s popu­lation does not have access to electricity. While solar solutions are increasingly gaining popularity for low-income individ­uals, the local market does not really carry large solar solutions, strong enough to power large TVs, music stereo systems, or even fridges,” he pointed out, adding: “Looking at the fact that our systems are 10 times bigger than those of similar providers on the market, much more powerful, but just as affordable, encourages us to provide our solutions also to Kenyans.”

Mobisol’s entry into the market, together with its branded solar-powered TVs came just a few weeks after local home solar solu­tions provider, M-Kopa Solar, launched its solar-powered TV sets for its existing users and new clients.

This has led consumers to believe that the local and regional home solar solutions market is set to experience previously unseen competition once Mobisol makes its products commercially available.

Mobisol is funded by the German Development Bank and has set its eyes on the region’s low-income households, most of whom are unable to apply for and get con­nected to the national power grid, mainly due to the high fees involved.

Many people are thought to need such home solar energy solutions and are looking forward to them as alternative to grid power, as confirmed by John Kimani Wanjiru, the beneficiary of Mobisol’s pilot installation in Kenya.

“I applied unsuccessfully for a grid con­nection a long time ago,” he said. “Within just one hour, Mobisol brought not only elec­tricity to our house, but also a new lifestyle. Now, my family and I can watch our favourite shows and news on our big flat screen TV, have multiple lights running during the night and even make money by selling excess electricity.”

Wanjiru said that he expects this additional income will allow him to buy more solar appliances from Mobisol, ranging from branded haircutters, straighteners and music stereo systems, to super efficient flat screen TVs, available in 19-inch up to 32-inch sizes, and DC powered cooking stoves.

Mobisol’s lighting systems are available in three sizes - 80 watt, 120 watt and 200 watt.

Until last month, Kenya’s home solar energy solutions market was synonymous with M-Kopa Solar, which has Safaricom Foundation among its funding partners.

M-Kopa Solar was launched in Nairobi, in October 2012. Since its launch, it has con­nected more than 280,000 homes in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda to solar power.

M-Kopa Solar (whose name has been coined from ‘m’ for mobile and ‘kopa’, Swahili for ‘borrow’) has a similar aim to Mobisol, which is to provide affordable solar products for modest households, which can then own them flexibly via an installment plan.

M-Kopa users acquire solar units after paying an agreed deposit, then make daily instalments of $0.50 (Kshs50) via Safaricom’s M-Pesa mobile money platform. After 12 months of payments, customers then own the solar systems. The embedded GSM sensors in each solar system allow M- Kopa staff to monitor real-time performance of each unit and regulate usage based on payments.

Mobisol does not rely on one mobile payment platform and has indicated during the pilot ceremony that it would offer clients multiple payment platforms - whether M- Pesa, Airtel Money, Orange Money or Equitel.

For now, M-Kopa Solar has majority of people using its solar energy systems but holding this market share may prove difficult once Mobisol’s products hit the market from July. Consumers will also need to be per­suaded which product offers better value - whether in terns of quality, pricing or cus­tomer support.




Kenya TV stations shut down in digital migration dispute

Digital breakdown – Millions are at stake in TV digital migration wars as the regulator sticks to its guns. By Zachary Ochieng, Nairobi

IN A SITUATION reminiscent of the 1980s when the Voice of Kenya (VOK) was the only television channel in the country, these days people are having to choose between the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC) or President Uhuru Kenyatta’s K24. The situation has been prompted by the abrupt switching off of analogue signals of the three leading broadcasters – Nation Television (NTV), Kenya Television Network (KTN) and Citizen TV – by the Communications Authority of Kenya (CAK) following their failure to comply with the digital migration deadline set by the regulator for December 2014. After a lengthy dispute between the regulator and local TV stations, the Supreme Court ruled in CAK’s favour last month, which sparked off another war of words.

To migrate to the superior quality digital platform, viewers must upgrade their analogue-based TV sets with converters known as set-top boxes, which allow them to watch regular free-to-air channels. One of the arguments advanced by broadcasters against the rushed implementation of digital migration is that, at $63, the cost of the set-top boxes is beyond the reach of most ordinary viewers. The government, on the other hand, insists that all channels must migrate to the digital platform by June, the global deadline set by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU).

In a treaty signed at the Regional Radio Communication Conference held in 2006, ITU member states resolved to migrate from analogue to digital broadcasting by June this year. In East Africa, only Tanzania and Rwanda have migrated to the digital platforms. At the core of the row has been CAK’s decision to license only two signal distributors – Signet (a subsidiary of KBC) and Pan African Network Group (PANG), a Chinese-owned company – to provide broadcasting transmission infrastructure to broadcasters. It did not help matters that the two distributors were allowed to carry the content of the three main broadcasters free of charge.

The broadcasters had argued that they should be given their own signal distribution licences and be allowed to import their own set-top boxes. CAK director-general Francis Wangusi accused the three media houses of being afraid of competition, describing them as “musketeers”. “They want to stick to their monopolistic tendencies and lock out other players. I think this is very selfish of them,” he told a media briefing in Nairobi. However, Nation Media Group chair Wilfred Kiboro has asked the regulator to extend the digital migration date to May 30, to give the media owners time to install infrastructure and import set-top boxes. “We do not trust either the Chinese PANG, whose human rights record is not clear, or Signet, which is owned by the government,” he said.

But ICT cabinet secretary Fred Matiang’i has ruled out an extension. “The digital migration has taken off and there is no going back. Going back to analogue is not on the table,” he said when he appeared before the Senate Committee on Legal and Human Rights. The broadcasting market structure has significantly changed with the introduction of digital TV. The transmission of content is now outsourced to third parties – leaving the media houses to concentrate on the production of the content. They will now have to subscribe to the transmission services they once controlled via one or both of the above companies. “This is perhaps the elephant in the room,” said John Walubengo, an ICT lecturer at the Multimedia University of Kenya. “Everything else is a side-show and a curtain raiser that will eventually lead to the big question – is it risky business for media houses to rely on third parties to transmit or deliver their content to the viewers?”

As the stand-off continues, the country’s three largest media houses, Nation Media Group, Standard Group and Royal Media Services, which have together invested $44.4m in their businesses and command 80 per cent of television viewership, are losing millions of shillings in advertising revenue. A report by PriceWaterHouseCoopers on the Kenyan entertainment and media outlook for 2013-2017 estimates that expenditure on television advertising will rise from $490m last year to $550m this year and $750m in 2017. The report projects that TV will account for 45.8 per cent, of all advertising spend in Kenya, up from 35.3 per cent three years ago.

TV penetration is projected to almost double over the period, from eight per cent to 12 per cent, a sign of Kenya’s expanding middle class. But with the three main channels remaining off air, the above scenario is highly unlikely. This explains why advertisers have entered the ring, urging the warring parties to come to a speedy consensus.

According to Lenny Ng’ang’a, chair of the Advertising Practitioners Association of Kenya, a long drawn-out media blackout will cause large revenue losses, with a ripple effect on the economy. “The Association of Practitioners in Advertising of Kenya wishes to express its deep concern over the standoff between the government of Kenya, and the leading broadcasters over the digital migration exercise,” Ng’ang’a said in a statement. Multinationals such as Unilever and Coca Cola, which regularly advertise fast-moving consumer goods on television, are already feeling the heat, as are actors, musicians and production crews who depend on the three stations to air popular comedies and soap operas such as The Churchill Show, Aunty Boss, Papa Shirandula, Gavana, Beba Beba and Mali. According to Charles Bukeko, the name behind the Papa Shirandula, a local comedy show that airs every Thursday on Citizen TV, the shutdown will hit people’s pockets hard. “All artistes performing on screen will be affected by the shutdown,” he said. “It touches on what you earn and if it continues the impact will be huge.”

His sentiments were echoed by Ken Waudo, head of strategy, digital and creative development at Laugh Industry Kenya, which produces the Churchill Show. As the stand-off continues, both parties continue to come out with statements. Whereas broadcasters insist that majority of countries will be unable to meet the ITU’s June deadline, the regulator argues that all African countries are required to abide by it. However, it has emerged that 30 African countries have already been exempted from the deadline due to technology and infrastructural challenges. According to Professor Guy Berger, director of Freedom of Expression and Media Development at Unesco, it is mainly southern African countries that are being made to commit themselves to the ITU decision.

“The 2006 treaty allows for an additional five years for a total of 30 African nations beyond the 2015 cut-off point,” he explained in a report titled Beyond Digital Migration: The Future of state-owned broadcasters in Southern Africa. “Most Latin American countries, incidentally, have agreed to a switch-off of analogue TV transmissions around 2020.” According to Berger, the 2020 cut-off was also agreed for countries that did not attend the 2006 conference. “In fact, the 2020 list includes power­houses of the North African region like Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco, which are more advanced technologically than many countries in Sub-Saharan Africa,” he added. Also included in that list are countries closer to Kenya such as Ethiopia, Sudan, Eritrea, DR Congo and Somalia.

But in a statement issued to the media CAK’s Francis Wangusi said Kenya had not sought an extension. “During the 2006 Regional Radio Conference, some countries made specific requests for an extension of the deadline to June 17, 2020 but only in the VHF band since most of their TV stations were operating on this frequency,” Wangusi said. “Kenya attended the meeting and did not make any such request.”

In his report, Prof Berger warned against the rush to beat the 2015 deadline “when there is no pressing matter of frequencies, when many are exempted from the ITU deadline and when the consequences of missing the due date are minor”. As the tug of war between the regulator and the broadcasters continues to rage, the question on the lips of most observers is “Who will blink first?”.


Cape Town – tales of the unexpected

Tales of the unexpected – Timi-Nipre sampled the thrills of Cape Town and can’t wait to get back there for more

I VISITED South Africa for the first time recently and was blown away by it. I spent most of my time in Cape Town, the legislative capital of South Africa, a city alive with beauty and creativity. Great efforts have been made to preserve its historical landmarks, in contrast to other places in Africa where the built heritage is often ignored. And I was amazed to experience an African winter as cold as any in Europe.

Indeed, Cape Town is a city where the unexpected is always just around the corner and the beautiful province of the Cape lies ready to be explored across the city limits. One of the must-see tourism sites is Table Mountain, which forms a stunning backdrop to the entire city. Named as one of the new seven wonders of the world, you can reach the summit in just five minutes by taking a cable car. From the plateau that gives it its name, there are magnificent views of the Cape Town city centre, the surrounding suburbs and, of course, the Atlantic and Indian oceans, which converge at Cape Point.

If you’re feeling energetic you can walk to the top of the mountain, which at its high­est point is 1,085m (3,560ft). On the way you can visit the colourful Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden or the Silvermine Nature Reserve. A designated national park, Table Mountain is known for its rich biodiversity and is home to more than 1,500 species of plants (more than the number found throughout the entire British isles according to statistics).

Lovers of wildlife can visit the Aquila Private Game Reserve, named after the endangered resident Black Eagles. Com­prising lions, springbok baboons, leopards, and elephants, it was once a favourite hunting ground of the indigenous Khoi/San hunters whose ancient rock art can still be seen. Aquila is indeed more than just the unforgettable wildlife experience offered by a safari tour. Here one can also enjoy South African hospitality at its most lavish as well as traditional culinary delights.

Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 years, lies a three hour-plus boat ride away from the shore and can also be seen in the distance from Table Mountain. It is one of the country’s most visited tourist attractions, and rightly so as it will a highlight of your trip. Dubbed ‘Robben’ (‘the place of seals’) by Dutch settlers, it was declared a World Heritage Site in 1999.

Over the decades, it was used as a hospital, mental institution and military base before locking up South Africa’s most prominent freedom fighters during the apartheid era. A tour begins at the Nelson Mandela Gateway and takes you to the maximum security prison, which has been left in its original state, through to the lime quarry where Mandela and his fellow prisoners were forced to work with their bare hands, and then on to Mandela’s humble prison cell.

Former political prisoner act as tour guides, giving first hand, poignant accounts of prison life. Additional stopovers include the kramat (shrine) of Tuan Guru, known as the father of Islam in South Africa, the leper’s graveyard and the house where Pan African Congress founder Robert Sobukwe lived in solitary confinement for nine years. There are few places in the world where you can get close up and personal to a breeding colony of penguins or swim alongside them. One such place is the Boulders Penguin Colony near Simon’s Town in False Bay, where about 3,000 of these flightless birds roam freely.

But be warned – these deceptively docile looking creatures can bite and it is best to keep a respectful distance. The warning sign, as I found out for myself, is when they agitatedly move their heads from side to side. As a bonus, whales, seals, sharks and dolphins can also be seen from the bay.

The V&A Waterfront is said to be South Africa’s most visited destination, attracting millions of visitors every year, and for good reason as it the city’s shopping and dining hub, as well as home to numerous museums and galleries. Named after Queen Victoria of Britain and her youngest son, Prince Alfred, who tipped the first construction stones for the breakwater of the harbor in 1860, the V&A is also the starting point for Cape Town’s top attractions, as well as exhilarating helicopter and boat trips and more relaxed harbour cruises.

The V&A waterfront’s Amphitheatre is one of its major highlights, providing everything from theatre and concerts to creative workshops and puppet shows, often for free. This is also where you find the famous Cape Wheel, billed as a “giant observation wheel” and guaranteed to get your heart thumping. Long Street is where Cape Town’s nightlife starts. From clubs blasting out techno, nu-rave, indie and basically every alternative music genre you can imagine to Julep, popularly acclaimed to be Long Street’s most relaxed bar, Long Street can cater for all popular music tastes. Straight No Chaser, I was told, is the city’s best jazz venue. But be sure to get there early –  it seats no more than 50 and showcases South Africa’s nascent jazz talent.

A good spot for local music is Mama Africa, which has a live Marimba band as well as tasty food. Gourmets who want good cuisine and impeccable service in luxury surroundings should make their way to the Roundhouse, another World Heritage Site. Here you have the opportunity to try out vintage cocktails, whole roasts, freshly baked bread and decanters of wine. Aubergine, another of Cape Town’s culinary highlights, gives you a superior experience of contemporary cuisine from an a la carte menu, which bursts with flavours, aromas and textures appealing to even the most jaded of palates.

No trip to Cape Town would be complete without a pilgrimage to Gugulethu’s ‘Church of Meat’. Here, you can fill a bowl with any meat of your choice and head over to the braai (barbecue), where it will be cooked while you have a drink, listen to music or dance your day away to kwaito (local house music) beats.

Mad about seafood? Let your tongue savour the culinary expertise of Ocean Basket, like mine did, with delicacies from the seas ranging from lobsters and calamari, to squid and prawn. For sweet tooths, visit Charley’s Bakery. This home of sweetness is located at 38 Canterbury St, Zonnebloem in Cape Town and is the premier chocolate wedding cake bakery. I was told it patronised by VIPs. There is plenty to buy in Cape Town, particularly by way of traditional arts and crafts. Souvenir collectors might consider dropping into Scoin Shop to get a pure gold coin imprinted with the head of Mandela and others for keepsakes.

I left the city saying, ngiya bonga (thank you), Cape Town! You are the mother city of Africa and I will return again to ex­perience your many delights.

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