The Solar Company Making a Profit on Poor Africans

My profile of M-Kopa, a company selling solar power to people making less than $2 a day, has just been published by Bloomberg Businessweek.

Tom Opiyo is the best-performing salesperson at M-Kopa Solar, a Kenyan company selling solar power systems to the very poor. Watching him work, it’s not hard to see why. Opiyo is a pastor who used to be a musician and concert promoter, and when he’s closing a sale he never stops talking. “The electric company can sometimes leave you in the dark. With M-Kopa, the light cannot go out,” he tells a group of 15 potential customers gathered under a tree in a rural area in western Kenya on a sunny October afternoon. “If you get power from the power company, you will always be paying. But when you buy M-Kopa, it’s yours forever.”

Opiyo is tall and thin, with a closely shaved head he keeps shaded under an M-Kopa baseball cap. He infuses his pitch with quotes from the Bible and brings in an actor to break the ice with impersonations of famous Kenyan politicians. But his underlying argument is financial. Before demonstrating his product, Opiyo walks the group through a calculation, asking how much each person spends a week on kerosene. He works out what that adds up to over the course of a year and then totals a sum for the entire group. “I show them the cost of what they are using compared to what I’m going to give them,” Opiyo says. “If you bring this to their minds, they can see how they are foolish, and then you know they are going to buy.”

Read the rest.

Homelands

My short e-book for Deca on an orphan named Patience and a case for open immigration is now up for free at Longform.

When I was in Liberia during the civil war in 2003, I met a four-year-old girl named Patience. Monrovia, the capital of the small West African country, was under siege. Its power grid had failed. Rice was scarce. The taps had run dry. Cholera crawled in the tropical heat. Hopped-up government soldiers ran the streets in looted pickup trucks, and nobody knew what the rebels would do if their push for the center was successful.

I met Patience in a dark room off a dirt lot, in a concrete building in an orphanage placed perilously on a thin strip of land between the Atlantic Ocean and the river that held back the rebel advance. The night before my arrival, the woman who ran the orphanage told me, two shells from a mortar had passed overhead and fallen—crack, crack—somewhere between the orphanage and the ocean’s shore.

Patience, big-eyed, in stubby braids and a blue-and-white polka-dot dress, watched me from the shadows. Anemic, listless, undersize, suffering from dysentery, she had the measured movements of an old woman and the questioning stare of a toddler. In the same room, another orphan, ten-year-old Emmanuel, leafed through a book of photographs, color printouts, bound in black plastic and covered with a thin transparent sheet: There was green grass and a white-paneled house and a little blond girl smiling. There was a large van and an even larger play set. There was a countertop completely covered with food. “This is a very nice place,” Emmanuel said in a quiet voice. “I would like to go to this place.”

Read the rest.

Different Shades of Green in Africa

Time has also published my story about an agricultural war of ideology taking in place in Africa. It’s a fight that could turn out to be good for the continent, but that’s not something that’s guaranteed.

Joseph Odiambo walks decisively past eight plots of corn and comes to a stop in front of the ninth. Where the other plants towered sugar-cane thick with broad crisp blades, here the plants are skinny and stunted, draped with yellow-tinged leaves. The contrast is deliberate, an advertisement for the wares Odiambo sells from his roadside supply shop in western Kenya. While the shopkeeper’s robust plots were planted with commercial seed and carefully nurtured with inorganic fertilizer, his sickly specimens are the result of seeds sown in the bare ground. “We wanted to have a control plot, to show the difference,” he says.

Odiambo’s demonstration plots are an opening salvo in a battle between two very different agricultural philosophies. The goal itself is not in dispute: a healthier, wealthier Africa, one that can feed itself and perhaps even export. Both sides also agree that the solution should be green. The disagreement lies over just what that word means.

Read more.

Kenya’s Blackboard Jungle

When I was in Kenya last fall I visited a school that was trying to enlist the Masai in the importance of conserving the lands in which they live. Time has just published a brief peek at my findings.

It begins:

After we pull our land rover off the track to watch a pair of leopards, I ask my two safari guides what animal they’d be most excited to see. I’m thinking elephants, lions, rhinos — the charismatic megafauna that attract tourists from across the world. Their answer: aardvarks and porcupines, the reclusive nocturnal residents of Kenya’s Masai Mara. “I took care of cattle on the Mara when I was a boy,” says Jackson Tinka, 21. “So I’ve seen a lot of wildlife.”

Tinka and his companion are what was until recently a rarity in Kenya’s biggest-drawing game park: tour guides working in the land of their fathers. Though the vast stretch of savanna lies in territory owned by the Masai, until a few years ago the red-robed pastoralists made up less than 20% of those employed in its camps and lodges. Those who could find work did so mostly as low-paid camp guards. Yet there’s a growing realization that the Masai and the 590-square-mile (1,530 sq km) national reserve share a common future. The tribe’s fortunes will most likely be found in the tourists who provide Kenya with the bulk of its foreign exchange — and in the wildlife those tourists pay to see.

Keep reading.

UPDATE: Check out more photos from this trip here.