Lighting up homes through the cloud

M-KOPA Solar’s journey into the cloud with Microsoft 4Afrika

Managing the solar-powered energy systems of over half a million homes is no easy feat. But that’s what energy start-up, M-KOPA Solar, does every day – with the help of Microsoft’s cloud.

“M-KOPA is a world-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,” says John Muthiora, M-KOPA’s Head of IT Systems. “In the last month, we’ve collected over two million mobile payments and provided over 60 million hours of lighting, in homes that were otherwise burning kerosene fuel.”

Affordability and convenience is at the heart of M-KOPA’s service offering. The pay-as-you-go model helps them maintain this. The majority of homes connected to M-KOPA have a per capita income of less than USD $2 per day, meaning many people cannot afford traditional electricity access.

But the pay-as-you-go model also means that M-KOPA Solar have to manage massive amounts of data.1.5 billion data points a month, to be precise.

“If you look at it, everyday M-KOPA needs to connect to the online payment system to see if payments have come through. They then need to contact each of the 500,000 current devices to either enable power or shut it off,” says Eduardo Werneck, SMC Customer Success Lead at Microsoft Canada.

“All this information needs to be processed and stored for billing processes. But it also needs to be analysed to understand the credit behaviour of a population that have never been in the financial system – as well as other things like weather patterns for the solar devices. That’s a lot of data that needs to be worked with.”

Introducing the cloud

To enable M-KOPA to effectively manage this data and connect more people, Eduardo worked with the team in 2015, migrating their services to Microsoft Azure. As part of the MySkills4Afrika employee volunteer program, Eduardo spent two weeks in Kenya helping the team get set up.

When asked why the team chose to use Azure, CEO Jesse Moore says: “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 Azure. The technology makes us very productive, reduces our operational burden and gives us the ability to innovate and adapt to ever-changing business requirements.”

With the cloud, M-KOPA remotely controls their equipment, monitors performance, troubleshoots issues and proactively intervenes to prevent system outages. The cloud also empowers them to understand consumer behaviour and provide continuous improvement to their product range.

“We’ve introduced solar-powered televisions. Today, we’ve sold over 100,000 sets to people who have previously never been able to watch the news, or even the elections,” says Moore.

“M-KOPA was born in the cloud and we are now the largest user of Microsoft’s cloud in Africa,” adds Muthiora. “We continue to use the latest technology such as IoT, big data and machine learning to upgrade the lives of our customers.”

M-KOPA’s journey with Microsoft 4Afrika

M-KOPA’s relationship with Microsoft 4Afrika first began in 2014.

“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,” says Amrote Abdella, Regional Director of Microsoft 4Afrika.

“What’s more, M-KOPA doesn’t just give people the ability to switch on a light. It gives them the ability to go online, learn, study, create, find a job, work or start a business – no matter what time of day. This aligns with our global mission of empowering every person to achieve more.”

M-KOPA continues to work with 4Afrika today, receiving technical support and access to new technologies.

In 2017, they were one of the first partners to receive access to Microsoft Kaizala, a new mobile application for large group communication, work management, reporting and analytics.

M-KOPA employs 1,000 full-time staff and 1,500 sales agents, who are spread out across East Africa and spend most of their time in the field, where internet connectivity is limited. This makes management and training a challenge.

With Kaizala, M-KOPA has been able to collect real-time data and location reports from their sales teams. As a result, M-KOPA’s data compilation has reduced from a six to eight-hour job, to one that takes under a minute.

M-KOPA has also been able to share training modules remotely, ensuring training is less disruptive and doesn’t require staff travelling to a central location. Teams can complete the training in their own time and pace while managers can get insight into individual performance.

“Kaizala enables us to bridge the gap between our field- and office-based sales teams. With the instant and structured feedback from the field, we can quickly compile and analyse results to make more data-driven decisions,” says Nikhil Nair, Director of Sales at M-KOPA Solar.