Kerosene is the primary source of light for over a billion people on the planet. Its fumes can cause health problems for those that use it frequently (sometimes children, studying after dark), and the long-run costs can reach a quarter of a family’s income. To top things off, kerosene’s black carbon byproduct is a far greater threat to climate change than carbon dioxide (see article). Despite all these problems, its incrementally cheap price and ubiquity make it popular.
 
In light of this, numerous clean-energy organizations have stepped up to tackle this problem, trying to replace kerosene lamps with their safer, and cheaper, products. Several Kiva partners, including Solar Sister, have come up with creative ways to use networks of entrepreneurs in remote areas to distribute their solar powered lights. The main drawback of this model, though, is that repeat business from end-users is minimal, which means the entrepreneur must perpetually seek new clients just to stay in business.
 
One Kiva partner, however, has built a unique business model far different from the solar lighting distribution network most of its competitors use. Nuru Energy has a creative solution to provide light to people, while also providing a constant stream of income to its entrepreneurs.
 

Elias is one happy Nuru VLE
 


Rather than relying on solar power, Nuru’s Village Level Entrepreneurs (VLEs), have a power cycle, designed to charge up to five lights in twenty minutes, and a typical charge can last two to three weeks. As the batteries are drained, the clients return and pay the VLE a few cents to recharge their lights.

Marco operates his Nuru PowerCycle to charge a headlamp


There are a few noteworthy points that highlight the sophistication of this business model:
 
1. The Nuru lights are considerably less expensive than most solar lights, widening the potential client base. Nuru lights cost $5.25 each, whereas their solar equivalent is usually $15 or more. True, solar has no recharging costs, but at only $0.15 per recharge, the difference in up-front cost could light their house for four to six months, and still cost a fraction of what they’d have spent on kerosene.
 
2. The more lights they sell the more long-term income they have. VLEs earn a little less than $1.00 for each unit sold, which isn’t insignificant for many of them, but their real earnings come after establishing a client base, encouraging them to grow quickly.
 
3. Nuru’s VLEs are located in the local villages and have social relationships with their client base, enabling their customers to buy on credit and repay over time – something Nuru would find impossible otherwise. Kiva provides the loans to the VLEs to purchase up to $100 worth of lights, freeing Nuru from the risk of inventory loss.

A typical Nuru entrepreneur's residence
 

4. Nuru does not sell the power-cycle to the VLEs, instead it is lent to them for free and Nuru handles the maintenance when necessary. Giving away such an expensive piece of equipment might carry some risk, but a code must be entered on the power cycle before it can operate, which can only be obtained when a small mobile payment is made to Nuru. Also, if a VLE fails, Nuru can simply collect the power cycle and give it to another VLE.
 
5. Mobile payments make it easy for Nuru’s entrepreneurs to repay their loans eliminating the need to meet with a loan officer. VLEs can repay their loan using SMS text messages to Nuru’s dedicated payment phone lines. An automated response is sent to the VLE with their updated loan balance loan, eliminating paperwork. In addition, Nuru’s information system is updated to reflect the borrower’s most recent payment, and staff can view their VLE’s payment history on a computer or on the go with an Android mobile device.

6. Besides income from VLEs distributing lights and activating the power cycles, Nuru also sells the carbon credits it accumulates. The energy Nuru creates with the power cycle is sold to companies that want to offset their pollution in markets elsewhere, providing an additional source of income to fund Nuru's operations.

Nuru's headlamp is it's primary product, but it also makes attachable accessories like an ambient light and adapters for charging mobile phones

 
Nuru also takes care in selecting their Village Level Entrepreneurs. While many governments are derided for getting in the way of business development, Rwanda’s government helps facilitate it. Nuru takes advantage of this to use local district offices to identify and select potential entrepreneurs. Besides being vetted by others in the village, VLEs must demonstrate their commitment by contributing $20 and spending two days learning about Nuru’s products.
 
After a VLE is ready for business, they get an initial package of twenty lights, a power cycle with manual, a Nuru T-shirt and hat, and a small Nuru sign for their recharge location. All of this is provided for $100 credit through Kiva lenders, and Nuru loans are typically funded within 24 hours.

Nuru's most successful VLEs get their house painted for free. This VLE has sold nearly 200 lights!
 

The profile of a typical VLE is impressive. Most of the VLEs already operate a successful small shop in their local villages, and some even have livestock. Because of their remote locations, very few have nearby banks, and many have succeeded without the help of microfinance.
 
Given their credentials, many of Nuru's VLEs would likely be successful on their own, but an interest free loan to get them started makes Nuru an attractive business opportunity and enables Nuru to reduce its risk and penetrate new markets more quickly than would otherwise be possible.


More information on Nuru Energy is available through their website: http://nuruenergy.com/
 
Mario Ariza is a Kiva Fellow working in Rwanda with Kiva partners Nuru Energy, Vision Finance Company, and Amasezerano Community Bank.


Comments

Thanks, Mario! That is some great info to supplement what is on the Nuru page on Kiva.org. Very interesting -- though it kind of makes me regret having made a Solar Sister loan. I will hope that she does well, too, but I'll watch for a Nuru loan to make, as well. Be well, Amy

Thanks for your comment, Amy. Solar Sister does amazing work, too - I wouldn't regret making that loan for a minute! In order to explore clean energy enterprises, we should give them all a try!

锘縈issoula Police Try To Escape 'Rape Capital' Nickname The retiring police chief in Missoula, Mont., said he's leaving his department in good shape. But in the last years of Chief Mark Muir's 22-year career, Missoula, home to the University of Montana, was unflatteringly nicknamed the rape capital of America. A federal investigation concluded in May that police didn't adequately respond to reports of sexual assault, failing to seek timely interviews with both victims and suspects. And the chief himself was accused of telling a sexual assault victim that half of rape reports are false. "I never told her that," Muir told The Huffington Post, adding that it was "a pretty outrageous statement." Muir, who has been chief for five years, retires Friday. His department has been roiled since 2011, when University of Montana student Kerry Barrett spoke out about the police handled her sexual assault case -- and how the chief defended his department. The night she was sexually assaulted in September 2011, Barrett said she was asked by a Missoula police officer if she had a boyfriend. "I said, 'No, but why does that matter?'" recalled Barrett. "He responded, 'Some girls cheat on their boyfriend and regret it and blame it on rape.'" The years since that remark turned Barrett into an activist who brought national attention to the town, stirring the U.S. departments of Justice and Education to investigate the police and the university for mishandling sexual assault reports. And they spurred Muir to institute reforms. A civilian review panel has begun examining the department's handling of sexual assault investigations, for example. Muir said the panel looked at nine cases this week. Muir said he now wants to be sure sexual assault victims don't get "the feeling of being disbelieved." He said he believes new training for his officers is paying off, with police now communicating better with victims. "We now can look at it and say, 'We get it,'" Muir said. "Women feel judged by society. Similarly, they also feel judged by the cops, the investigators. We're trying to distance ourselves from the societal biases that most of the people in the country have grown up with." That's a long way from the night a cop asked a sexual assault victim about her boyfriend. Barrett said a Missoula detective later apologized to her for the officer's comment. But then the detective warned that nothing was likely to come of an investigation, because it was a he-said, she-said situation. Two months later, police interviewed the man Barrett had identified as her assailant. The detective later told Barrett that the man had cried and insisted the sex had been consensual. Barrett said she learned in November 2011 that police considered her case inactive. She and a friend, who had similar experiences with Missoula police, met with Muir, who addressed his officers' comments. "I apologized for the fact that she felt that the detective was more sympathetic to the perpetrator," Muir said. "That was simply a matter of her perception." The conversation was cordial, the chief and the women agreed, until the topic of false rape reports arose. Barrett said that she insisted no more than 6 percent of rape reports are bogus, citing a 2009 study that originated with End Violence Against Women International. She and her friend, who asked not to be named, said Muir disagreed, saying that some studies show a majority of rape reports are false. Muir said he "disputed that it's not disputable" that a small number of reports are false. "I explained to her I don't believe those numbers that are on the high end," Muir said. "But I just wanted to be perfectly clear that there are studies that have been done. Not everyone supports them, but that [false reports] may be as high as 40 to 50 percent." A couple of days after their meeting, Muir sent Barrett an email, telling her he had found a study to support his claim. He also assured Barrett he would speak again to the officer who conducted the initial interview. Since then, Barrett said she has had no contact with the police and nothing ever happened with her case. "All they're doing is taking the rapists' word and not doing any more," Barrett told HuffPost. She decided to speak out, first to local media and then at city council meetings, which Muir cited as reason for the national attention. That national attention included a yearlong investigation by Justice Department and Education Department officials. The Justice Department report released in May presented a harsh view of Muir's department. The police department's "failure to adequately respond to reports of sexual assault has an unjustified disparate impact on women and thus violates the Safe Streets Act," wrote Thomas E. Perez, then an assistant attorney general, and Michael W. Cotter, a U.S. attorney for the District of Montana. One case cited in the report echoed Barrett's experience. A police summary said an assault victim "has made out with other males while she has had a boyfriend." The Justice Department interpreted that to mean that "officers were asking questions about the woman's sexual history," rather than making inquiries relevant to the assault. Statements by police officials reflected "assumptions that women reporting non-stranger sexual assault are lying, and that such assaults are less severe" than other serious crimes, the report said. Scott Berkowitz, president of the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, said it's a serious problem when officers appear skeptical of women reporting sexual assault. Such skepticism may be due to a "misunderstanding or a belief that false reports are more common than they actually are," he said. Muir cautioned it will take time for police to fix everything. And it will take time for Missoula to escape its "rape capital" moniker. But even Barrett said she doesn't fully agree with the slur. "Missoula has a problem, but so does every other college town in this country," Barrett said. "They're just unlucky enough to get the attention."

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Mario Ariza Mario Ariza spent his teenage years in Ghana and Egypt before returning to the United States to attend university in his home state of Virginia. After a decade, he was eventually compelled to return to the developing world and took a job at an investment bank in Ghana, where he implemented a pension fund for fishermen. Admittedly cynical of traditional aid models, he seeks market-based solutions to economic development, which is what attracted him to the Kiva Fellows Program.