Madison startup completing 100 solar setups in rural Africa

NovoMoto, a spinoff from the University of Wisconsin–Madison, is finishing its first 100 solar lighting installations in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

NovoMoto LLC distributes the systems on a rent-to-own basis on a plateau about 80 kilometers from the capital, Kinshasa. After a $10 down payment and three years of paying $2.15 a week, the customer owns the system.

If you take electric lighting for granted, you have not lived in the Democratic Republic of Congo, says company co-founder Aaron Olson. In rural villages, he says, lighting options come down to kerosene (dim and dangerous), candles (dim and short-lived) or flashlights with single-use batteries (dim, short-lived and expensive).

None of these sources are adequate, he says, yet they cost about one-third of the average family’s income.

Olson and his fellow co-founder, Mehrdad Arjmand, have a better idea: small electric systems equipped with a solar panel, battery and controller.

The company’s secret sauce is a digital code that unlocks the system, sent via text message after it receives each weekly payment. After the last payment, the final code unlocks it permanently.

Another 100 NovoMoto systems will reach the capital, Kinshasa, within three weeks or so, says Olson. NovoMoto has obtained financing for another 450 systems to be assembled and shipped later this year.

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