How innovative payment systems are helping Zambians electrify their lives

For just a few Kwacha a day, subsistence farmers in rural Zambia can pay off solar lighting and phone charging systems supplied by VITALITE Zambia and Fenix International – two of four companies providing clean and reliable off-grid energy solutions through the Beyond the Grid Fund for Zambia, supported by the Swedish Government.
The companies offer pay-as-you-go products and services to rural Zambian communities, where 95% of people lack access to modern energy services. “We are not only providing services and products, we’re also building capacity and improving quality of life,” says Tresphord Mwanga, VITALITE Zambia regional coordinator for Lusaka.
Katoba Village Zambia - Panorama

Katoba village in Chongwe, Zambia

VITALITE Zambia’s pay-as-you-go system forms a critical part of the company’s approach and has been key to its success. The company focused not just on offering high-quality products that match people’s needs, but also on making their products affordable to low-income households. “The payment system is really what makes this a good option for locals,” a member of the marketing team, Bright Chileya explains. “People can pay off the systems slowly while using them. It’s really affordable.”

For the most basic system, which includes three lights, phone charging and a radio, customers pay an initial deposit equivalent to the price of one sack of maize meal, and can take the system home immediately. Customers can pay back the full price of the system over 12 or 18 months and can choose between daily and monthly payments. Payments are made via mobile money, but customers without access to mobile phones (or lacking confidence to use the system), can also pay their VITALITE Zambia agent.

“I didn’t use mobile money before,” says customer Steven Miyoba. “At first my agent was doing it for me. He is a good man – trustworthy and reliable. But now that I know the system I am doing mobile money myself.” Steven is a taxi driver, which means his income fluctuates. He has been encouraged by his agent to pay the system off slowly before committing to new purchases.

“We don’t want to burden our clients to the point where they have to choose between our product and their basic needs,” says Cassandra. “Even though electricity is a critical service, customers can start small and upgrade their systems when they are comfortable doing so. Our customers get a critical service that will improve their quality of life while being in control of where their money goes.”

Building and maintaining good relationships with their agents and customers, and between agents and customers, is crucial for both ReadyPay and VITALITE Zambia. Agents working on commission sell the products, accept payments and provide support. “The regional coordinator scouts for agents. It’s a good job because many agents make money where there was no market before,” says Bright Chileya. “We learn new things from new places. How you approach each culture is different. Zambia has 72 languages and community engagement is very important. Having someone local and trustworthy act as an agent is very important.”

Steven Miyoba shows the solar panel on the roof of his house

Steven Miyoba shows the solar panel on his roof, which he bought from Fenix International and pays for through mobile money

Lister Sithole, Vitalite’s first agent in Zambia, shows customer Kennedy Matabula how the solar system works to provide lighting, phone changing and powers a radio

Lister Sithole, VITALITE Zambia's first agent, shows customer Kennedy Matabula how the solar pay-as-you-go system works. It provides lighting, phone changing and powers a radio.

Lister Sithole was VITALITE Zambia's first agent. “I’m just a simple farmer,” she says, but this description does not do justice to the impact she has had in her community. As an agent, Lister has become an entrepreneur, respected in the community for her products and services. She has 130 happy customers.

“At first, it was difficult to find customers; I had to walk long distances,” the mother of five recalls, “but now people know me and want to buy from me.” Lister is one of a number of women who have gained greater community status and respect – as well as income – through their work as agents. In total, the four companies contracted under the Beyond the Grid Fund for Zambia have hired 777 new agents since July 2017, including more than 200 women.

“The government will not come here for a long time [to install electricity], there are too many challenges. So we are making a difference now,” says Lister.

“Zambia needs so much more; we’ve got a lot of work to do” says Tresphord, “but at least we can see the changes now. The products have really empowered people. It’s exciting to be a part of.”

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Photography: Jason Mulikita for REEEP
Text by Claire Mathieson, Cross Consulting, and Maria van Veldhuizen, REEEP