The electric grid is growing in sub-Saharan Africa, but more than half a billion people there still don’t have access to electricity. No electricity makes life more difficult in any number of ways, but one key one is the lack of a refrigerator, which means people cannot store perishable food or medicines.
To combat this problem for people waiting for electric grids to expand, a new brand called Youmma offers a small fridge that’s efficient enough to run on a single solar panel—and a pay-as-you-go system makes it affordable even for families living on the most limited budgets. The company—the winner of the Europe, the Middle East, and Africa region category in Fast Company’s 2020 World Changing Ideas Awards—started selling its first solar fridges in Kenya and Uganda in 2019.
Having access to a refrigerator has ripple effects, says André Morriesen, product head at Youmma, a brand of Brazil-based Nidec Global Appliance. There are obvious benefits—food lasts longer and less is wasted, and medication that needs refrigeration, such as insulin, can be safely stored. But a fridge also “starts bringing some gender equality,” he says. Women, who typically still handle food shopping and preparation, may spend hours walking back and forth to markets and additional hours cooking; with a refrigerator, it’s suddenly possible to buy more food at once and save leftovers. “It gives them more free time,” Morriesen says.
That also saves money. “One tomato in a Nairobi village is [essentially] the same price as three tomatoes,” he says. “The difference is very small. So then you could buy in bulk.” When the first fridges rolled out in a pilot program, the company found that customers were saving an average of $4.83 a week by reducing food spoilage and saving time on trips to the market, in an area where the average daily income is around $2 a person, or $10 for a household. Some families reported saving as much as 50% of their household income.
Some convenience stores and small supermarkets are also beginning to use the technology, which makes it possible to expand what they can sell. A cold drink, Morriesen says, can earn a shop owner twice as much per bottle.
Youmma partnered with M-Kopa, a Kenyan solar energy company, to offer the fridges as part of a solar home system that also includes two LED light bulbs, two strip lights, and two phone charging cables. After customers sign up, a solar panel is installed on their roof and begins charging the solar fridge’s battery; the battery manages power consumption and can keep the fridge running for a day and a half without sunlight. The refrigerator itself, with a unique compressor, uses little energy. “We redesigned the cooling system to make it as efficient as possible,” says Morriesen. Customers pay a small amount via their mobile phones each day; each credit keeps the fridge running until the system is fully paid off.