HAVING started Kenya’s first e-commerce website (mamamikes.com), before the word e-commerce was a vocabulary known to many in Kenya or Africa, I am what some people may describe as pioneer entrepreneur.
In that respect I always considered myself an enlightened and modern person, planning ahead, thinking about tomorrow before the sun set on today. In many ways that has been true, except for one stubborn habit.
Living in Nairobi means being prepared for blackouts. Although admittedly these days blackouts are fewer, and less punishing than years before, they still happen.
And in my world that depends so greatly on power, the first thing I do, especially when a blackout happens at night, is to curse, and then follow a preset habit: turn on my phone torch, look for candles in the pantry, light them, and rely on these two until the lights return.
What makes it interesting is that I sell solar lanterns on my company’s website, MamaMikes. But so strong was my habit that for some reason I never associated solar lanterns as a product for me.
But one day, out of frustration when the power went out and I had ran out of candles and my power-hungry smartphone had died, did it click that I could use the very same gadgets I have been selling to others.
The next time the power went out I was ready. I was actually waiting for it to go off just to experience the power of my new acquisition.
And when it did, I switched on my charged solar lantern, which lit up the house, and I even plugged in my phone to charge. I felt a sense of victory, but also wonder. Why had it taken me so long to make the change? I was surrounded by the solar lanterns at work. So why?
A marketing psychologist may say the mental picture I had while marketing solar lanterns was targeted to a different type of user; a person, probably living in a rural area, whose main source of light at night is either a candle or kerosene lamp. And perhaps this is why it never occurred to me, that I could benefit from having a solar lantern.
Intrigued by my own behavior I decided to poll a number of people, a cross section of friends, acquaintances and family members on what they did when the lights went out. I asked this brief question:
What do you use when the lights go out?
A. A battery powered light
B. A candle and light from my phone
C. A solar powered light
D. My power never goes out
Majority of those who answered replied A and B. Those who have similar lifestyles to myself answered B. Very few answered C, or, indeed, D. Others said they used inverters or petrol/diesel generators, and a few said that if it is at night, they simply go to bed.
There are many reasons why candles and phone flashlights are the most popular option even for sophisticated urban dwellers in Nairobi. For example, candles are cheap compared to solar lights - one candle retails for about Ksh5 ($0.05), while a typical solar light is about Ksh3,750 ($36).
And these days, blackouts are relatively infrequent, so putting down your money to buy a solar light is not such a big priority, when there are other bills you are thinking about.
However, from personal experience, for those people in the B category, like myself, once you convert to a renewable energy source like solar, there is no turning back. I know you think I’m plugging my own product here, but seriously – I feel so clean, and green. If I had my own house, I’d retrofit the whole thing with solar.