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UTL’s solar phone to bridge digital divide

Mariam Cheka, a businesswoman in Arua market, loses an hour or two as her phone charges at a public charging outlet. This is because there is no reliable power in Arua town.

The power generated by a thermal plant is rationed and has been off for the last two weeks due to technical failures. That leaves Arua residents like Cheka with no option but to pay for charging at public outlets with generators.

However, Cheka’s troubles came to an end a week ago when she acquired a UTL new solar powered mobile phone called Kasana. The handset, which was officially launched in the town, comes with a regular electrical charger and an inbuilt solar panel that charges the phone using the sun's rays.

“I charged it for six hours and for the last five days it’s still charged. I call my customers and it keeps charging, it doesn’t go off,” said Cheka who sells fish for a living.
“I used to spend Shs500 on phone charging daily,” she added. Cheka is now witnessing an increase in her savings.

The launch of Kasana follows UTL’s earlier effort to put up large solar systems in remote areas such as Kalangala aimed at helping customers there charge their phones. But according to Mark Kaheru, UTL’s Public Relations Manager, it did not solve the problem.

“What we have done is to put the solar on your phone to save you time and money,” Kaheru said.
The launch of the Kasana phone will not only increase its customers’ savings, but also boost government’s efforts in mobile telephony penetration.

According to Uganda Communication Commission, mobile telephone penetration for Uganda, whose population is estimated at 30 million people, is only 30%. Of the total population, more than 80% of the people live in the rural areas.

Most of these people do not have electricity. This means that people with no access to electrical power have to walk long distances to charge their phones at any available power outlets, usually in trading centres miles away.

Zubair Alaru, who runs a public charging outlet at his Cinaplex Salon in Arua town, says he needs a minimum of 10 phones to turn on the generator that he uses to charge phones.

“Sometimes you have only three phones yet one litre of fuel costs Shs 2,650. You have to wait until you raise about 10 phones before you switch on the generator, which sometimes delays our customers. The other option is to wait until you get someone who wants to cut their hair,” Alaru noted.

According to Mona Lisa Brookshire, UTL’s Chief Marketing Officer, ‘the lack of power [is] a major barrier to bridging the gap of entry to the digital age largely because the technology then required all mobile phones to be charged using grid power.”

She added: “Our target is the rural areas. We always target our landline customers, our corporate customers. But for once, we need to have a phone that gets to the target market of the rural areas.”

Brookshire further says that they are not worried about the competition.  

“If the competitors choose to launch solar phones, they will have to look elsewhere. I doubt if they will be able to beat our price because we have priced the phone at the lowest possible price that is competitive in the market place, even at our own expense.” The handset costs Shs 81,000.



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