Interview with Olivia Nava
Co-founder and CEO, Juabar
Location: Oakland, California / Tanzania
“Anywhere where there is mobile money, there is a potential for services in delivery and market opportunities.”
Juabar is a solar entrepreneurs’ network which has been based in Tanzania since 2013. The three-person company behind the initial model, of a solar panel attached to a hand cart, has swiftly progressed into the rural development world.
Today, for example, women in off-grid, predominantly Muslim communities can watch programmes on menstrual health in all discretion, as powered by Juabar’s solar network systems. Increasingly, solar is the solution for anyone who craves more information in rural communities, explains Oakland-based CEO Olivia Nava.
“When you tell someone in Swahili how your day was, and that you just came from work, their cultural response is to say sorry”, laughs Nava, whose work in Tanzania started after collaborating with a local solar company with two other social ventures students in 2011. Graduates from the California College of the Arts in San Francisco might not be the typical solar entrepreneurs, but the three women who launched Juabar (“sun bar” in Swahili-English) spotted that it could be a popular idea from the get-go. Today, the mobile-phone charging kiosk has moved back towards its designed roots, and away from being just another solar company.
Created in a burst of pop-up shop flavour, the pilot project leased solar-powered kiosks to entrepreneurs in Tanzania, who put down monthly payments. Nava points out that other initiatives at the time, like d:light or Barefoot Power, simply weren’t working in rural markets. “People didn’t know about these quality products being deployed in East Africa. They weren’t being penetrated into the areas that they were needed in.”
A crowdfunding event (raising around $5,000) ensued, funding a further trip to Tanzania. Sums were also raised on platforms such as the international non-profit site Kiva, which works to alleviate poverty (and which raised a whopping $3,000 overnight), as well as via a convertible note round.
Juabar was launched as a multi-franchise model in 2013, hiring two local project managers. 50 W solar photovoltaic panels were attached to an initial fleet of ten light blue kiosks. 20 phones could be charged per device, no matter the model. The entrepreneur’s revenue streams were anything between US$60 or US$160 per month, changing the game in Tanzania, where previously, 25% of a person’s costs went to phone use, and paying people to travel to an outlet to charge the phone. At its peak, the solar mobile kiosk initiative reached around 4,000 people on a large scale basis, with kiosks rolling into villages like Chambezi on market day.