Social business model with new technologies
WeTu is a social enterprise founded by Siemens Stiftung in Kenya that works on innovative solutions related to energy supply and drinking water in communities on Lake Victoria. In addition, the company is deploying the first-ever electric vehicles specifically developed for rural Africa. By utilizing social and ecological business models relating to e-mobility, the vehicles are intended to improve living conditions for locals, create jobs, and establish new economic opportunities.
The company is called “WeTu” – Swahili for “ours” – and operates at the following locations on Lake Victoria: Mbita, Sindo, Nyandiwa, Sori, Ragwe Honge and Uhanya. Its core business is the rental of specially-designed solar fishing lanterns, selling and distributing clean drinking water, and providing e-mobility solutions. WeTu’s goal is to generate enough income to sustain business operations and maintain technical facilities. Any additional profit remains within the company and will be put toward expanding the social enterprise and its positive social impact.
In Kenya’s Lake Victoria region, just under 35 percent of the population has access to clean drinking water. Only 20 percent is connected to a central power grid. Transporting people and goods is often a challenge in very rural areas. Another major hurdle facing the country is its high rate of youth unemployment: it currently stands at more than 20 percent, and an additional 800,000 school graduates enter the labor market every year. However, startups and social enterprises are effective at creating permanent jobs under these circumstances while also providing basic services for everyday life.
The main WeTu office is located in Kisumu’s new LakeHub business incubator, a place that local digital startups call home. Working with these organizations ensures digital applications for new business models will take root and grow.
The new focus on electromobility will be accompanied by a German-Kenyan research partnership currently being established by Siemens Stiftung.
Siemens Stiftung has already gained practical experience with social entrepreneurial solutions in Kenya’s water and energy sectors. On Lake Victoria, the predecessor to WeTu was WE!Hub, a project in which Siemens Stiftung played an active role. This allowed us to gather useful knowledge about the region, the communities, and potential business models. It also means WeTu is based on technological solutions that have been carefully examined and are well-suited for the needs and conditions on the ground.
Fishing lanterns for use on Lake Victoria were specifically developed for WeTu. They are very durable, and their lithium-ion batteries replace lead batteries that often go overboard in stormy weather and land on the bottom of the lake – with negative environmental consequences. The NIWA and Windsor lanterns can be charged at each WeTu site and are easily transportable. With 12 hours of light and a lifespan of up to 500 charging cycles, the lanterns are considered quite durable and sustainable.
Mobile GreenPack batteries can also be rented at WeTu hubs for use in e-mobility vehicles or as a source of power for small workshops or businesses.
In the e-mobility sector, a variety of products are being tested at the WeTu sites. These are an environmentally-friendly alternative to existing transportation options and are suited for deployment in rural areas:
- The “aCar,” a small multipurpose electric vehicle made by the Munich startup “EVUM” from TU Munich. Trials of this e-vehicle will test its suitability for WeTu water deliveries and the transport of goods and people to hard-to-reach areas. Its simple construction allows for local production that will create jobs in the future.
- The electronic cargo bikes from “Anywhere.Berlin” have also been developed with local production in mind, ensuring most of the value creation remains local. The bikes have a cargo capacity of 160 kg, making them suitable for a variety of logistics use-cases.
- The electric boat motors from “Torqeedo” are resource-efficient and environmentally-friendly from the production phase onward. If they are adopted by the more than 200,000 fishing boats on Lake Victoria, they can significantly reduce water pollution in the lake.
Safe, filtered drinking water is available around the clock every day at four locations in Mbita, Sindo, Sori and Nyandiwa. For the water filter, we decided on a product from “Solar Spring,” a spin-off of the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems (ISE). They make robust, low-maintenance water filtration systems specifically for rural developing regions. The system has a multi-stage filtration process that reliably produces the best and safest drinking water. It can filter up to 15,000 liters of water per day. Social marketing efforts are in place to inform customers how contamination occurs and how contaminated drinking water can affect their health. The water is sourced from rain and from Lake Victoria, meaning a steady supply of clean drinking water is available even during drought periods. Water is available for customers at any time using an ATM system. A token is used to purchase the water; these can be topped up using cash at a WeTu hub or using the MPESA mobile payment system.