Jay CabozBy Jay Caboz|May 17, 2022|9 Minutes|In Billionaire Tomorrow

Billionaire Tomorrow

Hard work today in the Mountains of the Moon!

African entrepreneurs have come up with some crazy ideas, but few can compete with putting a mobile phone charging machine halfway up a craggy, snow-capped, mountain.

“I really think we can have a lot of billionaires tomorrow in Africa, but we have to do the hard work today.”

Jay Caboz

It all began with a dead battery. One step on the frustrating path towards mobile revolution in Africa that is rarely smooth. When Ugandan entrepreneur Mutabazi Geofrey’s died on him, little did he know it would charge up a thriving business.

It all happened one night in Kampala. Geofry was working as a journalist in the capital, covering a music concert and sending stories from his phone. The problem was; the concert was buzzing, but his phone was dead.

“I used to go to clubs and events and take photographs and write articles about them. I always used to run out of battery, like all the time. I would charge my phone from the DJ box with my cable and ask them to charge my phone at their table. In most cases they would say: ‘yes,’ but there were cases where they would say: ‘no’. It was really inconvenient.”

This problem gave birth to an idea for a new business in Uganda – charging phones for people on the move.

It started out in 2019, with Geofrey charging from event to event to charge phones, carrying a large wooden cabinet on the back of a motorbike. It grew into the supply of sophisticated, self-operated, vending machine lockers where customers can charge dead cell phone batteries.

“My original idea was to make a kind of Uber or a SafeBoda, an app here in Uganda like Uber but for motorcycles. So, I bought some tablets with the idea of making a rideshare app for people that could log into the tablet and charge their battery in different places. Looking back, I don’t know how those tablets would have worked.”

“But then I thought, ‘How about if I could charge the phone itself?’ That’s when I got onto the idea of charging stations and charging solutions for mobile phones. I got started with one charging station, ran it for about 18 months. It has charged more than 1,500 phones now.”

As far-fetched as this idea may seem, there is reason behind it. Geofrey is the man behind ChargeKo Technologies a company that wants to power the mobile revolution in Africa through pay per use phone charging stations in Uganda.

But this small idea was merely a stepping stone which brought his company traction and awareness. So much so that he has just signed a partnership with the United Nations Development Programme for a $40,000 grant to help expand the business with 20 charging stations in a remote spot nowhere near you.

Geofrey now wants his stations to be in bars, restaurants and shopping malls as well as one of the most unlikely places you would expect to find a charging station – halfway up a mountain.

In folklore, they call them the Mountains of the Moon, the fabled gateway to King Solomon’s Mines of the storybooks. The mapmakers call them the Rwenzori mountains – Uganda’s highest peak. Whatever you call these towering peaks, they are a three-day hike from any form of electricity.

“We are setting up two charging stations up on the slopes of the mountain. It might sound crazy but mountaineers go up the mountain to summit the mountain and it’s a six-day round trip. As soon as they leave base camp there is no electricity. So, we are setting up charging stations to keep their devices charged from cameras to cell phones and different appliances.”

The Rwenzori is Africa’s largest range and the source of the White Nile. Its high altitude saps the life from batteries in minutes.  Which means Geofrey’s far-flung idea isn’t as crazy as it looks at first sight.

“Discharge is real. When it’s cold it’s terrible on battery life. You must optimize for temperature variations. For a snow-capped mountain like Rwenzori, you have half capacity as you go up, because of the coldness,” says Geofrey.

Even with the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdowns, Geofrey says his business is on the up. Because of the lockdowns, 70% of mobile phone users in Africa spend more time on their phones.

“The average smartphone user spends more than 4 hours a day on their phone. With so much time being spent, it’s no wonder that we fall into a state of pure panic anytime our battery falls below 20%. Once we hit that dreaded ‘red zone’, we’ll do just about anything to get our life back on track with a charged battery.”

But despite the increased reliance on mobile devices, short battery life is still a problem – with some phones needing to be charged at least twice a day.

Born and bred in Kampala, Geofrey is no stranger to the trials of finding a plug. In the streets of Kampala electricity is expensive.

“In a country like Uganda we consume half of the electricity that we generate. It means the few people consuming the electricity are having to pay for the rest of the unused capacity. Even if you were to extend the grid to those outside off-grid rural areas it would be too expensive to connect them. And then the main purpose of using that power would be for charging their phone and perhaps one light bulb. Basically, we are talking about pay as you go solar or offering charging stations which is what we are offering.”

Yet, Geofrey’s target market is the tourism industry.

“Tourism presents a really good sandbox for us to test ideas in. People that are going on a group trip, 20 to 30 people in a bus or a safari vehicle. They have lots of devices – laptops, cameras, phones, power banks – for this type of customer we are not just giving them small power banks, we are giving tour operators large power banks to rent from us. That can charge a phone 30 times.”

The business has survived the nervous first year, the difficult early days when most start-ups crash, that included a global pandemic.

“While starting out, we never imagined that this would turn out as a difficult task, but this hardship has made the small wins along the way rewarding beyond measure,” says Geofrey.

For a business that wants to power Africa it is moving forward in cold and lofty mountainsides, driven by an entrepreneur with his eye upon the summit.

“I really think we can have a lot of billionaires tomorrow in Africa, but we have to do the hard work today.”