The two started M-KOPA, now hailed as one of the world’s best success stories when it comes to the Internet of Things.

M-KOPA says it generated about 42.5 million hours of kerosene-free lighting this month and has saved its customers a combined total of $255 million.

SEEING THE LIGHT: With new light sources, families have made it out of “the kerosene trap,” which had previously demanded a significant portion of their budgets. Photos: KOPA Solar/Allan Gichigi

Internet of what?

The Internet of Things, or IoT, is what happens when the analog things in the world around us become computerized things that can send and receive data. And while many of us have heard the stories of refrigerators that remind us to pick up milk on our way home, IoT hasn’t become part of our everyday. But in many parts of the world, connected objects are changing lives.

In fact, a recent McKinsey study said by 2025 developing countries could generate as much as 40 percent of worldwide IoT market value. Many of these countries would be building technology infrastructure to support the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

M-KOPA, a Kenyan-based company, is one example. It saw the potential for the thousands of off-the-grid homes in Africa that use kerosene for power.

It estimates about 80 percent of its customers live on less than $2 a day and energy accounts for a significant amount of their spending.

Empowering locals

Pauline Vaughan is the Director of Operations at M-KOPA. She says the company aims to help people who’re stuck in what she calls “the kerosene trap.”

“About 80 percent of its customers live on less than $2 a day and energy accounts for a significant amount of their spending.”

“They’re spending 40 or 50 cents a day on kerosene and there’s no way out of that,” Vaughan explains. “They don’t have the capital to purchase the alternative.”

In response, M-KOPA developed a kit that includes a solar panel, two LED bulbs, an LED flashlight, a rechargeable radio and adaptors for charging a phone. Customers buy the system for $35 upfront and pay 45 cents a day for a year. The customers make payments via their phone; the kit sends a signal to the headquarters in Nairobi, and then turns itself on. The connected kit is also able to monitor the amount of electricity captured or stored, and whether the device is working.

THE GLOW: Where energy resources are generally limited, whether to finances or availability, LED kits have managed to limit kerosene usage and save both energy supplies and money.

Connecting human resources

Shubham Shukla, a New York-based engineer born in India, saw similar ways that connected devices could help people. Shukla is one of the co-founders of Ampello Labs, a startup that helps your apps or analog devices understand speech.

During one of his trips back home, Shukla met up with his friend Ankur Kushwaha, co-founder of New Delhi nonprofit Ray of Hope, an organization that advocates for a better life for India’s seniors. It even owns and operates an assisted living community.

“We talked about how residents needed something to help them with things ranging from using the washroom to calling their kids,” says Shukla, so he developed a connected lapel pin. 

Here’s how it works: you tell the pin what you need and then your request logs online where a caregiver can review and help you with what you need.

In many assisted living facilities, especially in poorer areas of Delhi, the current way of doing things is a care assistant that walks the halls asking if people need help. This means if you need something, anything, you need to wait. And, Shukla says, while the staff was excited about the device, it wasn’t so easy when it came to the residents.

“Definitely, there was some friction in the beginning,” he admits. “Many of them didn’t have experience with technology, so when you say things like ‘Why don’t you try talking to this pin on your collar?’ of course many of them were suspicious.” Their reaction isn’t an isolated one.

Security issue

One of the biggest challenges for these new connected devices is the fact that once they’re on the internet, they’re a part of the internet. Many feel these connected devices are a security challenge in and of itself and if we’re not careful we could open the internet up to widespread security risks.

Internet advocacy organizations are sending a strong message that policy makers, businesses, technical experts, and everyday people need to work together to develop security solutions. But over time Shukla says that resistance dwindled because their requests for help were getting an answer quicker than ever before. 

“It’s nice to know it’s doing more for people than just looking like a 007 agent talking to a lapel pin in his collar,” Shukla reckons. “But, then again, that’s cool too.”