INTERVIEW: Projects delivering technology for life in Africa

"Communities thrive when each of their members is connected to opportunity" says KOKO networks CEO, Greg Murray.

INTERVIEW: Projects delivering technology for life in Africa
KOKO is on a mission to deliver technology for life in the world’s fastest-growing cities.

KOKO is a venture-backed technology company that believes communities thrive when each of their members is connected to opportunity. From product development and engineering projects to sustainable energy solutions, KOKO is on a mission to deliver technology for life in the world’s fastest-growing cities.

 IT News Africa’s Jenna Cook had the opportunity to talk to Greg Murray, CEO and co-founder of KOKO Networks. Here’s what transpired:

KOKO spans a very wide range of industries – from research and education to engineering and energy – but across the board, what is KOKO Networks’ main objective?

KOKO aims to re-imagine daily life. When cities sprawl, life for many people is harder than it should be – products and services cost more than they should and are often a lower quality or even harmful. We exist to imagine and deliver technology that transforms urban life.

Technology is becoming an increasingly popular solution for businesses and communities alike in this world of digital transformation. What are some of the issues KOKO is tackling?

The first issue we are tackling is the dirty cooking fuel scourge. We have installed a network of 700 KOKOpoint clean fuel ATMs in Nairobi, Kenya, to offer consumers an affordable, safe and convenient clean cooking fuel solution within walking distance of their front door.

KOKO Fuel is our first consumer solution, delivered in partnership with Vivo Energy Kenya.

It uses smart canisters that dock with KOKOpoints to dispense fuel, which consumers have usually pre-purchased via M-PESA. Consumers then take their smart canister home to dock into their KOKO Cooker, a modern 2-burner ethanol stove that delivers affordable cooking energy that undercuts dirty fuels such as deforestation-based charcoal and kerosene.

What exactly are ‘KOKO points’? 

KOKOpoints are machines that combine a clean fuel ATM, an e-commerce kiosk and an in-store digital media platform. Our first network of 700 KOKOpoints is now live in neighbourhood shops all across Nairobi.

They are primarily designed as an automated fuel dispenser for liquid bioethanol – KOKO Fuel – while also providing a digital media interface so consumers can watch short, targeted videos on screens, enabling cooking tips and health awareness messages to be communicated at low cost.

We even have KOKO Radio, which plays news, music and ads inside KOKO shops through speakers connected to the KOKOpoints, with the content refreshed daily. They are IoT-enabled with more than a dozen sensors that transmit via dual-SIM modems, showcasing real-time fuel levels, transaction data, health and safety information as well as technical performance statistics.

Our fleet of trucks makes deliveries of KOKO Cooker kits to the 700 KOKO shops, where consumers can collect them after having created an account and placing an order via the KOKOpoint screen or the mobile app.

How do consumers make use of the ‘KOKO points’?

To place an order, consumers can either use our smartphone app or order from a KOKOpoint screen. KOKOpoints are easy to find – consumers can simply visit the KOKO Fuel website to find their nearest KOKOpoint.

The brand new KOKO Cooker is delivered to the same Agent shop as soon as payment is complete; when it is collected, consumers can fill the personal, reusable fuel canister instantly at any KOKOpoint. Within a few minutes, they are ready to cook with a clean, safe and affordable alternative fuel.

Consumers can fill their reusable fuel canister instantly at any KOKOpoint

How do ‘KOKO points’ help mobile money and banking systems control the flow of funds between customers, retailers, wholesalers and financiers?

KOKO relies on mobile technology and mobile banking to drive most operations and as such almost all the financial flows between the buyer, seller and retailer are registered and controlled through our Network Operations Centre.

Consumers pay $69 upfront via MPESA (Kenya’s near-ubiquitous mobile money service). This breaks down as $64 for the cooker, which can be paid for upfront or in smaller instalments, plus $5 worth of fuel credit so they can start cooking straight away.

Consumers, staff and partners interact with KOKO through mobile apps to optimise efficiency and user experience. Anyone can place orders for KOKO Cookers and fuel on their phones or on the KOKOpoint screens and settle payments through MPESA.

On the supply side, we have an IoT-enabled mobile app which our fuel partner Vivo Energy uses to monitor the refilling of Smart MicroTankers from Shell-branded petrol stations, plan the daily routing for these MicroTankers, and manage KOKOpoint refills. The app is connected to our Network Operations Centre, from where our team tracks the flow of cookers, fuel, data and money centrally through fully integrated cloud, mobile and IoT technologies.

KOKO provides an IoT-enabled mobile app which Vivo Energy uses to monitor the refilling of Smart MicroTankers.

Why is KOKO fuel a more affordable and cleaner option for consumers?

Many people across Africa, and other emerging economies around the world are forced to use dirty cooking fuels – primarily charcoal and kerosene – which kill more people each year than AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined. In Kenya alone, the Ministry of Health ascribes approximately 400 deaths per week to the diseases caused by dirty cooking fuels.

The World Health Organisation estimates that more than 4 million people annually die of illnesses caused by indoor air pollution as a result of using dirty cooking fuels. Approximately 50% of these deaths are children under 5 dying from pneumonia and acute lower respiratory disease.

Cooking with charcoal releases very dangerous particulate matter, carbon monoxide (CO), sulphur dioxide (SO2), and a variety of organic air pollutants. Breathing in the fumes emitted from charcoal or kerosene is equivalent to smoking four packets of cigarettes a day, and because women and children are the primary cooks, they bear a greater burden of disease.

In stark contrast, bioethanol cooking fuel is clean, safe and affordable. KOKO’s Fuel solution meets the highest Tier 5 standards for air quality, which enables families to remove harmful smoke and soot from their homes.

In terms of comparative pricing, a 2018 study by Dalberg Global Development Advisors found that when KOKO’s best-in-class technology is applied to bioethanol cooking fuel distribution (vs traditional approaches that sell it in single-use plastic bottles), bioethanol retailed in Nairobi is 10% cheaper than kerosene and 40% cheaper than charcoal.

Does KOKO have future plans to develop new tech solutions for financial services and connectivity? What do these plans entail?

Yes, absolutely. As KOKO grows, we will roll out new products and services in the energy, climate, media and new retail sectors, which will also be developed, distributed and bought with new financial services and connectivity technologies.

As well as scaling across Kenya and East Africa, there are hundreds of cities worldwide that need these kinds of networks. We simply can’t build them fast enough!

Consequently, we plan to partner with distributor companies that already serve the FMCG industry as well as fuel companies that want to introduce bioethanol onto their existing networks. We plan to license our hardware and software technology to partners like these.

We’ll be expanding beyond Kenya in 2020 and look forward to sharing updates on our new networks over the coming months.

By Jenna Cook

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