Feature Story

Meet the women with a cool head for business generating pride and profit from solar-powered freezers in Nigeria

As Kehinde Fayemi serves customers at her frozen food shop in Nigeria’s Lagos State, few might guess exactly what her freezer generates other than ice and a tidy profit. While the big white box in the corner does exactly what it says on the tin – preserving the glittering fish and pink cuts of meat inside – it’s also the source of a great deal of kudos. “Now, with the quality of the freezing, it commands respect,” Kehinde says.

It wasn’t always so. According to the World Bank, 43% of Nigeria’s population have no access to grid electricity. And an estimated 40% of food is lost and wasted each year in part due to the lack of cold storage. Kehinde was once one of the country’s women fish traders who typically see stock lost because their fridges and freezers are left without power for extended periods of time. With the national energy supply patchy and unreliable, and back-up polluting diesel-powered refrigerators expensive to run, these businesswomen find their fish spoils quickly in the heat and profits go literally down the drain.

Kehinde has owned the shop in front of her house in Ikorodu, where she lives with her husband and son, for the last six years. Despite being passionate about her occupation and driven to succeed whatever the obstacles, the 38-year-old  recognises only too well the challenges of trying to run a business against this level of uncertainty. Grid electricity is “rare” where she lives and supply could be on one day and off the next, with only a fuel-hungry generator filling the gaps. “With selling frozen foods, you need a good power source,” she says. “Some goods don’t sell fast and require good preservation.” Despite using the generator for eight hours a day, her food could not always be kept cold for as long as it took to be sold, and Kehinde says that a lot of stock would go to waste. Losing money and feeling stressed, a solution soon came her way.

After sharing her frustrations with a friend from church, Kehinde was given a flyer about a snappily-named start-up called ‘Koolboks’. The company originally made cooling boxes for the camping industry but soon pivoted to where they felt they could make a bigger impact – the business owners in Africa who struggle to keep their products cool, and the health sector, such as pharmacies and clinics.

The beauty is in the product’s simplicity and reliability, and the fact that it is 100% solar-powered. The ‘Koolhome’ appliance can be used as a fridge or a freezer, and the units can generate refrigeration for up to seven days, even when there is limited sunlight. This is down to the insulation and ‘ice battery’ – a technology that enables the storage of energy in the form of ice – complemented with lithium-ion batteries. Users can switch back and forth between using energy from the grid and solar power, and the appliance can also charge mobile phones and power LED bulbs.

The clever concept attracted funding from the Powering Renewable Energy Opportunities (PREO) programme, supported by the IKEA Foundation and aid from the UK government via the Transforming Energy Access platform. The resulting project, delivered with support from the Carbon Trust and Energy 4 Impact, saw more than 300 fish and frozen food traders in Nigeria – two thirds of them women, including Kehinde – gain access to solar-powered refrigerators through a credit plan without which the product would have been unaffordable. The PREO grant helped Koolboks to identify target customers, develop payment plans and provide backup funds to be able to offer credit. The success of the project has since encouraged commercial investors to get involved and Koolboks has raised $2.5 million in funding. This has allowed the company to expand in Nigeria from a pilot to a full-service business, reaching thousands of customers. Koolboks currently employs more than 100 people in Nigeria and there are plans to expand to other markets in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Back in Ikorodu, Kehinde called the Koolboks number. Her husband was initially nervous about the upfront cost. But with his wife’s savvy calculations, and the potential savings on offer, he must have been won over. Thanks to Koolboks integrating PAYGO technology to make the freezers more affordable, customers like Kehinde have been able to pay in monthly, weekly or daily installments to eventually own their unit.

Eighteen months later, Kehinde hasn’t looked back. Thanks to the powerful African sun, there are no electricity bills to pay for the freezer, and Kehinde charges her phone in one of the appliance’s USB ports. Having paid for the first freezer in monthly installments, Kehinde was able to buy a second outright, and thanks to both freezers the family has since seen profits soar by around 90%. There’s less food wastage and worry, too.

New and repeat customers are tempted by the freshness of the fish, chicken and sausage Kehinde stocks. “It brings more customers to my doorstep. Even if I’m not around, they would wait for me,” she explains, adding that one day she returned home to find a crowd of people outside her shop. “I can sell my goods at the price I want. I don’t have to sell it at a lower price for fear of spoilage.”

Koolboks’ technology – coupled with Kehinde’s strong will to succeed – has boosted her confidence in her own abilities. “I am a very self-determined person, though Koolboks made it easier,” she says. “Yes, I feel more confident doing my business, I enjoy doing it and see how it is doing well.”

Kehinde also feels more respected in her community. “Customers used to look down on my produce and price the goods low because it is defrosted,” she adds. She has now become an advocate for the freezers, recommending Koolboks to others, with positive results. “I have other traders hug and thank me for introducing them.”

Despite her success, Kehinde’s ambition is anything but on ice. She would like to get more freezers, go completely off-grid, expand her business, help her parents with financial support and perhaps open another shop. “With the freezer, I have advanced in our business and increased my pride and respect for being a self-determined person.” With such a cool head for business, she sounds unstoppable.