When Dysmus Kisilu started setting up vegetable coolers at markets and produce collection centres for Ksh.20 per crate, his father was fearful he would end up a struggling entrepreneur. To him, his well-educated son deserved to work in a multinational. So he handed him newspaper job ads to get him to send out job applications.
But when he introduced freezer-chest-sized solar coolers for sale, his venture started to pay off. The 29-year old University of California graduate now runs a “Each One Teach One” peer-to-peer learning programme aimed at expanding solar energy skills among young people. Women make up 60 percent of the trainees so far.
Where it all started
Kisilu grew up in rural Eastern Kenya. He saw hard-working farmers get shortchanged by middlemen and earn so little for their produce.
The farmers sell their potatoes for just Ksh.2,000 for every 90 kg sack during the harvesting season. They can never say no to the low prices because they risk their harvest going to waste. Four months later, the middlemen resell the produce as much as three times the buying price.
“Buyers say the price is Sh2,000 and they have to say yes or the produce goes to waste,” Kisilu said.
He found a solution to the problem when he joined the University of California to study renewable energy.
Cold storage units run on solar power could help farmers in off-grid rural areas avoid selling their produce at a loss.
Founding Solar Freeze Technology
So Kisilu founded Solar Freeze Technology to help farmers from his community boost their income and cut food waste- which greatly contributes to global warming.
He would charge the farmers minimal daily fees to store their produce in cold storage until market prices went up. Farmers paid Ksh.20 per crate to use the coolers. Each of the coolers can hold up to 400 crates of vegetables.
But the farmers were initially sceptical about the coolers.
“Most farmers are not exposed to technology like cooling and irrigation. It was all very new for them and they thought it would be too expensive,” he said.
But they grew to adopt the technology after trying it. The technology is now being used to keep medicine, including Covid-19 vaccines, chilled in remote areas.
Kisilu won the 2021 Ashden Awards, given to low-carbon innovations in sustainable energy and development, for his coolers.
“There were really frustrating years, and I was really doubting at some points. But there’s light at the end of the tunnel now,” he said.
Around 3,000 farmers from his community now rely on his cooling services. His grandmother helped to introduce him to women’s farm cooperatives. The company is now breaking even and making profits.
Expansive use of the coolers
Kisilu has since launched a second freezer-chest-sized solar for sale. A unit goes for Ksh.40,000, which buyers can pay in installments using Mpesa.
A woman at a health facility bought one and introduced Kisilu to five more buyers. This paved the way for his rise. Since then, he has sold 120 more units. The coolers also come with a set of rechargeable solar lights and a USB port for charging mobile phones.
According to Kisilu, the coolers are being used for other purposes he never imagined. For example, lactating mothers in Kakuma are using the coolers to store breast milk so they can work during the day.
Fishing communities at the Coast and Somalia as well as agricultural exporters from Nigeria have made enquiries about the coolers.
Kisilu hopes to franchise the coolers.
He is working with institutions such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to improve the coolers and bring down their prices. One of the changes he is looking to make is to use more evaporative cooling.
Empowering the youth and creating jobs
Young people would crowd around Kisilu to watch whenever he was setting up the solar coolers. He started thinking about how the shortage of skilled workers and job opportunities for young people was slowing down solar power expansion in Africa.
“But renewable energy is coming very fast and we really need more people in it.”
He launched the “Each One Teach One” programme to provide peer-to-peer learning for young people interested in taking up solar energy jobs. It equips them with solar energy skills. Sixty percent of the learners trained have been young women despite the stereotype that “getting on top of a roof (to install solar panels) is a man’s job.”
“The idea is every person you’ve trained can become an evangelist,” he said.
About 100 youth, including refugees based at the Kakuma Refugee Camp, have benefitted from the four-month training programme. They can now install and maintain solar equipment.
“When one young person has a job in a new field, it becomes more appealing for others to be inclined to it.”