BULAWAYO, ZIMBABWE — Claire Einhorn brews a pot of coffee in the kitchen of her coffee shop, Déjà Vu, a mile from Bulawayo’s central business district. She’s running low on gas, but she says a delivery of two cylinders, or 38 kilograms (84 pounds), will arrive in just a few minutes.
Einhorn, the coffee-shop manager, says she placed the order for gas using a mobile application called NeedEnergy.
“The NeedEnergy mobile application is convenient, and the quick delivery of the team is impressive,” she says.
The app, founded in 2015 by Leroy Nyangani, a fourth-year, chemical-engineering student at the National University of Science and Technology, has become popular among local businesses and residents in and around Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second-largest city. They say it helps them save on the cost of travel to shops in the city’s central business district where cylinders of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) are sold.
Access to energy is an ongoing issue in sub-Saharan Africa. Despite long-standing efforts to address the problem, more than 635 million people live without electricity in the region, according to a 2016 report from the International Energy Agency, a Paris-based intergovernmental organization with 29 member countries.
Fortune Moyo, GPJ Zimbabwe
Reliability and safety of energy sources is also a problem. An estimated 730 million people in sub-Saharan Africa use hazardous sources of energy for cooking, according to the agency’s 2014 Africa Energy Outlook.
In Zimbabwe, firewood and LPG are common sources of energy for cooking and, given the country’s crippling electricity power cuts, are also preferred options. LPG is more environmentally friendly than other common sources of energy – including firewood, coal and crude oil – but many people in the country, especially in rural areas, lack access to clean energy.
In Bulawayo, the NeedEnergy app allows users to order same-day delivery of multiple LPG cylinders, each containing up to 19 kilograms (42 pounds) of gas, to locations that the users request.
Prices vary based on the number and size of cylinders requested, but the prices are comparable to those in shops in the city center, Nyangani says. For some customers, the delivery fees are cheaper than transportation fares to the city center, he says. The gas is priced at $2 per kilogram (2.2 pounds), and clients pay 20 cents per kilogram for delivery.
Clients pay for their orders using mobile-money transfers or cash on delivery, Nyangani says. The app founder says he works with a two-person team to complete deliveries.
Before he created the app in 2015, Nyangani says, friends living in and out of the city would contact him, through text messages or calls, expressing a need for gas. Some could not afford the cost of transportation to shops in the city, some wanted to find gas at lower prices than shops were charging, and others wanted to purchase LPG in bulk, he says.
Nyangani says this is how he got the idea to create his business. He gets his gas supply from retailers in Bulawayo each month, and he has 32 clients who have been using the app since its inception. Many of them live in low-density suburbs of Bulawayo, including Ilanda, Highmount, Hillside and Bellevue.
Einhorn, who has been using the app for six months, says the delivery service allows her to save money, because she doesn’t have to pay to put fuel in her car for the journey to shops in the city center.
“I get to save my fuel in the process,” Einhorn says.
LPG is increasingly becoming a cheap source of energy in Zimbabwe, Nkosinathi Ndebele says. “It becomes even cheaper when the gas comes to you,” he says.
Ndebele, an accountant who lives in Highmount, 8 kilometers (5 miles) from Bulawayo’s central business district, has been using the mobile application for almost a year. He says he uses gas instead of electricity in his home.
Nyangani says some delivery clients who have opted to use LPG in their homes and businesses in lieu of electricity have saved up to 50 percent in utility costs each month.
But some people point out that the app’s usefulness is limited to those who have smartphones or internet access. Zimbabwe’s internet penetration rate is 16 percent, according to a 2016 report from Freedom House, an independent watchdog organization.
“The mobile application is an innovative idea,” says Percy Mlalazi, a NeedEnergy user and nurse who lives in Cowdray Park, a suburb about 15 kilometers (9 miles) from the city center.
“However, internet connectivity becomes a challenge at times,” she says.