The Hardware Grind
Reflections from my year in the field with PayGo Energy’s technology team.
It’s a Tuesday afternoon in early January. We are on a field excursion to test some new product features and as per usual, we pass by Mama Maria’s shop. Mama Maria resides in Mukuru Kwa Reuben and runs a retail store where she sells fast-moving consumer goods and cooked foodstuffs to households in the area.
As we enter her shop, we find Mama Maria on her phone, topping up her gas credit. Mama Maria’s two daughters do laps of the shop in their school uniform, savouring their afternoon break. Mama Maria greets us with a broad smile and tells us how our agent was there a day before to switch over her cylinder. She calls it magic — a gas cylinder that automatically replenishes itself.
We have a brief chat with Mama Maria about her experience with our product and she mentions some features she thinks would be useful. As I jot down some notes, two flames burn bright: an orange continuous flame is heating the family’s evening meal and the other, a blue ticking glow, indicates that the Cylinder Smart Meter is in an active cooking session.
My name is Emmanuel Kinyanjui. I am a Mechatronic Engineer by training and a member of the Software Engineering team at PayGo Energy (‘PayGo’). Over the past year, I’ve had the privilege of working on PayGo’s flagship product, the Cylinder Smart Meter (CSM).
The CSM is an Internet of Things (IoT) device that attaches to the top of a Liquified Petroleum Gas (LPG) cylinder, and accurately measures and dispenses LPG. The CSM enables customers to pay for LPG in small amounts using mobile money, helping to overcome the cost barrier that inhibits access to clean cooking for over 75% of households in Kenya.
The CSM has seen many iterations over the years — from adaptations of off-the-shelf products to our first 3D printed prototypes and finally to our Version 3.0 (V.3) CSM, now in commercial production.
It’s been a year since we installed our first V.3 CSM in a customer home. It’s also been a year since I joined the PayGo team. To celebrate our joint anniversary, I’d like to share some of my reflections on the journey so far — the key moments I’ll savour, and the learnings I’ll take with me.
Savouring the key moments
1. Our very first installation
Day one of our V.3 CSM installation in customer homes was in early September 2019. Ambitiously, we had five installs lined up for the day. The plan was simple; go in, perform the setup, train the customer and they should be good to go, just like the trial runs! However, things didn’t go as planned.
We quickly realised that simulating installations in our office is very different from doing it in the customer’s home. We encounter issue after issue — poor network reception, unexpected hardware behaviour, and not least of all, our own anxiety. All up, our first installation takes four hours.
Over the ensuing months, we completed hundreds more installations. The Hardware, Software, Product and Retail teams worked closely together, learning from each installation and making adjustments accordingly.
Fast forward to 2020, we’re now able to do an installation in just under 5 minutes. Practice does make perfect!
2. Hitting the 100 CSM installation mark
In January we hit our first milestone — the 100th install. With 100 customers using our CSM daily, we had a large enough pool of customers to start gaining insight into usage patterns and customer behaviours, as well as system performance. The more data we have, the more we can improve our product. Reaching 100 installs was also a symbolic milestone — it felt like we were gaining momentum.
3. Overcoming the connectivity hurdle
One of the persistent pain points we had been facing during the initial rollout of our CSMs was the inability of a CSM to connect in areas with a poor mobile signal. This was mainly due to signal interference as a result of the surrounding material in our customer’s homes. As a result, our customers had to carry their set up outside their home to successfully establish a connection and top up their gas credits (less than ideal!).
The engineering teams went back to the drawing board and, through a relatively minor adjustment, we were able to drastically improve connectivity. We field-tested the solution in January, and by April we had fixed the issue in every one of our CSMs.
We’re now able to reliably establish a connection with our meters in extremely poor signal strength zones. Problem solved!
4. Scaling through partners
From the success we had experienced offering this service to our customers in Mukuru Kwa Ruben, our focus has now shifted to sustainably offering the same service and experience through our partners (typically large gas companies).
Scaling through partners presents a range of new challenges. How do we ensure our platform can handle many more payments, installations and exchanges? How do we set up secure environments for each of our partners to handle customer data? How do we achieve this for multiple partners at once while ensuring that we stay in touch with the customer’s voice?
For us, this has meant restructuring our feedback channels to ensure that the information reported — both from our partners and from the end user — is clear, concise and accessible. In anticipation of the surge inactivity, we have also increased our cloud storage capacity to ensure fast and reliable access at all times.
What I’ve learned along the way
1. Teamwork is key
When building and maintaining an IoT product, the thin line that separates hardware and software development teams is blurred and the need for both teams to be in sync at all times is paramount to the success of the product. Our team is distributed across three continents (North America, Europe & Africa), making communication even more critical.
During our initial rollout phase, we put in place daily stand-up calls to go through any issues arising as well as steps of mitigation. This involved live debugging sessions over video, where we would test different fixes in real-time. We also set up dedicated Slack channels for CSM issues, alerts, developments and feedback which was key to ensuring team synergy. To date, we still hold bi-weekly stand-up calls to ensure that new product features and scale-up plans are well understood across all teams and planned for accordingly.
2. Stay close to the customer
Companies often talk about having a ‘customer-first’ culture, but it’s hard to understand what this actually means in practice. When your product lives in your customer’s home and is used by your customer daily, ensuring the customer’s voice is heard is critically important.
For us, this means working closely with the Product team to ensure we are regularly interacting with our customers — like Mama Maria — through site visits, surveys and product usage data. The Product team takes customer insights and suggestions and translates them into features that the Software team can deliver on.
Having a customer-first approach is not just about how you interact with the customer, it’s also about creating a culture that supports open communication and feedback. Our feedback culture has been pivotal in addressing issues that occur in the field during installations (often fed back by our Retail Agents) which, coupled with diagnostics from our CSMs and data from our applications, has enabled us to ensure we give our customers the best experience possible.
Open communication has not only made us a better product team, but also a more empathetic one. By listening to each other’s experiences, and the experiences of our customers, we’ve developed a greater appreciation of the real-world impact of our products. This is what drives us to build better products, with our customers at the centre of it all.
3. Product development is hard, but we were born to do hard things
Building and deploying a hardware product is an experience like no other. It takes grit, passion and determination to keep moving forward. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve taken apart a CSM and put it back together again, only to realise that I didn’t actually fix the thing I had set out to. The process can be stressful, and time-consuming. However, with the right tools, the right team and the right attitude, the result is always rewarding.
Looking back at the year that’s been, I believe the PayGo team is driven, now more than ever, towards achieving our goal of unlocking Clean Cooking for the Next Billion!