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How d.light plans to reach 100 million people with home solar

d. light Solar
Michael Walekwa, d. light Solar managing director for Kenya and Horn of Africa. PHOTO | COURTESY 

The use of kerosene and fuelwood to light homes and cook has been linked to respiratory illnesses, burns, and fires affecting millions of families worldwide.

This practice is pervasive in most rural families who are not connected to the electricity grid. Clean energy solutions provider d.light Solar has been focusing on these off-grid families in the past 12 years – helping them to discard kerosene and other harmful and unreliable sources of power.

The company has received Sh1.9 billion from a consortium of lenders to continue with its social impact mission of transforming 100 million lives through cleaner, safer and reliable energy.

The Business Daily spoke to d. light Solar managing director for Kenya and Horn of Africa Michael Walekwa on how their work in Kenya and expansion plans in other African markets where they operate. Excerpts:

WHAT HAS D.LIGHT SOLAR’S JOURNEY IN THE CLEAN ENERGY SPACE IN THE LAST FEW YEARS BEEN LIKE?

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We are a social impact enterprise – an idea inspired 12 years ago after a painful kerosene fire encounter by a small boy in rural Benin. Since then, the desires and needs of those that lack reliable electricity have driven innovations of clean, safe and affordable solar energy solutions — from as little as a $4 solar-powered study lamp to pay-as-you-go home systems that can power a broad range of electronics, including a flat-screen television.

These solutions represent hope and an enhanced quality of life with improved health and safety, education, economic opportunities and stronger families across the markets we operate in. We are on course to meeting the 100 million lives positively impacted by the firm’s interventions by 2020 target.

WHAT IS DRIVING D.LIGHT’S GROWTH IN KENYA AND OTHER AFRICAN MARKETS?

Kenya has a thriving economy that continues to be fuelled by an expanding infrastructure coupled with advances in technology.

The M-Pesa platform is greatly supportive of the pay-as-you-go model that enables consumers to pay in affordable instalments.

Only five percent of the potential local market for off-grid solutions has been realised. We are yet to unlock 95 percent. This is the story in most of Africa, which presents a huge area of opportunity with a sizeable percentage of the population not connected to the grid.

We are increasingly seeing renewable energy policies that would be key to growth in the sector hence more off-grid connections.

WHAT IS YOUR ASSESSMENT OF THE FIRM’S IMPACT SINCE YOUR ENTERED THE KENYAN MARKET?

Access to off-grid solar energy is life-changing. More than 10,000 families have been positively impacted in many ways. The multiplier effects of the jobs created has been enormous. They have free, continuous access to reliable solar energy for years to come—and their lives have been transformed.

Their health has improved. They experience significant savings — income unlocked for people previously living in energy poverty. Others have seen great improvements in their children’s academic achievements, thanks to the ability to study under bright, safe light every day.

Customers tell us how they have been able to expand income-generating activities. For instance, local health clinics and businesses can stay open for longer hours and have a safer and better environment for healthcare delivery and business continuity.

DO YOU HAVE PLANS TO EXPAND YOUR OPERATIONS IN KENYA AND OTHER AFRICAN MARKETS?

A few months ago, we opened offices and regional centres in Eldoret and Kisumu. We are looking at opening more of these outlets.

We have partner offices in Uganda, Tanzania, Nigeria and Ethiopia. Our commitment to the off-grid customers continues to power our drive for universal access to energy for each household.

From Kenya to Benin, and from India to Haiti, d.light remains dedicated to providing innovative solar solutions to off-grid customers. We’ve seen first-hand how access to clean, reliable electricity can open possibilities for families—and it is our great privilege to play a part in that journey. There is still a large untapped market and great potential for further growth.

RECENTLY, YOU RECEIVED FUNDING FROM SOME OF THE WORLD’S IMPACT INVESTORS, INCLUDING SUNFUNDER, DWM AND SIMA. HOW DO YOU INTEND TO USE THESE FUNDS?

The $18 million investment will be used to expand our operations across Africa and strengthen our technology capabilities.

These efforts will be directed to three significant areas: new solar solutions, opening new country offices as well as local service centres and lastly ensuring affordability through our financing model — pay-as-you-go — that enables customers to pay instalments over time.

Significant amounts of capital are required to enable us to continue providing these financing plans for our customers as we grow.

WHAT DO YOU HAVE TO SAY ABOUT THE BUSINESS ENVIRONMENT IN KENYA? IS IT CONDUCIVE AT THE MOMENT?

Kenya has arguably the most favourable policy environment in this region. This has seen the country lead the way in the adoption and use of solar energy. For instance, some of our solar products are almost tax-exempt, making it easier for us to penetrate and offer connectivity to deserving off-grid families in the rural areas.

Credit goes to the government for creating an enabling business environment for organisations such as d. light to fulfil this important social mission. In terms of the challenges, I single out the subsidies on alternatives like kerosene and illegal business practices like counterfeiting by a few unscrupulous traders.

DO YOU HAVE PLANS TO DEVELPOP PRODUCTS THAT TARGET CUSTOMERS LIVING IN CITIES?

Our focus is to provide families in rural communities without access to reliable electricity and other off-grid consumers with the latest renewable energy technology.

Anyone that share the desire and the need to empower humanity with clean, affordable and reliable energy is welcome to partner with us.

The end goal is to ensure we play our rightful role to connect all irrespective of status, reduce disparities in energy and address income inequalities, gender inequalities and inequalities in other dimensions such as rural/urban income as espoused by the United Nations Development Programme.

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