Aug 19, 2014
This week a couple new videos about off-grid solar technology for energy access in Africa were released. We throw in a bonus video for you to see solar through the end-user’s perspective:
The USAID’s Energy Poverty Series
The US Agency for International Development has released the video series to show what living in energy poverty for the Power Africa initiative, which we are a part of. It’s a 5-part series of individual testimonies of what living off-the-grid is like in Sub-Saharan Africa. The video titles highlight the difficulties of living without electricity:
- How Do you Save a Life in the Dark?
- How Can you Learn in the Dark?
- Would you go to a Hospital with no Electricity?
- Without Power How Can you Raise a Family?
Hear from healthcare practitioners, mothers, students, and teachers themselves on how access to electricity could greatly improve their lives and help them reach their dreams:
PAYG solar in Kenya
The Consultative Group to Assist the Poor (CGAP) produced a video that follows the work of two of SunFunder’s partners in Kenya: Angaza Design and SunnyMoney. It shows how pay-as-you-go solar is a great option for people living with no access to electricity but use mobile money for everyday transactions.
Solar TV commercial in Sierra Leone
BBOXX, another partner of SunFunder, has released a TV commercial geared toward solar home system customers who have unreliable access to electricity and frequently experience black-outs. For those living off-the-grid, being able to power a TV inside their homes is an aspiration. With companies like BBOXX reaching remote areas, having a solar powered TV is a reality not so distant in the future.
Jul 28, 2014
SunFunder only lends to solar partners that pass our rigorous diligence process. Despite the high quality bar, we have a huge pipeline of partner companies and this list is constantly growing. To date, people like you have invested in 18 projects that total to $324,000 and we have had 100% repayment rates so far.
However, the unpredictability of a crowd project’s timing can sometimes be problematic for our customers. The way crowd projects has worked in the past is that we first decide the loan size, then we put the project up for the crowd to invest in. Then it can take anywhere from 15 days to 2 months for the project to get fully funded. As solar distributors and retailers, our partners need to plan ahead for inventory purchases, taking into account estimated time for shipping and customs, to ensure business runs smoothly at all times. The timing of funds becomes key, and the uncertainty around timing is a barrier for many solar partners. This is why we have been putting up crowd projects at a slower rate than what our community wants.
We can solve the crowd investment timing problem with pre-investments. You can pre-invest today in the next solar project. When the project gets fully funded, our team will match it right away to the best candidate for the next loan. With consistent pre-investments, our team can continuously and more efficiently perform diligence work on our pipeline of solar partners. This helps maintain our standard of high quality projects for the crowd to invest in while ensuring we can deploy more project loans using crowd investments.
You will be pre-investing in projects similar to the ones we’ve funded before, which will have loan terms of 18 or fewer months. You will also be able to monitor which projects your pre-investment has been used for in your account activity when you log in and on your email updates. In other words, all other activities surrounding your investment are the same as they have always been.
Consider making a pre-investment for solar in emerging markets today!
Jul 24, 2014
By Audrey Desiderato, cofounder and COO
In May, SunFunder received a thoughtful question via Twitter from Antony Bugg-Levine of the Nonprofit Finance Fund:
#learnfromdoers. I like that. E+Co’s Founders took many first steps for the impact investing world, and we should learn from the organization’s successes and failures, rather than sweep these under the rug.
Disclosure: Phil LaRocco (Founder of E+Co) has been an important mentor to me, largely responsible for my leap into the entrepreneurial realm to find a solution to energy access. He was my professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, and I served as the LaRocco Fellow at E+Co after completing my Master’s degree from Columbia University from July – November 2010.
(Phil and I at the E+Co Global Meeting, November 2010)
Some background information on E+Co:
Launched in 1994 with support from the Rockefeller Foundation, E+Co made equity and debt investments in small and growing businesses focused on clean-energy technologies in developing countries. Working with over 220 entrepreneurs, E+Co made 287 investments totaling over $45 million in 36 countries within Africa, Asia and Latin America. E+Co brought clean energy access to more than 6.2 million created 5,300 jobs and offset 4.6 million tons of carbon. E+Co paired seed and growth capital investments raised from primarily DFIs, and also impact investors through the issuance of notes, with Enterprise Development Services provided by regional team members.
In 2012 E+Co ceased operations as a nonprofit financial institution and transferred ~$30 million loan portfolio to private-equity fund managers. $5 million of E+Co’s African investments, would be managed by the for-profit spinoff “Persistent Energy Partners”. David Bank’s article in Impact IQ details how bad loans drove E+Co out of business.
E+Co’s Co-Founder Christine Eibs Singer believed that the restructuring plan was not the only option, nor did it solve the issue at the core of E+Co’s mission: how to create “bankable” deals. Over time as E+Co’s volume grew, it became increasingly challenging to fund the technical assistance necessary to de-risk investments. Sadly, the narrative that emerged during the end of E+Co damaged its reputation. However, more focus should be placed on what can be learned for others seeking to provide financing to scale businesses in emerging markets.
What we can learn
It’s important to start off by highlighting the ways that SunFunder differs from E+Co. SunFunder is a solar finance company that provides short-term, working capital and project finance loans to off-grid solar companies. We do not dabble in equity, and remain focused technologically and geographically. Neither do we offer seed capital to companies; we require a certain amount of track record and focus on financing scale.
1. Start with a for-profit model
E+Co’s early entry into the market, and its mandate to provide capacity building services to entrepreneurs meant that at its founding it was structured as a non-profit. We can’t overlook the pivotal role E+Co’s “enterprise development services” had on launching entrepreneurs like Toyola in Ghana. As E+Co grew and morphed from a more grant-driven to investment vehicle, its organizational structure and systems struggled to transition in time. Learning from this, and because the landscape has since evolved, we decided to launch SunFunder as a for-profit entity to design and implement a model that is sustainable over time. Perception-wise, it also sets clear expectations to borrowers from the onset that we too are a business, and our success depends on getting repaid. With the help of an OPIC ACEF grant, we’ve engaged local counsel and consultants to improve our loan documentation and diligence requirements. We also believe that an efficient communication platform and systems are key to our success. Early on, we brought on a 3rd Co-Founder who specializes in product development, systems design and software engineering to optimize and automate processes through technology.
2. Overcome data gaps
Still, the sector remains young and most of the companies in this space do not have the resources or capacity to furnish us with an ideal level of financial and customer data. This is major problem that E+Co faced, and it is one that we and other SME emerging market investors continue to face. Technology is changing things in our favor. A number of well-capitalized, foreign-run companies have implemented sophisticated ERP and CRM systems for data collection. Pay-as-you-go technology is also gaining traction in the sector. And we predict that others will follow suit as software and hardware becomes more accessible and affordable. In the meantime, we may have to do some of that data gathering work ourselves (which takes more time), and are also exploring developing our own tools that can be used by our borrowers. Furthermore, allowing for flexibility through a tranche-approach helps us move the needle in the face of missing data. Our approach is to start with a small loan and to only re-loan to success while building our borrowers’ “track record”, and a working relationship.
3. Be close to your investments
As Phil’s student, I’d repeatedly heard him say that an important part of risk mitigation is “to have tea with the entrepreneur and their family, in their home”. I joined SunFunder full-time in December 2012 as Ryan’s Co-Founder, and moved to Tanzania in January 2013. I can casually pop by into one of borrower’s points of sale to verify the reporting information I’m receiving from management. Being close to our investments helps us be the first to know what’s going on in case of impending defaults and come up with a Plan B. Legal costs and the realities of collections can be prohibitive, and you want to make sure that you are in a position to get paid back first in difficult times. Relationships matter, and are a crucial supplement to spreadsheets when gauging the trustworthiness and commitment of an entrepreneur.
(My colleague Dustin, in a SolarNow franchise we spotted while driving back to Kampala from Western Uganda, April 2014)
By the way, SunFunder is hiring in East Africa. Check our website for job opportunities.
4. Creating a financial eco-system
As a business based on scale, we have heard repeatedly that the biggest risk to us is finding enough ‘bankable deals’. The off-grid solar sector lies between development and commercial finance, and the area in between is hard to navigate for both enterprises and investors. SunFunder strives to be that bridge. Our loan agreements range from $50K to $500K, with individual disbursements ranging $10K to $250K. With a couple of our borrowers we decided to launch our partnership with a small loan on the crowdfunding platform. This acts as a catalyst for graduating borrowers to a Solar Empowerment Fund loan once their capital needs go beyond a $30K loan. The first loan allows us to build a relationship and track their performance to better assess them for subsequent loans. We also need to foster increased coordination with other investors, rather than compete for the same deals. Matching capital sources and services with business life cycle, coordinating on diligence, milestones, timing, and use of funds can accelerate the speed at which a company moves through that in-between area. Additionally, we are in the process of collecting information on other challenges our borrowers face in scaling to eventually provide important value-add services supporting our loans.
This last “lesson learned” is in my view the most important, and two-fold.
A. Match investor expectations: Another piece of advice Phil gave me is that the obstacle is no longer “access to finance” but finding the right “financial match” for our borrowers. Bruce Usher, former E+Co Board Member, advised that the investor expectation mismatch was a serious issue that we should address early on. (1) How do we structure a product on the investor side that fits with our borrowers’ profile risk? (2) How do we bridge the 2 capital types (catalytic and commercial) we are raising? We know that robust communication between our fundraising team in the U.S. and the deals team in Africa is a first step (I talk to my US team at least 3x a week). But to be completely honest, this is one that we are going to be figuring out as we grow.
B. Match your board, staff and advisors to the realities of your business model. With the induction of new board members and advisors, E+Co was pushed into a direction of fund management and investment funds as the path to sustainability. However, some may argue that this approach played to weaknesses in experience rather than core competency. This was perceived as mission drift by some and caused rifts within the organization and undermined team cohesion. This might be the most important lesson learned from E+Co for any start-up, particularly as we start to grow our team and form a formal board of advisors. This means bringing on strong board & team members, engaged (and relevant) advisors and investors that add real value while understanding market realities. Our management team needs to ensure that ALL team members understand our mission from a customer’s perspective and how it fits with our vision. We will also need to perfect the art of setting clear processes, decision-making structures, expectations and accountability to ensure that execution, growth and mission remain aligned and that our core competencies are strengthened over time.
Jul 14, 2014
By Cindy Nawilis, community & operations lead
Last week the Global Off-Grid Lighting Association (GOGLA), in collaboration with A.T. Kearney, released an finance and investment study of the global off-grid market. The report makes clear that the off-grid lighting industry’s rapid growth can be further enhanced and accelerated by adequate financing. Adequate financing in the off-grid space makes sense not just for financial returns, but also for more tangible societal benefits that helps fight energy poverty. The report can be accessed here.
Since SunFunder launched in 2012, we have been vocal about the tremendous potential that the off-grid solar market holds based on the data we’ve found. This latest GOGLA report validates what we’ve been saying since two years ago.
The report estimates an annual market of up to $2.7 billion for solar pico lighting products (including lanterns and plug-and-play systems) and $6 billion for larger solar home systems. Compare both markets to what the 250 million off-grid households currently spend on fuel-based lighting (such as kerosene and candles): $30 billion. If all 250 million households would switch from kerosene and candles to solar pico lighting products today, about $27 billion would be freed up, which give the poor additional purchasing power for education, health, and other investments to increase living standards. And this is strictly for the off-grid/kerosene market—the report does not get into the grid-deficit/diesel market, which SunFunder has an eye for.
The report also projects that the off-grid lighting market will continue to grow to up to $50 billion because of three megatrends that drive the demand for off-grid lighting products:
- Falling cost of solar off-grid lighting products
- Rising expenditure on kerosene, as costs go up and subsidies get lifted by governments
- Increase in mobile penetration among off-grid population, especially in Africa
Number 3 in particular is one that SunFunder CEO Ryan Levinson has talked about in a GigaOm article back in 2012. People will need a better way to charge phones than the options available to them today, which sometimes is walking miles to a charging station to charge phones with a car battery, and every year the number of people in this category will increase. This graph illustrates the drastic gap between mobile phone users and lack of electricity:
If solar energy is so poised to take off in emerging markets, why hasn’t it done so in a big way?
Barrier to finance
From day one, SunFunder’s work is solving a barrier that we know is needed to unlock a solar revolution in emerging markets: increase access to finance for solar companies. The GOGLA study also reported that the one market barrier that is agreed upon by both investors and industry players is lack of access to finance for solar firms. As the report says: “Although there is interest from capital providers to invest, as the environmental and social impact is in most cases clear, the greatest difficulty appears to be ‘matching’ requirements from financing providers to the company profiles.”
SunFunder’s work in the last two years has positioned us to be the leading solar asset finance company to match commercial and impact investors with energy access projects by solar companies in emerging markets. We started in 2012 as a crowdfunding platform and raised $169,000 by the end of 2013 from hundreds of crowd investors. In 2012, we quickly learned that the demand for working capital from solar companies can’t be dismissed. We also learned that there is untapped, private capital interest to complement crowd money as working capital loans for solar companies in emerging markets.
Moreover, the potential market for such investments is huge. The graph below from the recent GOGLA study shows that the industry’s capital requirement along the value chain. So why isn’t the money flowing into the space?
There are several reasons, which the study explores, but our team has found that the main reason holding most investors back from investing is the lack of market knowledge and local expertise to make informed investment choices in solar companies in emerging markets. Since many of the solar companies are startups, they also have short track records to show. This in turn drives investors to perceive investments in emerging market solar businesses as riskier than the economics prove. Another barrier is the varying investment deal sizes that are available from impact investors and foundations versus what is sought after from solar companies. The GOGLA report states that “the average ticket size sought by [off-grid lighting] industry is $900,000. This is considered subscale, as a minimum ticket size for [impact investor funds] is normally $2 million or more.” An innovation financing solution is needed to cater to both sides, and SunFunder has already begun to refine our solution before GOGLA released its set of suggestions.
Our Solution to Finance Solar in Emerging Markets
To complement our crowdfunding activity, SunFunder launched Solar Empowerment Fund (SEF) in Sept 2013, offering a rare opportunity for accredited and institutional investors to invest in a diversified, vetted, and high-impact portfolio of off-grid and grid deficit solar projects with an attractive risk/return profile.
We are now in the process of fundraising for SEF II, a $5 million facility with an initial $1 million Solar Note issuance that closed in April 2014. SEF II investors benefit from:
- Short-term debt with competitive returns: Investors earn an annual interest over a short Note tenor
- Reduced risk: Protection by First Loss Capital
- Diversified, high-impact portfolio: Investors support a diverse, tangible portfolio of high impact off-grid and grid deficit solar projects and businesses in multiple countries/regions.
To date, our SEF investors have had 0% default rate on their loan portfolios, and repayments from solar customers across the board (including crowdfunded projects) have all been paid in full and on time.
SunFunder alone won’t address the entire near-term capital need of the off-grid lighting industry. But as the size of our Solar Empowerment Fund grows, so will its impact on how the market gets financed over time. We are driven by our goal to prove that solar energy in emerging markets is bankable.
Due to regulations, you need to be an accredited investor and send an inquiry to participate in SEF. You can inquire at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jun 23, 2014
We made it to African television! Check out this CCTV Africa clip on SunFunder, featuring on-the-ground interviews with staff members of partner SolarNow in Uganda as well as with people who have benefited from solar energy:
Jun 20, 2014
Uganda has among the lowest electrification rates globally, with only 6-9%, leaving over 28 million people without power. It is estimated that only 1% of the population uses petrol generators, car batteries and solar PV systems to achieve a minimum level of electricity supply due to cost.
With partner Fenix International, we introduce a new project to bring affordable energy access in Uganda. With this $30,000 project loan, Fenix International will sell ReadyPay solar systems directly to customers and benefit 470 people in Uganda. Customers can buy the ReadyPay with a down payment starting $16, and the remainder will be paid with mobile money payments, as low as $0.39 per day, at the customers’ convenience. By switching to a ReadyPay from kerosene, families will be able to save as much as $157 per year.
The project’s impact is a small slice of Uganda’s off-grid population, but it is a sure step toward a modern energy lifestyle for those who are benefiting. We invite you to join us in our effort to increase energy access in Uganda.
Jun 9, 2014
Another month, another project fully repaid. That seems to be the trend at SunFunder these days!
Last month our partner smallsolutions made the final repayment for their first project with SunFunder, Solar for 600 families. The project benefited homes in the West Nile region of Uganda with 600 units of Sun King Pro and Sun King Solo solar lights. 86 people invested a total of $10,000 in this project. We are grateful for their support, and also for our relationship with smallsolutions.
This event is no small feat. Another project becoming fully repaid means our default rate remains at 0%. And because 99% of SunFunder’s investors revolve their repaid funds into other projects, this means we all are able to put our money into work again and again for clean and sustainable energy access.
With every project that gets fully repaid, the SunFunder community is proving out several critical points:
- Solar energy is economically viable for low-income communities living without electricity. In fact, it is so viable that off-grid solar companies are profiting enough to pay back their loans while continuing to scale up to meet solar’s rising demand. And this is true for multiple regions!
- Crowdfunding is catalytic. If not banks, who will help the off-grid solar companies build the necessary track record and credit history to become bankable? The answer is you. Your collective loans give them the opportunity to prove out their business models, and with the traction they’re making through paying back your investments, SunFunder can confidently approach private accredited and institutional investors to complement crowd investments.
- Off-grid solar is bankable. The track record and traction that off-grid solar companies gains with SunFunder provides evidence to large financial institutions that these companies are not as risky as previously perceived and are in fact bankable. As the International Energy Agency has stated, the world needs nearly $1 trillion in cumulative investment to achieve universal energy access by 2030. The more we can leverage crowdfunding and other innovative, community-backed approaches to prove that the off-grid solar sector is worth the investment for big international financial institutions like the World Bank, the better off the 1.3 billion unelectrified population will be in the coming years
Every dollar that you invest in solar is effectively worth significantly more in the long run because of what it enables. We are grateful for your support, and we look forward to unlocking more capital for emerging market solar with your help.
Jun 4, 2014
The U.S. Government is formally launching an innovative framework under President Obama’s Power Africa initiative to increase energy access for underserved populations across sub-Saharan Africa. Over an initial five year period, Beyond the Grid will leverage partnerships with 27 investors and practitioners, including SunFunder, committing to invest over $1 billion into off-grid and small scale solutions for this underserved market. These private sector commitments will help Power Africa meet and exceed its commitment to provide access to 20 million new connections for households and commercial entities, providing electricity to millions of households in sub-Saharan Africa.
Off-grid and small scale energy solutions that generate electricity closer to end users will also bolster productive uses of energy and income generation. By partnering with investors, practitioners, and donors, Beyond the Grid will mobilize new resources, technologies, and expertise to address access to electricity issues in sub-Saharan Africa.
“Beyond the Grid will help to expand the work the U.S. Government is already doing through Power Africa to bring electricity to citizens of sub-Saharan Africa,” said U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz. “With close to 600 million people without access to modern-day electricity, it is clear that centralized grid access is not a comprehensive solution for these countries in one of the world’s least urban continents. But through solutions including off-grid and small scale energy projects, we can bring electricity to these rural areas.”
Building on the Power Africa initiative’s support for a number of distinct small scale energy projects and small scale solutions across African markets, Beyond the Grid will advance the policy and regulatory frameworks necessary to overcome recurring constraints in the small scale energy space. The framework will also create an effective enabling environment with increasing access to financial and technical assistance historically not available to small energy businesses. Additionally, the framework will incorporate new financial tools such as investment structures that blend donor and private capital, aggregating and de-risking small energy projects in Africa and making them available as a new asset class for investment at scale. The founding partners of the Beyond the Grid include:
Capricorn Investment Group
Global Off-Grid Lighting Association
Gray Ghost Ventures
LGT Venture Philanthropy
Liberia Energy Network
Low Carbon Enterprise Fund
Off Grid Electric
Persistent Energy Partners
Tony Elumelu Foundation
United Nations Foundation
Building on the Beyond the Grid framework, the U.S. African Development Foundation (USADF) has teamed up with GE Africa and USAID to launch the Power Africa Off-Grid Energy Challenge, designed to meet the needs of communities not served by the traditional grid. This grant challenge, open from now until June 20, will award up to $1.8 million in grant funding to African-managed and –owned enterprises with renewable energy solutions. This second round of the Challenge is an expansion to all 6 Power Africa countries, from the first round awarded in November 2013, of $600K in grant funding for renewable energy business models in Kenya and Nigeria.
Formally launched by President Obama in June 2013, Power Africa is the U.S. Government’s transaction-based development approach to increase access to power in sub-Saharan Africa. The initiative has already helped close almost 2,800 MW worth of transactions and has secured commitments for another 5,000 MW, representing almost 75 percent of the initial goal of bringing an additional 10,000 MW of cleaner, more reliable energy to Power Africa’s six focus countries – Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Liberia, Nigeria and Tanzania – and adding 20 million electrical connections for households and commercial entities. To date, Power Africa has leveraged more than $15 billion from the private sector for new on, mini and off-grid projects in sub-Saharan Africa.
Read official press release from US Department of Energy
May 29, 2014
Originally on pipsrewards:
Imagine living in a world where there are no lights at night to read, study or do homework. No stove to turn on to cook dinner. No outlet to charge your cellphone. Hard for many to imagine. However, 80% of Uganda’s population has no access to electricity. Kerosene, diesel and firewood are used instead – major contributors to house fires, tragic burns and indoor air pollution.
SunFunder is dedicated to changing the lives of those 80% of Ugandans, and others around the world by investing in solar energy for them. They are doing it by partnering with companies like SolarNow which provides affordable solar home systems to off-the-grid families and businesses in Uganda.
PIPs is proud to be partnering with SunFunder and is excited to offer an opportunity to use your hard earned PIPs on this inspirational project – “Switch on Ntungamo.”
A $50k loan will help SolarNow provide 85 solar homes systems to 780 people.
Each SolarNow 50 Watt system powers 6 lights, as well as cellphone charging and radio for the 10-year lifetime of the system. The units come with full installation, user training, and a two-year free maintenance plan. Plus, the systems are modular and can be added to over time. Once installed, these solar systems will help Ugandan families eventually save up to $232 a year by no longer spending money on kerosene.
A teacher of the Bugabula Secondary School in Uganda, Jagobi Joshwa, recently spoke about the changes this system has brought to his school. “I am really happy that our pupils can now continue studying after sunset, which has increased exam results by 8 percent compared to last year.”
Wondering how well these systems work over the long haul? According to SunFunder’s Cindy Nawilis, Community & Operations Lead, “We require quarterly updates from all of our partners… and since our partners are for-profit businesses themselves, they’ve made it their priority to maintain strong after-sales service for customer retention.”
For as little at $10 or 1000 PIPs, you can make an investment to help change the lives of hundreds of people in Uganda. As soon as the Ugandan families and business’ repay the loan for the solar panels through a two-year monthly installment pay plan, you will get your PIPs back. You can then reinvest in other equally inspiring projects or withdraw the investment.
The sun never felt so good.
Photo Credit: Sameer Halai/SunFunder
May 26, 2014
We are excited to announce that SunFunder has successfully closed a Series A equity investment led by Khosla Impact and including a group of our existing angel investors. This marks a significant milestone for SunFunder and signals the next step on our journey to be the leader in emerging market solar finance.
Khosla Impact, Vinod Khosla’s personal investment vehicle for market-based solutions to poverty and development, was formed by Sun Microsystems co-founder Vinod Khosla. It provides assistance to entrepreneurs developing products and services for the three billion people at the bottom of the world’s economic pyramid.
This investment from Khosla Impact will allow SunFunder to grow in E Africa and India, expand into new regions, increase our fundraising capacity and help us towards achieving our goal of catalyzing over $1 billion of financing into solar companies and projects in emerging markets by 2020. This investment also validates the opportunity for solar energy in emerging markets, the need for new solar financing sources, and the catalytic impact SunFunder’s solutions are having on how solar companies across emerging markets secure financing.
SunFunder is based in San Francisco and Tanzania with a mission to unlock capital for emerging market solar. We raise capital through the Solar Empowerment Fund, a private debt offering that provides the only opportunity for accredited and institutional investors to invest in a diversified, vetted and high impact portfolio of solar projects in emerging markets. This is complemented by our crowdfunding activity, where anyone can invest as little as $10 on sunfunder.com.
Since 2012, SunFunder has financed 24 project loans with 10 solar companies in 6 different countries. This has already helped over 115,000 people get access to affordable solar energy. So far 6 project loans have been fully repaid, and we maintain a 100% repayment rate. By the end of 2015, we aim to raise and deploy $20 million into solar projects around the world.
Thank you for believing in us. With your help and support, we look forward to reaching many more exciting milestones ahead!