African countries

Solar Panda seeks to bring electricity to African countries in need of affordable electricity

Andy Keith (front) in Kenya for Solar Panda’s employee training day, in a handout photo.Handout

As Andy Keith listened to a panel of experts discuss off-grid solar energy At a technology conference in San Francisco in 2016, one grim statistic particularly appalled the serial entrepreneur.

“They said a billion people in the world still had no access to electricity and many of them lived in Africa,” Mr Keith said.

That massive number, now estimated at 940 million, spurred Mr Keith into action. The 30-year-old had wanted to make a difference on the continent since visiting Ghana in 2005 as a volunteer maths teacher and noticed that many households were living without electricity.

He returned to Toronto with the goal of powering more homes around the world, and that goal led him to build and sell two solar power generation businesses in Canada over the next decade. By 2016, he had raised enough capital to return to Africa and bring about change.

“So many people still without power was both a travesty that needed attention and a huge business opportunity, given the falling cost of solar power,” he said. “The goal has become to connect more African homes to the power grid.”

In August 2016, just seven months after this conference, he invested his own money to create and incorporate solar pandaa Kenya-based company that provides small, affordable solar power systems to homes in the East African country that lack access to the local power grid.

In small daily installments, Kenyan homeowners can buy a basic power unit that includes four lights, a lantern and a radio, or larger units that also come with more lights, a cell phone charger and a TV. 32 inches.

In its six years of existence, the company has grown to serve approximately one million people in 200,000 homes nationwide and now employs over 1,000 people.

“We grew very quickly,” Keith said, “because the need is at least twofold: residents needed to light their homes in a more affordable way, but also in a healthier way.”

Many Kenyan homes without access to mains power use kerosene lamps, the fumes of which can cause skin and eye irritation and, when inhaled, can cause as much lung damage as smoke two packs of cigarettes a day. The lamps are also a poisoning hazard for children and emit a constant stream of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Yet they are affordable: a liter of kerosene costs about a dollar, and households typically consume five liters a week.

Solar Panda’s power supplies are competitively priced: customers can purchase them in daily installments of 50 US cents over a 15-month period, which equates to approximately US$250. It’s no small expense – Mr Keith likens it to a Canadian renting a car – but in many cases it’s cheaper than connecting to the Kenyan electricity grid, which can be $400 or the farther you get from the city centers.

Asking struggling households for daily payments may not seem intuitive, but Keith is confident the extra revenue will help his business attract more investors, create more local jobs, power more homes and, term, to lift a growing number of households out of obscurity and poverty.

Plus, Keith said, a for-profit business can grow and be self-sufficient, and can avoid the uncertainty of grants and social impact funding.

“Africa needs to be seen as a peer for trade and needs investment and job opportunities more than aid and volunteers,” said Keith, who raised $8 million in Series A venture funding in June, and is now looking to build up even more in Series B funding.

Salome Aluoch, a mother of two, bought a basic power pack in 2018. She had wanted to give up kerosene lamps earlier for their negative health effects, but the costs of connecting to the country’s electricity grid since her house in Gem, a village in Siaya County, 400 kilometers northwest of Nairobi, was prohibitively expensive. But she needed light in her house to cook, read and help her children with their homework at night. When she heard about Solar Panda’s healthier, same-priced lighting setup, she bought it immediately.

“The home kits have really helped a lot,” she said. “The country’s power grid is so expensive if you live far from city centers. People in rural areas of Kenya needed a company like this to come and help them. »

Antony Makau, a Nairobi native and customer service manager at Solar Panda, said locals are taking advantage of the power packs for more than cooking and reading: business people are using them to extend their working days and sell at night anglers can fish after the sun goes down, all without fear of inhaling noxious fumes.

“Our motto is kubadilisha maisha: transforming lives, because we do it with people who can use the packs and others who find work with us,” Mr. Makau said. “I feel like it changed the lives of many for the better.”

Mr Keith, meanwhile, has his eyes set on future growth: he says the company hopes to undertake larger-scale solar projects in Kenya, but is also looking to expand to other countries that need affordable electricity, such as Zambia, Malawi and Nigeria. Its big goal is to popularize it further in the fastest growing continent on Earth as solar power becomes cheaper and more popular around the world.

“A big question in climate change is: how will Africa be electrified?” said Mr. Keith. “If we expose millions of people to solar energy, it becomes part of the culture, our next generation grows up healthier, and our planet benefits as well.”