Will electricity in developing rural areas spread more like cell phones than land lines? These startups think so.
After years of fits and starts, startups and big businesses are finally starting to pay attention to the solar market in rural corners of the developing world.
Over the past few months, a number of high profile investors have backed startups selling solar panels to off-grid customers across regions like Africa, India, and East Asia. Meanwhile, big solar companies have created divisions focusing on rural customers in the same areas.
That this market is now starting to mature shows how solar is increasingly affordable to people who earn less than $2 daily. At the same time, it highlights how business can lead social development—electrification, in this case—in ways that some non-profits have failed.
For the most part, wealthy countries like the U.S. and Germany have been the ones to adopt home solar panels. Home owners typically buy their solar systems out right or lease them from a third party like SolarCity SCTY -2.29% . These solar systems tend to plug into the broader power grid.
But in regions like rural Africa, where the power grid is lacking, an entirely new strategy has had to be developed. These new solar products have relied on new types of financing, have ridden on the back of mobile technologies, and have depended on the emergence of cheap batteries. Will this type of solar product become the norm in rural off-grid areas?
One of the rapidly growing startups tackling this market is M-Kopa, based in Nairobi, Kenya. The company was founded nearly five years ago by Jesse Moore and Nick Hughes, who was one of the original creators of mobile payment system M-Pesa. If you haven’t heard of it, M-Pesa is one of the world’s most successful mobile payment services. By some estimates, 95% of Kenyan adults use it to buy goods and services, and a third of Kenya’s GDP flows through it every year.