Software services to unlock sustainability in Sub-Saharan Africa

Solars Offgrid team
Solaris Offgrid team

For Solaris Offgrid the social benefit of their technology has always been just as important as its climate impact. Undaunted reporter, Franca Davenport, speaks to CEO and Co-Founder Siten Mandalia about how the company’s software is providing credit to under-served communities and enabling access to sustainable energy.

For most of the western world, issues with energy access revolve around price and reliability but, for more than 600 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa, it is a more direct problem. Despite the potential for renewables in the region, they simply can’t access affordable energy.

Solaris Offgrid has set out to address this problem by developing a business model that enables people to afford solar home systems and other sustainable products.

Alongside a lack of access to national grids, a huge population – 1.7 billion people – cannot access bank accounts, which creates a barrier for the adoption of technology to harness renewable energy. Solaris Offgrid’s flagship product, PaygOps, is a B2B software as a service (SasS) which can provide credit to under-served communities to pay incrementally for a range of products and services.

Pivoting from hardware to software

Solaris Offgrid was founded in 2014 when its focus was building solar home systems in Tanzania. With its inhouse expertise in hardware and engineering the original plan was to provide light and mobile phone charging through off-grid solar systems. As the team worked on their solution they realised that to develop this business model they required a software platform that would allow people to pay for their energy through an unbanked system.

Using PaygOPs software on mobile phone in the community
Using PaygOPs software on mobile phone in the community

Their focus shifted to addressing this issue and the result was PaygOps which provides a much needed fintech solution to enable access, not only to renewable energy, but to other sustainable products and services such as cookstoves, agricultural products, electric bikes as well as tablets and mobile phones. Recognising that there was demand for this type of software, Solaris Offgrid decided to pivot from installing solar home systems to developing their software platform to enable this to happen.

We created the company to solve the overarching problem of access to basic sustainable products for the low-income market in Sub-Saharan Africa. This vision hasn’t changed but we have recognised that to achieve it we had to focus our attention on our software solutions.”

Siten Mandalia, Co-Founder & CEO, Solaris Offgrid

PaygOps is used by local distributors who manage a portfolio of end customers and householders. It facilitates credit for people to purchase products over time whilst giving  them access to energy and other sustainable products and services. 

Once a payment has been made, it is reconciled on the system against a loan account and delivers a token to allow people to unlock their device, or to run it for a certain amount of time. This helps overcome the financial barriers of paying for these assets upfront and also de-risks the customer’s decision to invest in new technology.

“It could be kWh of energy, litres of water, or a loan to buy water pumps,” says Co-Founder and CEO, Siten Mandalia  “We have incorporated many different models and metrics into our system, but essentially our software unlocks that product for customers, and lets them know what type of finance they are using and how long it will take to own it outright.”

Balancing complexity with standardisation

Alongside the PaygOps software the company still offers hardware consultancy services under the name SolarisLab, helping manufacturers improve their products or create new ones, and providing distributors with analyses of how a product will fit the market.

Solaris Offgrid also offer hardware consultancy services
Solaris Offgrid also offer hardware consultancy services

The company also develops open-source tools which are free to use and enable new entrants and manufacturers to join the market. An example is the OpenPAYGO token system which provides virtual tokens so people can pay for a certain number of days of use of the product. By providing this free of charge to new manufacturers Solaris Offgrid helps reduce the barriers of entry to market which ultimately can help fast-track growth. It can also bring more standardisation to distributors to enable system compatibility.

Currently Solaris Offgrid are working in more than 35 countries with about 60 different clients so standardisation is important to help balance the complexity of software to deal with the financial options, whilst keeping the technology user-friendly and easy to learn. “It can be tricky to manage,” says Mandalia. ”But fortunately there is a lot of collaboration between distributors and discussions within the ecosystem which means we are moving towards standardisation.”

Getting it right before you scale

Solaris Offgrid CEO and Co-founder Siten Mandalia
Solaris Offgrid CEO and Co-Founder Siten Mandalia

Siten Mandala studied engineering at Imperial and started the company under its previous name of Eternum Energy in 2014 with two co-founders . In its early stages the company was based in the Imperial College London Incubator and supported by the Imperial climate accelerator. This provided them with access to contacts from the corporate and investor community, as well as the opportunity to network with fellow start-ups. “There was often compatibility between the innovations,” says Mandalia. “And I am still in touch with several of the companies who were part of our cohort.”

Originally aimed at solar energy, their software now facilitates local entrepreneurs to distribute and install a range of products and services to tackle climate change. The value of their PaygOps system has been recognised in their recent partnership with One Acre Fund who are using it to distribute supplies and training to millions of smallholder farmers across Africa.

Solaris Offgrid estimates that they have positively supported more than 3 million people by providing them with access to sustainable products and services and, as a result, this has offset about 100,000 tonnes of CO2 equivalent. “Our plan is to help increase the opportunities for the distributors,” says Mandalia, “and reduce the financial barriers so they can focus purely on getting their products to the millions of people that need them.” 

Climate Solutions Up-Close

Take a deeper-dive into innovative climate technology by exploring other posts in Undaunted’s Climate Solutions Up-Close blog series.

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Undaunted is a partnership between The Royal Institution and Imperial’s Grantham Institute – Climate Change and the Environment.

Undaunted is a partnership between The Royal Institution and Imperial’s Grantham Institute – Climate Change and the Environment.

Undaunted is co-funded by the 2014 to 2020 European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) programme, the Greater London Authority and HSBC UK.

Undaunted is co-funded by the 2014 to 2020 European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) programme, the Greater London Authority and HSBC UK.

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