Solar CEO Lights Up Africa

Courtesy of Off Grid Electric

Courtesy of Off Grid Electric

A solar power company that offers “as-you-go” services like a mobile carrier? Sounds too good to be true? Maybe not.

Off Grid Electric CEO and co-founder Xavier Helgesen is on a mission: providing electricity to third-world countries using solar power. He’s copied the concept of adding minutes to a phone and has applied it to solar-powered electricity.

Off Grid Electric is the world’s first massively scalable company that looks at solar energy as a service rather than an installation.

The company operates out of Tanzania, where families usually rely on inefficient kerosene lamps for lighting that can lead to safety and health hazards. Without having access to proper solar grids, the only other option for going solar in remote areas is private installation, which costs around $1000. Access to banking or credit cards is also not viable, so this upfront fee is high– not too mention risky for Tanzanians as they wait for a return on investment through cheaper energy costs. More problematic is the average monthly income in Tanzania, which barely reaches $700.

We have come to think as light being the primary reason behind the development of technology. In Tanzania, however, the need to charge cell phones, which obviously can’t be done with kerosene, is what gave Helgesen the idea for his business. Since most homes don’t have electrical outlets, Tanzanians, (like the rest of third-world countries residents), have to hike up to convenience stores to recharge their cell phone batteries. Paired with the inconvenience of waiting, they also pay 25 cents for the service.

With $16 million of funding from American Corporation SolarCity, Off Grid’s clientele is about to quadruple.

Armed with an MBA from Oxford Saïd Business School, Helgensen is no stranger to the world of entrepreneurship. Named Best Social Entrepreneur by Businessweek in 2009, he’s founded Better World Books, a social venture geared towards literacy with $60 million in revenue, and is also the winner of the Fast Company Social Award. Since people can’t read without having access to light, Helgensen switched ventures and began solving the bigger problem of providing light to third-world countries.

Rather than focus on developing a new app, as many entrepreneurs these days do, Helgensen is more concerned with solving serious problems around the world such as energy.

So how does Off Grid work? Rather simply. With a $6 fee, customers get a self-sustaining solar system installed in their home, including lights, panels, a lithium battery and a meter. The battery stores solar energy collected by the panels, while the meter is unlocked with a passcode obtained by sending a payment to Off Grid Electric. Monthly bills vary between $5 to $10 a month, which is more or less what Tanzanians would pay for kerosene, but going solar results in about fifty times more light (plus the ability to power a television set and charge a cell phone).

In 1879, Thomas Edison invented the light bulb. Today there are less people in the world without electricity. Perhaps, as Helgesen claims, “now is the beginning of the era of pre-paid solar”– starting with Off Grid Electric, also referred to as “the pioneer of micro-solar leasing”.



  • by Kat Mizouni
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  • December 21, 2014