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Insights from four top-performing off-grid energy innovators

The 2024 Energy Top Impact Awards celebrate top performance in delivering off-grid energy solutions and making a positive impact on the lives of end-users. We recently held a webinar to hear from four of the organizations recognized to learn more about the insights behind their top performance.
What does good social impact performance look like for organizations in the off-grid energy sector?

Our Energy Top Impact Awardees ranked top across three areas in our Energy Impact Index: Impact, Customer Experience, and Access. The Index is a customer-centric compilation of data based on the experiences of customers of 140+ different energy organizations.

Our very own Kat Harrison, Director at 60 Decibels, spoke to a selection of the organizations recognized – 3 winners and 1 runner-up.

Jamie McCloskey, SunnyMoney (SolarAid) (Zambia) – Solar Lanterns winner

Laura Kiplagat, KUDURA (Kenya) – Mini-grids winner

Sejal Agarwal, Oorja Solutions (India) – Appliances winner

Sileshi Alemayehu, Grean World (Ethiopia) – Clean Cooking runner-up

Kat asked questions around what sets them apart from others in the sector, and challenges they’ve faced as an off-grid energy organization trying to create positive impact for customers, here’s what they shared with us:

  • Can you share what you think contributed to your top score in the Index?

    Laura: As one of the longest-standing mini-grid developers in East Africa, we’re continually pioneering energy access in rural Kenya. We believe what differentiates us is we’re extremely local and people-centred. From engaging with our customers consistently to incorporating their feedback into our decision-making process, our approach revolves around ensuring the best possible experience for them. We deeply understand the importance of energy access and its profound impact on development, which drives us to go above and beyond for our customers.

    Sejal: The smallholder farmers we service cannot opt for unreliable financing options. Our pay-per-use business model has been instrumental in overcoming these financial barriers and making clean energy accessible and affordable. Our rigorous processes, including purposeful site selection and continuous feedback loops, ensure that we stay aligned with our mission and deliver maximum value to our customers. This is how we’re working towards our mission of empowering communities to transition from fossil fuels to clean energy solutions.

    Sileshi: As an organization, we are focused on rural areas where infrastructure is most scarce. By targeting these areas, we have impacted those who otherwise might have no energy options. By training beneficiaries in these areas on how to sell our product, we have financially empowered communities. After making two or three sales, our end-users can cover the cost of their own products from the commission made. We’ve innovated to create sustainable pathways for development and progress in the most marginalized communities.

    Jamie: We’ve been distributing solar products for 18 years in deep rural, last-mile areas, to target those who may otherwise be left behind. We prioritize awareness-raising and community engagement, localizing services and allowing entrepreneurs in these areas to sell products themselves. We recognize that education on the transformational power of the product is key to driving the adoption of solar solutions. We also focus on customer service and product mix – we want customers to have full ownership over purchasing decisions.

  • What have been some of your biggest challenges when it comes to creating positive impact for customers?

    Sejal: We install pumps, and farmers in the community use them on a pay-per-use basis, meaning there’s a high upfront cost to us involved in these installations. We provide access to farmers without them bearing any of the high upfront costs. The challenge for us is establishing trust from our investors that this model works; how we approach this with our partners has evolved in our seven years of operation. We’ve had difficulty shifting mindsets around ownership both among farmers and investors and hence securing financial support for these initiatives from different organisations. However, we remain committed to overcoming these challenges and driving positive change in the off-grid energy sector.

    Sileshi: Our biggest challenge lies in the financial realm – investors often aren’t satisfied with the longer-term nature of returns and relatively small returns from serving low-income customers. On top of this, end-users often have limited access to financing and a lack of collateral which poses significant barriers to energy access. That’s why we developed our localized entrepreneur model – to financially empower individuals living in rural areas to be able to afford the products they need most.

    Jamie: Off-grid energy can be a really challenging sector to navigate. Zambia is particularly tricky because it’s enormous and the population is so sparse. For context, Malawi has around 200 people per square mile, and Zambia has about 15. Establishing localized networks to sell to communities spread over such vast distances is a real organizational challenge to overcome. We also encounter issues with affordability – a lantern costing $4 is still not affordable for so many people. We need to have the financing mechanisms to deliver affordable products at scale and not assume that a subsidized pay-as-you-go home system is enough. That’s why we’re pushing to test other models such as energy as a service. We’re also addressing the issue of product repair to ensure longevity and sustainability in our impact efforts.

    Laura: Like many organizations in our sector, we face challenges regarding financial investment and infrastructure. Developing off-grid energy areas requires significant resources, and convincing governments and investors of the long-term returns can be very difficult. In Kenya specifically, I have to give credit to the lobbyists and investors who have really pushed the development of the sector, and I think finally, after ten to twelve years of operations, we are finally getting most investment committees on board. Despite these challenges, we remain optimistic about the future and will continue to innovate our business model to create a more sustainable and impactful organization.

  • Tell us about sharing the award with your team. How did it go? What was the reaction?

    Sejal: Waking up and seeing the news of the impact award in our inbox was incredibly motivating. It served as a reminder of the impact we are making in the communities we serve. Sharing the news with our team, investors, and partners filled us with a huge amount of pride as it underscored the importance of listening to our customers and continuously innovating to meet their needs effectively. We also shared this with all our customers and expressed heartfelt gratitude for all for their support throughout the journey of Oorja.

    Laura: Winning the top impact award for mini-grids was an incredible moment for us at KUDURA. We shared the news with our Board first, and their excitement mirrored our own. It felt like a real validation of our team’s hard work and dedication. As someone relatively new to the team, I felt an immense sense of pride in what we had achieved together. The recognition not only boosted morale internally but also affirmed our commitment to making a meaningful difference in the off-grid energy sector.

    Jamie: Being recognized by 60 Decibels twice (we were also runners-up for Solar Lanterns in Malawi), was a fantastic achievement for SolarAid. What set this award apart, was that it came directly from our customers, reaffirming the value of our work in the off-grid energy sector.

    Sileshi: We were thrilled to receive an award that comes directly from our customers – it has further reinforced our belief in the transformative power of energy solutions in addressing global challenges.

Find out more about the Top Impact Awards
Explore the awards

From Zambia to India, Kenya to Ethiopia, these organizations are providing power to communities where access to energy is scarce. Their being recognized as top performers not only validates their hard work, but also amplifies the impact of their initiatives by functioning as a door opener to discussions with funders and investors. 

In the past decade, the off-grid energy sector has come a long way in tailoring solutions to fit the needs of people from a diverse set of socio-economic, geographic, and cultural backgrounds. Hearing from these top performing organizations allows all of us to learn from success stories and take relevant lessons to our own operations – whether that be from an investor perspective or an enterprise. To reach the UN SDG #7, we’ll need all hands on deck; accessible energy for all is achievable, we need to prioritize transparency and collaboration.

Check out our latest report; Why Off-Grid Energy Matters 2024 – the world’s most comprehensive social impact assessment of off-grid energy to date.

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