Leslie Labruto is the Head of Global Energy at Acumen, where she leads a USD 22 million dollar initiative called the Pioneer Energy Investment Initiative (PEII).
Scaling the next wave of energy access entrepreneurs
More than 800 million people have gained access to energy over the last decade. About 360 million of these people (~45 percent), thank innovative clean energy start-ups for this. All of these businesses have had to start somewhere. Leslie Labruto helps those who are still too risky for bank financing to grow and scale. She is continuously on the look-out for the next wave of energy access entrepreneurs.
Labruto: “I am very fortunate, because the work I do is the perfect intersection of the three things I care about: (1) investing, because it is a way to scale solutions, (2) the non-profit work with a focus on lifting people out of poverty, (3) clean energy, because it helps fight climate change.”
It is quite hard to start a business in an emerging market, especially when you are focused on low-income customers. When I meet an entrepreneur who is trying to make this seemingly impossible business model work, and see the determination, I get inspired and excited. They give me hope that we can accelerate progress and actually achieve affordable, reliable, sustainable energy for all, which is captured by SDG7.
One of my favourite examples of such entrepreneurs is Ned Tozun, the co-founder and CEO of d.light. A little under ten years ago, this guy was working in the sector against all odds. Nobody believed that he could scale solar lights in emerging markets. Now he has built a company that has reached over 100 million lives. Or what about Nthabiseng Mosia, the co-founder of Easy Solar, a solar lighting company in Sierra Leone. Operating in one of the most difficult markets in the world, one that has faced Ebola, mud slides, and a civil war, Nthabi, with her co-founders Alex and Eric, was able to start and scale a successful business which is now providing clean energy to 40,000 households.
“We found that access to clean energy not only contributes to a reduction of CO2, but it also helps consumers to save a significant amount of money.”
What is Acumen & the Pioneer Energy Investment Initiative?
Acumen is a global, non-profit venture fund working across many different geographies and sectors. Currently, Acumen’s largest program is the Pioneer Energy Investment Initiative (PEII). The PEII invests in off-grid energy enterprises across East and West Africa, India and Pakistan. Acumen started investing in energy access more than a decade ago. The PEII was launched in 2017 as a response to all Acumen had learned about the next wave of energy access entrepreneurs. These entrepreneurs are the PEII’s building blocks. The initiative supports energy entrepreneurs who are working towards achieving universal energy access, and simultaneously working towards helping rural economies thrive.
How important is access to energy for progress?
I can wholeheartedly say that I believe there are very few sectors that have such a profound impact when it comes to improving the lives of low-income customers. We found that access to clean energy not only contributes to a reduction of CO2, but it also helps consumers to save a significant amount of money. Customers will spend up to 25 percent of their income on paying for kerosene and fuel, week after week. Once they own solar powered electricity, they save a significant amount of capital that can go to other things. Also, children can study until later at night. An impact is thus seen on the financial, educational and even the health sides of lives. The countrywide advantage of increasing renewable energy availability is that it makes communities less dependent on the import of fossil fuels, something we all hope a lot of emerging market countries will move away from in the future.
What are you doing to improve this?
While we have seen the energy access sector grow, with over USD 300 million invested just last year, we noticed that most of this money is going to established market leaders. And yet, there is still this missing piece of the puzzle, which we call ‘the pioneer gap’. This is the position of companies that are just starting up, which have the potential to grow and scale, but are still too risky for many venture investors. They have a difficulty attracting capital. They’re too big for seed capital, but too small for commercial capital.
Despite a sixfold increase in capital investors over the last five years in the off-grid energy sector, this gap still exists. If we really want to see energy access scale, we need about 210 million dollars annually of seed and Series A capital or early stage equity. But in reality, only 16,5 million dollars was deployed annually over the last five years. There are not enough investors willing to take that risk and that is where we are stepping in with Acumen’s PEII. We try to support these companies on their journey to scale.
Are investors already becoming more comfortable with the off-grid sector?
We do find that the pioneer gap is closing. This means that we are working ourselves out of a job, because other investors have become sufficiently comfortable with the business models. That is why, for example, the PEII does not invest in Solar Home Systems, or off-grid energy businesses in Kenya and even wider East Africa anymore. There, the business model is well understood already. Companies trying to launch these products now, can actually access commercial capital, whereas 10 years ago that definitely was not the case.
In the meantime, I am looking for the next ‘hurdle’ within the energy access sector in emerging economies. With PEII we try to track where new models are arising in underserved geographies, as well as see how we can be catalytic in this space. We are always on the look-out for the next frontier of energy access.
So, what does this next frontier look like?
The basic building block of energy access has been low-cost, clean solar lamps replacing kerosene. We have seen that business model scale quite quickly. The next evolution is to find a way to move beyond lighting, and support the emergence of off-grid economies that are no longer dependent on fossil fuel-based grid or diesel power. And this is where we believe the next frontier is: the solar-powered productive use sector.
Is there a world where an off-grid community can truly be off-grid and leverage renewable energy to power their economy? That means deploying solar-powered agriculture machines (for milling maize and rice), solar-powered water pumps and, solar-powered refrigerators to sell cool drinks. The technology for fully solar- powered businesses is available.
Helping this sector move forwards is – I believe – also a step towards making the availability of clean energy ‘the means to an end’: next to giving access to cleaner power, these products help rural economies grow, provide access to employment and lives of dignity. If we are able to ‘crack the nut’ in this area, we will see incomes rise.
A good example of a company exploring this frontier is SimuSolar, which operates in Tanzania. There are many off-grid appliances available, but how can we get these to the rural end-consumer? SimuSolar has come up with a pipeline of products, and found a way to distribute these. They work with a number solar water pump providers and solar fishing lights for fisher people of Lake Victoria. It has been amazing to see this company scale and grow. What I find very inspiring about this business model is that consumers can also raise their income as a result of having access to the products SimuSolar provides.
Watch how Simusolar provides clean-energy powered equipment to off-grid communities.
How can we scale this?
We have noticed that a lot of people are interested in investing in the productive-use sector. But many investors do not really understand the business models or technologies. That is why we formed a group called ‘efficiency for access investor network group’ and created an investor network of 31 members who are keen to learn more. This group convenes once a quarter. The meetings are very well attended. Interestingly enough, only three of the investors have dared to invest. This shows that on the one hand – people are interested – but on the other – as yet they just don’t have the appetite for risk that is needed.
At this point in time, Acumen is trying to understand more about affordability of productive-use appliances. These products are obviously much more expensive than lights (anywhere from 200 to 1000 dollars compared to 10 dollars). We are trying to tackle the financing of these appliances. They are of good quality, but as long as the poor cannot afford them, they are not a good fit for the market.
Solaris Offgrid is one of our investees and it was able to integrate pay-as-you-go (PayGo) technology into solar-powered appliances. This technology helps to make a product more affordable over time. So, if you are a farmer in need of a 200 or 300 dollar water pump, a company selling the pump can partner with Solaris to help the farmer pay over time (18 months to 2 years – for approximately 10 dollars per week). It is these kinds of innovations that Acumen is looking to invest in, to help move the business model along.
Next to helping investors understand the business model and technology, we also try to find and encourage grant money awards for these projects. If something is really early, we first need to build an ecosystem around it. We partner with – for example – the DFID program PREO which tries to help companies that are just too risky grow and scale. We try to coach entrepreneurs who are really early-on in the game, in how to become investable. We get to know them, help them develop their business model and scale using grant money.
What other trends should we be paying close attention to when it comes to clean energy access?
I find the merging intersection between agriculture and clean energy sector very interesting. Typically these two have been separate subsectors. It is becoming increasingly clear that the two are intrinsically interlinked. Especially as we are seeing the effects of climate change. Working in agriculture, you need power for your appliances. Likewise, when working in energy, you have so many potential customers who are farmers. Acumen is looking at this energy-agriculture intersection with farmers, because they, are at the frontline of climate change. We explore how we can best invest to help families tackle both the energy and climate crisis? Solar water pumps are a good example of this. Transitioning to solar water pumps makes farmers independent of the grid and diesel. Moreover, eventually they can own the unit and don't have to pay for fuel anymore.
A couple of years ago, solar technology wasn’t as far on as it is today, and was mostly focused on delivering lighting. The big breakthrough for the lighting business models was that costs came down. With the emergence of PayGo technology we now see that more expensive appliances can be within reach for the poor as well. The key is finding how to scale access to appliances and transform it from pre-commercial to commercial.
We have seen a strong concentration of money go to just a handful of countries. We see a general trend, and a need, to reach underserved countries: the ones that don’t get the attention and where electricity access is available to less than 30 percent of the population. We have seen investors getting more comfortable with business models, so now we think there is a need to make a strong push and move into different geographies. These are markets like Malawi, Sudan and, Burkina Faso. There is very little investment going into these countries right now, but we are seeing an emerging class of local entrepreneurs there. And there is a desire from companies that have already established themselves to move to these countries as well. Acumen is encouraging the market to move to these countries, while also, helping to remove some of the existing barriers and start scaling some of the toughest-to-reach markets.
How do you go about removing these kinds of barriers?
First of all, market awareness is very important. Spending time there, and getting to know the country is vital, as it hiring local staff from that market who really understand the dynamics. This not only includes companies, but investors as well.
Next to that, it is good to be aware that new markets already have distribution channels in place. They may not be for solar products, but for other consumer goods like soap, shampoo or clothing. In partnership with some of these consumer good distribution networks we can help distribute solar power products and scale the replacement of diesel.
What, in your view, is needed to reach SDG 7 within the next decade?
My answer is threefold: we need to speed up the move to new geographies, work with local entrepreneurs and collaborate!
(1) New geographies. We need investors to push the needle on going into the more difficult markets that are typically ignored or underserved because they are deemed too high-risk.
(2) Local entrepreneurs. We really need to start tapping into more local entrepreneurs. In many of the markets where we are operating, local entrepreneurs have a much better understanding of what customers are really looking for. I get encouraged by seeing local leaders emerge; the entrepreneurs who share our mission and help scale to more difficult parts of the market. To find and source these, investors need local staff. Next to that, investors need to make sure that some of their decision makers are local as well. It is much easier for a local investor committee member to point to gaps in a business model, than for a foreigner. Thirdly, there are a lot of very strong distribution networks that, are aggregating local entrepreneurs and helping them scale and grow.
(3) Collaboration. We are going to need more collaboration with the public sector. For some customers there might be no market-based solution available, because they are just too remote. They might also be too poor. And the end of the day we are going to need the public sector to help scale energy access for these people. We need collaborations between industry associations, investors, foundations and philanthropic organizations. They need to come together. Public funding is meant to de-risk investors. That is the way a capital market should work. And why it is important to not keep them siloed, but to work together. This will help scaling to happen quicker and meet the ambitious goals we have together.
Are you hopeful we can make this work?
It is going to take more speed. We definitely need to move fast to get companies the funding they need to continue serving customers. Plus COVID-19 is a big barrier to achieving the goals. I think we are losing a lot of progress because of the virus. That is why Acumen has helping galvanize support for something called the Energy Access Relief Facility. This is a 100 million dollar fund intended to maintain the progress that had already been achieved. It is basically about offering relief funding to companies so they can continue operating though COVID-times. 30 percent of companies have already stopped operations and 85 percent of companies say they only have enough back-up cash to survive for another 5 months. So this is definitely a concern.
What would be your advice to other impact investors, like FMO?
Building relationships with early-investment funds like Acumen is really helpful because of the work that these funds are doing. We create opportunities for investment at a later stage. Also, I would want to advise you to really keep a focus on the poor. There are a lot of attractive opportunities out there, but not all of them are focused on customers who most urgently need access to electricity. I believe that making sure we all keep our eyes on who needs us the most is very important. Look further and go into the more difficult markets, because that's where you can really make a difference!
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