Power of the sun – how solar is improving community life in Africa

Investments illuminating Africa

Investing in solar energy has created a better future for Senegalese families, with improvements including education, safety, security and health

by Beetle Holloway; Published in The Guardian

As everyday activities go, flicking a switch barely even registers. But when Ibrahima Ciss pushes the small plastic lever by his door, a broad smile rises on his face. The 61-year-old is chief of Khaye Sérère, a rural Senegalese village in the western Thiès region, but he’s also the proud owner of a personal solar system, which is providing his home with electricity for the first time in his life.

Due to their remote location and low incomes, only 10% of rural households in west Africa have access to electricity. Most rely on an unhealthy concoction of candles, kerosene lamps and battery-powered torches, but new solar initiatives are providing an alternative.

In December 2015, Dakar-based Oolu Solar came to Khaye Sérère offering a solar home system (SHS) that allowed households to charge small electrical items and power lamps; Ciss was one of its first clients. “Before Oolu, I used to use one or two candles every night,” Ciss explains, sitting on a low, wooden bed, a lens-shaped lamp above his door brightening the room. “Each candle cost 1500 CFA (£2), but now I only spend around 110 CFA (£0.15) per day.”

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Recurring costs add up: the World Bank estimated that sub-Saharan Africans were spending $10.5bn each year on non-renewable light sources. With solar power costing him just 3,500 CFA (£4.70) per month, Ciss now has more funds for daily activities, such as feeding the chickens and goats that totter in his courtyard.

Here are six more ways solar is benefiting Senegalese homes and communities.

Safer homes
Naked flames inside dimly lit homes tell their own story, but the real dangers of candles and oil-based lamps are more pernicious: kerosene is a “silent killer”, its noxious fumes contributing to a long list of coronary and respiratory problems.

Enhanced education
Maguette Sarr, 54, shares her windowless bedroom with her 12-year-old daughter Mody. Mody and her cousin Maty Seck, 13, used to finish school, “help with the housework and then study in the bedroom by candlelight”. Today, they learn their favourite subject of “calcul” (arithmetic) beneath a solar lamp, which has led to improved schoolwork and given Sarr peace of mind: “They would read in the evenings until they fell asleep. With the lamp, that is OK, with the candles, I was worried.”

Without having to strain their eyes or inhale smoky fumes, children can study longer and enhance their academic prospects. Assou and Biram Ciss, eight and nine, who live nearby Mody and go to the same school, now look forward to their homework with the additional hours of light solar provides.

Productivity boost
The productivity boon from elongating “daylight” is particularly felt among rural women, who are traditionally responsible for cleaning, cooking and caring for children. With solar, these duties are simpler and quicker to complete, making it easier to pursue economic activities, such as jewellery making or weaving.

Aicha Sow, 28, helps run a boutique (convenience store) in the dust-strewn backstreets of Khaye Sérère. While food essentials are sold from one side of the boutique, Sow uses the other to sell beauty products. Installing an SHS-powered lamp has given Sow “more time to sell” her products – from shampoos and soaps to fabrics and handbags – while also making it easier to find stock.

The old western complaint of not having enough hours in the day assumes a whole new meaning when productivity is governed by what time the sun sets. On Aissatou Ciss’s rooftop, the 70-year-old wipes clean her rectangular solar panel as it stares down the Senegalese sun. This small chore is worth it for the domestic benefits, she says, as “you [now] know what you are doing. You can see the counters. You know what products are in the kitchen – you can identify each one.”

Health help
As the village marabout (religious teacher and traditional healer), 77-year-old Abdoulaye Ciss gives advice to villagers and treats them for headaches, stomach aches or body pains. His eyes – like his room – light up when discussing his solar lamp, as he “can now help [villagers] later in the evenings”, when before there was “nothing to do”.

Social benefits
Producing brighter, safer, cleaner light is not the only trick these solar systems have up their sleeve. Small electrical items, such as radios, fans and electric shavers in barbershops, can be easily and securely charged, although the ports are mostly used for mobile phones. Rural villagers use mobiles for their economic as well as social benefit (farmers check market prices and pay for services with mobile money, for instance), as well as for their torches, music players and cameras. Without electricity, though, their utility is blunted.

Ibrahima Ciss used to travel 1-2km every few days to charge his phone and conserved its use at home. Now, it’s always on and by his side, which means he “receives information very early” and can react quickly to village issues that require his attention.

Environmentally friendly
He also used to buy lots of disposable batteries for torches, but his SHS has a rechargeable battery that lasts for 3,000 cycles (3-5 years). As such, harnessing the power of the west African sun improves both villagers’ wellbeing and that of the environment, by reducing the need for batteries and kerosene lamps, which produce around 200kg of CO2 each year. In a continent at the front line of the climate-change offensive, altering local people’s mindsets about energy usage is the natural counterattack.

Affordable, reliable and sustainable energy is Oolu’s raison d’etre. Since its foundation in 2015, Oolu has used its locally focused business model to deliver 35,000 solar systems to rural west Africa, benefiting more than 300,000 previously unserved people.

Now, a UK-based investment platform, Energise Africa is aiming to help firms such as Oolu boost their social and environmental impact, while also providing a potential return.

It raises funds to lend to businesses in different countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Investors can participate by investing in the different companies through bonds offered by Energise Africa.

The upside is the potential returns are higher than you would get compared to other returns in the market, and the investment is helping African communities. The downside is the risk is higher because you are investing in a company and your cash is not protected by any UK government safety net. If the company collapses, there is the potential to lose everything.

All Energise Africa projects have been launched to address the problem of energy access for low-income families and businesses in sub-Saharan Africa – the minimum investment is just £50, making it widely accessible. Energise Africa bonds can also be held within an “innovative finance” Isa, meaning that people can also use part or all of their yearly £20,000 Isa limit and benefit from tax-free potential returns.

From boosting academic performance and saving money to enhancing safety, security, health and happiness, solar energy access has an outsized impact on those living off-grid in sub-Saharan Africa.

Standing outside his two-room concrete home, mango trees and rain water-filled urns glowing beneath his solar-powered spotlight, Ibrahima Ciss explains the profound effect. As to what’s the best part of having electricity? Simple: “It’s having electricity.”

Oolu Solar Is Taking On Nigeria’s $2 Billion A Year Solar Home System Market

 An Oolu agent on the way out to service solar home systems in very remote regions, 2017

An Oolu agent on the way out to service solar home systems in very remote regions, 2017

One in two Nigerians have limited or no access to the electricity grid, according to the Rural Electrification Agency (REA). The majority of those without electricity are in rural Nigeria where the access rate is about 36%. As of 2016, about half of Nigeria’s population was estimated to be in rural areas. The typical scenario in many of these communities is to depend on kerosene, generator kiosk (cell-phone charging) and battery-powered torches for their energy needs. This has negative effects on their health, environment and productivity levels.

Renewable energy presents a reliable alternative, specifically solar home systems. They are not only clean and healthier, but they are also more cost-effective compared to available alternatives. Oolu Solar, an off-grid energy startup which originally started in Senegal is looking to provide rural households in Nigeria with affordable solar home systems which meet their basic power needs. Early in 2018, the company started piloting its products in South-West Nigeria states like Oyo, Osun, and Ekiti. Oolu Solar is one of the solar startups now focused on providing access to clean energy to the 150 million people in West Africa without electricity. So far it has sold more than 34,000 units to rural customers across Senegal, Mali, and Burkina Faso since its launch in 2015.

Nigeria’s Policy Environment

One of the barriers to energy access in Nigeria in the past was an incoherent policy environment. There was no holistic strategy to take advantage of power supply alternatives like mini-grids and solar home systems. In 2015, Nigeria took a major step to solve the problem by developing the National Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Policy. It also created the National Renewable Energy Action Plan and Mini Grid Regulations. Additionally, the Nigerian Rural Electrification Agency (REA) has put together the Off-Grid Electrification Strategy with the aim of increasing electricity access to rural and underserved clusters.

Although there has been an implementation gap, these major steps have created a more enabling environment for mini-grid developers and solar home system startups like Oolu. It has been working with the Rural Electrification Agency (REA) and its partners to ramp up the adoption of clean energy in the country. “We’ve been pleased with the conversations and work that we have already done with the Rural Electrification Agency in Nigeria. Particularly in terms of helping us better understand the regulatory impact of the environment as well as providing data that’s been helpful in launching and scaling our business here ” Dan Rosa, Oolu Solar’s CEO says. “Broadly speaking, governments in the region recognize that these solutions are essential for households whether they are urban, peri-urban or rural. They are looking to create an enabling environment although some countries have moved faster than others.”

While this is largely true, the recent increase in tariffs on solar panels has cast a shadow over the Nigerian government’s seriousness to expand access to energy in the country.

Income Levels & Energy Savings

The income levels of rural Nigerians are such that they can only spend little on energy. Their energy demand is also quite low. This is one of the reasons rural communities are typically not connected to the grid in the first place. Electricity companies do not find them as profitable. Many rural households spend about $6/month (₦2,100/month) on kerosene or battery powered torches according to the REA. The REA estimates that rural dwellers will save about $4.50/mth per household with solar home systems. One of the challenges is that clean energy products have largely been out of reach for these households.

To connect these hard-to-reach communities, Oolu builds agent networks in the countries where it operates. Its agents are full-time employees who also provide after-sales support to its consumers given their proximity to them. This means they can quickly visit a consumer’s home when the need arises. This typically reduces the amount of abandoned and failed solar systems. For grid-connected power, the experience for many in the country is that service delivery is generally poor. It’s tough to get staff members of these power companies to attend to technical issues. When they do visit, it’s usually to disconnect consumers or chase them for money.

Oolu Solar is providing two set of products that match the income levels of rural Nigerian consumers. It is also offering flexible payments options like annual and monthly payments in addition to outright purchase. This provides more rural households an opportunity to afford its solar systems depending on their income levels. Oolu is offering solar TV systems to peri-urban households and the rural ones whose energy needs are in the high spectrum.

There are questions about the profitability of solar home systems, however, this has not stopped the surge of investment into the sector. It has seen more than US$360 million in investment across the continent in the past five years. Oolu Solar itself has so far raised about $3.2 million with the latest being an undisclosed amount from GAIA Impact. Aggressive customer acquisition by off-grid solar startups means they need to provide credit to consumers. This puts a strain on operational cost and profitability. At the initial phase, companies depend on the investment they receive to fund their growth. The IFC estimates that such companies, who provide credit corresponding to 50 – 90% of the solar system’s purchase price, may do so for about 8 – 15 years before they begin generating their own cash. Some startups like Oolu are choosing to focus on specific aspects of the value chain to keep costs low. Oolu focuses on distributing solar home systems and is not involved in manufacturing them.

Payments

An important element of the pay-as-you-go (PAYG) model Oolu Solar and other solar startups offer is mobile money. It enables them to easily collect payments from their consumers. Many of these consumers are typically unbanked. In Kenya, mobile money has helped connect about 500,000 off-grid households with basic electricity. In some parts of West Africa, mobile money solutions are also now being used. Nigeria is one of those markets where it barely exists. According to EFInA, mobile money penetration in the country was 1% in 2016. Lack of widespread and efficient payment solutions has been a headache for local investors looking to finance the off-grid energy sector. It has also limited solar startups interested in serving rural customers.

Oolu Solar is attempting to work around the payment infrastructure challenge. “We are working with as many payment channels that exist in Nigeria. You have agent networks, you have banks that have USSD codes etc. So we are exploring all possible payment channels. We are fortunate that some of these agent networks are in rural areas.” Doseke Akporiaye, Oolu Solar’s Nigeria MD says. The company’s approach is to develop partnerships with the financial institutions, in some cases microfinance banks, that are closest to their consumers. Doseke further explains that there’s also a cultural issue as some customers still like to deal in cash despite the digital platforms that exist.

The payment infrastructure hurdle poses a challenge to Oolu Solar’s business. Things could, however, change very quickly with the recent introduction of Payment Service Banks (PSBs) by Nigeria’s Central Bank. The CBN has issued draft guidelines for the PSBs. Their key objective is to enhance financial inclusion in rural areas. They are expected to increase access to deposit products and payment services by leveraging mobile and digital platforms. Telcos, retail chains and mobile money operators would be allowed to set up these PSBs.

The low penetration of mobile money was due to CBN regulation which limits the provision of mobile money solutions by mobile network operators (MNO). The concern was that MNOs will threaten the retail banking business of commercial banks if they are allowed to take part in the sector. The PSBs policy framework seems like an attempt to address the issues and allow MNOs to fully participate in mobile money.

Despite the challenges it faces, Oolu Solar is optimistic about the opportunity to successfully capture Nigeria’s $2 billion a year solar home system market. It is not alone in this quest. Tanzania-based Zola Electric announced its expansion to Nigeria in September 2018. It is hoping to reach 1 million households and businesses within the next three years. The success of these companies, however, will largely depend on their ability to quickly reach as many homes as possible with their solar systems. They will also need to ensure that they put structures in place to keep payment defaults very low. Their success is very critical nonetheless. It will provide the 20 million households in Nigeria who lack basic electricity with access.

Gaia Impact Fund Announces Investment In Leading West African Solar Company, Oolu

Investment will strengthen Oolu’s existing presence in off-grid regions and drive expansion to new West African markets

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GAIA Impact Fund, a Francophone-focused venture fund specializing in clean energy, today announced a strategic investment in Oolu, a Senegal-based Y Combinator start-up and one of the fastest-growing solar companies in West Africa. The investment has been announced as part of a Series B fundraising round that will close early next year.

Gaia’s investment will further strengthen Oolu’s market-leading position in Senegal, Burkina Faso and Mali. The funding will enable Oolu to build on its strong business infrastructure through investment in its IT systems and software capabilities, and provide additional working capital to support growing business needs. The investment will also allow Oolu to accelerate its regional growth plans, reaching further untapped markets across West Africa.

Gaia focuses on renewable energy investments, and has a strong track record in the solar energy sector. The Fund has supported several start-ups, SMEs and infrastructure projects since it was established in 2016, and has previously invested in solar companies in Sierra Leone, Cameroon, and Tanzania. Gaia balances ROI with social and environmental impact, holding all prospective investments to its rigorous selection criteria.

Oolu was launched in Senegal in 2015, and has sold more than 34,000 solar home systems (SHS) in less than three years to rural customers across Senegal, Mali, and Burkina Faso. As one of the fastest-growing SHS distributors in West Africa, Oolu is consistently able to adapt its customer offering to local market dynamics. With a Dakar-based management team and more than 130 full-time employees, Oolu's team is one of the most experienced in West African solar.

The off-grid solar industry is one of the fastest-growing in Africa. The sector has seen more than US$360 million in investment across the continent in the past five years and continues to grow rapidly due to a drop in component and storage prices. Given the high barriers to entry in this sector, Oolu’s established position means it is well-placed to capitalise on this continued growth in the wider market.

Last October, Oolu closed its Series A fundraising, which was led by Persistent Energy Capital (PEC). PEC and Gaia are committed to supporting the company both in further fundraising rounds and in driving strategic initiatives.

Guilhem Dupuy, Investment Manager at GAIA Impact Fund, commented: “We have followed Oolu for some time, and are delighted to announce an investment into one of the most promising companies of the solar homes sector in West Africa. Oolu’s impressive growth has been coupled with lean operations and best-in-class customer support, giving us great confidence that Oolu will successfully scale across the region.”

“Our two companies are strategically and philosophically aligned. Oolu’s commitment to offering high-quality, affordable solar products to ultra-low-income households is vital in rural areas that are not reached by public services or formal grid infrastructure. Oolu’s work ensures these communities are no longer left behind, and we expect our investment to play an important role in growing the company’s regional presence, so that ever more underserved customers can benefit from life-enhancing solutions.”

Dan Rosa, Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Oolu, commented: “We’re thrilled  to have Gaia join us as an investment partner, adding to the strong investor base we have already accrued. We’ve always been selective in the partnerships we form. Given Gaia’s primary focus on tackling energy poverty, its track record in the solar energy sector, and its established presence in French-speaking West Africa, we see this partnership as a natural fit.”

Nilmi Senaratna, Co-Founder and Chief Business Development Officer of Oolu, commented: “Ensuring a positive social and environmental impact is paramount to both organizations. We know that Gaia’s support will accelerate our efforts to improve the lives of rural customers across West Africa in the months and years ahead. We look forward to collaborating with Gaia and furthering our vision of becoming the leading energy and financial services provider to millions of people in the developing world.”

About GAIA Impact Fund

GAIA Impact Fund is a French impact fund initiated by a team of seasoned entrepreneurs and philanthropists from the renewable energy & impact finance sectors with the aim of kickstarting innovative energy access ventures where energy is needed the most: among off-grid populations in emerging countries. Gaia finances and supports the growth of start-ups and SMEs which have a positive social, environmental and economic impact on their territory. As an active investor, Gaia establishes long-term, trust-based relations with its partners to fuel their sustainable growth through tailor-made strategic, technical and financial support.

Oolu wins Hogan Lovells Solar Innovation Award for their work in rural Mali!

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The winners of the Hogan Lovells Community Solar Innovation Awards 2017 were revealed today during the 2018 SEED South Africa Symposium in Pretoria. They are:

Frontier Markets, India – a last-mile sales, marketing and after-sales service distribution company bringing clean energy solutions to rural India. A growing network of rural women are empowered with clean, safe energy access and training to become micro-entrepreneurs promoting solar energy systems.

Grupo Fenix, Nicaragua  runs courses that target students and professionals to facilitate information exchange on building and solar-technology. Clients participate in hands-on activities such as building solar cell-phone chargers and installing photovoltaic systems in rural homes that lack access to electricity.

Kalpavriksha Greater Goods, Nepal – alleviates energy poverty in rural Nepal by empowering women entrepreneurs to sell clean energy products, stimulating economic growth. Women entrepreneurs are given extensive business training and mentorship support.

Kumudzi Kuwale, Malawi – supplies charging stations in villages where locals can rent solar lamps, batteries and charge mobile phones; ensuring basic electricity is supplied at affordable costs in financially sustainable ways.

Masole Ammele, Malawi – promotes the use of solar water pumps in organic fish farming and production; and provides market linkages to fresh fish, dry fish and fish fingerlings through working with organised local household farmers.

Oolu Mali, Mali – the first pay-as-you-go distributor of off-grid solar energy in Mali. The unique payment infrastructure is complemented by entrepreneurial thinking which is geared towards promoting employment and gender equality in rural Mali.

SAMWAKI, Democratic Republic of Congo – this rural women’s organisation runs a solar powered radio station Radio Bubusa and provides its listeners with portable solar radios and solar charging stations and runs an agro-ecological cooperative COOPAEKI that focuses on coffee agriculture.

Solar Freeze, Kenya – provides smallholder farmers in Kenya access to portable solar cooling units to prevent post-harvest loss, thus providing farmers and traders the leverage to move and store smaller quantities of fresh produce more frequently.

South Asian Forum for Environment, India – uses solar energy to ensure a supply of safe drinking water for the urban poor, creating a women centric end-to-end solution for climate adaptive basic amenities and sanitation with minimal emissions.

Village Energy, Uganda  designs and installs customised solar installations for businesses, agriculture and community institutions that lead to improved livelihoods, job creation, and access to services. With its traveling academy, it trains rural youth and women as solar technicians to find opportunities within the solar industry.

“These awards demonstrate the incredible innovation in capturing and using solar energy to make a real difference to the lives of people in some of the world’s poorest areas,” said Scot Anderson, Hogan Lovells Energy and Natural Resources Group Judge and Global Head. 

As overall winner, Village Energy will receive a $10 000 financial award.

“This is a validation that our hard work over the years is finally being recognised globally. This prize will really help us to increase the vocational training we are providing to rural youth and women. We want to develop rural businesses which continue to be neglected – we want to train them, finance them and really get them to be more productive,” said Abu Musuuza, Village Energy Limted Co-founder and CEO

DISRUPT AFRICA: Senegalese solar startup Oolu raises $3.2m funding

 

Senegalese solar startup Oolu has secured a US$3.2 million Series A funding round, which will support its growth and strategy as it seeks to address the energy needs of more than 150 million people lacking access to electricity in West Africa.

Founded in 2015, Oolu provides in-home solar kits composed of three adjustable lights and two USB plugs, powered by a battery that holds a charge for up to six hours with maximum output.

For a low monthly fee, paid through mobile money, the Y Combinator-incubated Oolu installs the system and performs any necessary maintenance, including free battery replacements and system upgrades.

The US$3.2 million funding round was led by Persistent Energy Capital (PEC), and was joined by Y Combinator (YC) and other seed investors. Oolu will use the money to further invest in its current operations in Senegal and Mali, and expand into a third market in 2018.

“This fundraise is an important milestone, and a further boost for us at a very exciting time for the company where we see real and significant opportunities in the West African markets,” said Da osa, co-founde n hie xecutiv fficer (CEO) olu.

“Today’s announcement gives us great confidence that we are on the right track in pursuing our goal of becoming the leading energy and financial services provider in West Africa. We’re delighted to have the support of quality investors like PEC and Y Combinator, and we look forward to working closely with them as we continue to grow the business.”

Dir uench, o-founde n artne EC, aid the Oolu team had impressed the firm with its ability to define a strategy and then execute on it.

“We believe Oolu has what it takes – team, vision, technology – to become a trusted provider of products and services for millions of African households. We are excited to be a part of Oolu’s story as they deliver financial and social returns,” he said.

Y Combinator partner Geof alston said Oolu had grown impressively quickly in one of the most unpredictable and difficult markets in the world, with the team proving it was strong enough to succeed in a challenging and fast-paced emerging market.

“We funded them precisely because those are the qualities that they will need to make their business successful, and they are already on the right path,” he said.

Oolu raises $3.2 million series A led by Persistent Energy Capital with participation from YCombinator to reinforce its leading position in Francophone West Africa’s fast-growing off-grid solar sector

Oolu, a Senegal-based Y Combinator start-up and one of the fastest-growing solar companies in Africa, today announced the successful completion of a US$3.2 million round of equity investment. This Series A fundraising follows its seed round in 2015, and will support Oolu’s continued growth and strategy as it seeks to address the energy needs of the more than 150 million people who live without access to electricity in West Africa.

The funding round has been led by Persistent Energy Capital (PEC), and was joined by Y Combinator (YC) and other seed investors. Oolu will use the money to further invest in its current operations in Senegal and Mali, and to expand into a third market in 2018.

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As the global shift towards clean, renewable energy resources, such as solar power, gains momentum, there is significant potential in developing countries to install renewable energy as the primary source of power, bypassing the need for traditional grid networks and leveraging existing mobile money services.

Oolu’s founding team, Nilmi Senaratna, Dan Rosa and Vincenzo Capogna, have long recognized this potential in West African markets, and gained valuable market insights during more than a year spent living in rural villages. This enabled Oolu to gain a large share of those markets in a short space of time, and since its launch in 2015, the company has enjoyed sustained growth. In particular, it has already partnered with the largest money transfer company in Senegal, WARI, the ECOWAS Centre for Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency (ECREEE), and other key partners in West Africa.


The off-grid sector has seen more than US$360 million in investment across Africa in the past five years and continues to grow rapidly due to a drop in component and storage prices. Given the high barriers to entry in this sector, Oolu’s established market position—selling over 25,000 solar home systems (SHS) in under 2 years—experienced leadership team and strong investor backing mean it is well-placed to capitalise on wider market growth and better deliver clean energy services to underserved customers.

Dan Rosa, Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Oolu, commented:

“This fundraise is an important milestone, and a further boost for us at a very exciting time for the company where we see real and significant opportunities in the West African markets. Today’s announcement gives us great confidence that we are on the right track in pursuing our goal of becoming the leading energy and financial services provider in West Africa. We’re delighted to have the support of quality investors like PEC and Y Combinator, and we look forward to working closely with them as we continue to grow the business.”

Dirk Muench, Co-Founder and Partner of Persistent Energy Capital, said:

“We see in Oolu an extremely talented and qualified team. They have impressed us with their ability to define a strategy and then execute on it. We believe Oolu has what it takes - team, vision, technology - to become a trusted provider of products and services for millions of African households. We are excited to be a part of Oolu’s story as they deliver financial and social returns.”

Geoff Ralston, Partner at Y Combinator, said:

Oolu has grown impressively quickly in one of the most unpredictable and difficult markets in the world. Nilmi and Dan have proven that they are smart enough, tough enough, and resilient enough to succeed in a challenging and fast-paced emerging market. We funded them precisely because those are the qualities that they will need to make their business successful, and they are already on the right path.

About Oolu

Oolu was founded in 2015 by Nilmi Senaratna and Dan Rosa, and incubated in Y Combinator. The company’s mission is to provide off-grid households with high quality products at an affordable price. Oolu’s first product centres on providing solar-powered electricity to rural customers. Its in-home solar kits are composed of three adjustable lights and two USB plugs, powered by a battery that holds a charge for up to six hours with maximum output. For a low monthly fee, paid through mobile money, Oolu installs the system and performs any necessary maintenance, including free battery replacements and system upgrades. The product appeals to off-grid clients who often struggle with the higher costs of more polluting lighting sources, such as flashlights and candles, and are forced to walk long distances to charge their cellphones. The company has ambitious expansion plans in terms of both its product offering and geographic reach. Although the first consumer offering is solar home systems, a number of different products are being piloted, and Oolu’s vision extends to becoming the leading financial services provider to rural households in West Africa and beyond.

About Persistent Energy Capital

Persistent Energy Capital (PEC) is a Venture Builder based in Zurich and New York City. The firm specializes in working with early-stage companies that provide essential products and services (such as energy access) to customers in frontier markets. For more than six years, PEC has invested in early stage startups. PEC provides capital, financial advisory and management support, strategic and legal guidance as well as a large network of investors and partners. PEC is supported by private investors, the Shell foundation, DFID and USAID.

About Y Combinator

Y Combinator is a Silicon Valley-based accelerator, founded in March 2005, which invests in early-stage startups.

Driven by a simple mantra: “Make Something People Want”, it aims to focus founders on further developing their product, team and market, refining their business models, achieving product/market fit, and scaling the startup into a high growth business. At the end of the program, startups are given the chance to pitch to select investors, while benefitting from membership of the wider Y Combinator network.

Y Combinator has invested in nearly 1,500 companies - including Dropbox, Airbnb, Reddit, Instacart and Weebly - which have a combined market capitalization of over US$80 billion.