Financial Inclusion and Off-Grid Solar: Three Takeaways
Off-grid solar energy solutions are taking off in the developing world. For the 1.1 billion people living without electricity, the ability to digitally pay for clean energy over time is life changing. Over 500,000 households have acquired pay-as-you-go (PAYGo) home solar systems in the last five years, with that number set to double (at least) in 2016. Not only is PAYGo solar gaining popularity, but it is also playing a role in driving financial inclusion.
How It Works
PAYGo solar home systems consist of photovoltaic panels, installed upon a customer’s roof for a down payment ($10-$60, depending on system size). The customer pre-pays for energy usage through their mobile wallet. Once the pre-paid usage expires the system is automatically locked down until another payment is made. A solar home system usually includes 2-5 lights, phone charging, and radios or TVs in larger models, enough to seriously improve the quality of life for many families.
The majority of households starting to use off-grid solar energy solutions are located in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, and Rwanda, and mobile money is the most common form of payment.
Three Critical Takeaways
CGAP has spent the last two years working with a number of companies in the pay-as-you-go solar sector to see how digital finance is enabling this new energy service model to be a viable solution for millions. For us, there are three important takeaways from this work, which are explained in more detail in a brief:
1. Digital payments ARE enabling new business models…
Digital payments from mobile wallets are an important part of this story. Without mobile money, PAYGo operators would have to build an entire cash management infrastructure and customers would be forced to travel to centralized pay points whenever they wanted to reactivate their solar units. Energy poor households tend to be rural and widely distributed; in-person payments could add a recurring expense that would render PAYGo solar non-viable. By utilizing mobile money, PAYGo solar companies can accurately track customer behavior, reduce unit downtime by making payments more convenient, communicate directly with customers about their payment via SMS, remotely lock a device in the case of non-payment and leverage the existing mobile money agent network to scale rapidly.
2. But the way this occurs is surprising.
The assumption of our energy work was that digital finance systems were established platforms that could support a variety of services; MNOs had built the rails, and now service providers could use them (for a fee). But in still-developing mobile money markets, service providers that want to grow quickly must lay the tracks right in front of the train. An informal CGAP survey of three leading PAYGO providers revealed that 30-50% of new customers had never used mobile money. For the PAYGO provider, that means they need to register the customer for a mobile wallet, teach them how to use mobile money, and make sure they can easily access a mobile money agent. On one hand, this is a burden: a lack of active mobile money users and agents makes expansion more difficult for solar companies. Customers unaccustomed to using mobile money put an added strain on the company; Off-Grid Electric in Tanzania reported that 50% of their service calls are related to mobile money payment frictions. In areas without reliably liquid agents, some companies have been forced to establish their own pay points. But on the other hand, this shows that service providers can actually influence the uptake and use of mobile money. Customers are willing to register for and use mobile wallets because the promise of electrification provides a tangible value proposition that may not have existed previously. PAYGo solar providers that sign up clients for mobile wallets are driving financial inclusion at the point of sale.
3. There is a larger story here.
In the past, solar distributors were unwilling to finance sales to poorer customers due to the risk of theft or non-payment. The ability to remotely lock an asset makes financing far more secure; by connecting payment and usage, PAYGO providers have dramatically lowered the credit risk. As a result, they are able to give loans to customers once considered un-bankable.
As these clients accumulate energy payments they are establishing credit histories. At the moment those histories are being utilized by the solar companies to offer additional financed assets, with their solar unit as collateral. M-KOPA, for example, has given 40,000 follow-up asset loans, predominantly for productive assets like clean cook stoves or smartphones. Yet there is potential to offer an even wider variety of services: savings, insurance, and unsecured loans.
CGAP is working closely with energy and financial service providers to explore ways of combining their offerings. This could mean a partnership between a bank and solar company, a solar company becoming licensed to offer financial services, or a bank developing its own financed energy product.
The case of PAYGO solar energy demonstrates how incentives are vital to the success of mobile financial services. Here we see how an apparently simple product - a solar unit sold on credit - may become the gateway to financial services for millions of off-the-grid customers, all because it offered customers something they really wanted: light.
Photo Credit: Fenix International