Ten years ago, we pledged to create an off-grid energy portfolio for the poor. We had never invested in energy, there were few established players in the market and the cost of solar was more than 250 percent higher than it is today. But we knew roughly 1.5 billion people didn’t have access to electricity, and traditional approaches weren’t going to cut it.
We had seen the potential of patient capital to meet the needs of low-income communities at scale and believed that by investing in entrepreneurs creating clean, affordable energy solutions, we would not only bring power to low-income communities but also grow a new market.
At that time, the poor were spending $433 billion on energy a year, roughly 20 percent of their income. Energy prices were on the rise, and options were few for low-income customers. They could remain disconnected from the modern world while waiting decades for the electrical grid to arrive. Or they could spend an ever-increasing amount of their income on dirty, expensive and often deadly fuels, putting their families at risk and falling deeper into a cycle of poverty. Either way, their choices were limited at best.
We didn’t have the answer, but we knew there had to be a faster, safer and less expensive way to power the poor. So we sought out intrepid entrepreneurs who recognized the potential of renewable energy to reach millions and experimented with different business models, testing out everything from solar lanterns to cookstoves to mini-grids. As we grew our portfolio, company after company, we learned the complexities of building out untested models in undeveloped markets while trying to keep the costs low for our customers.
What we didn’t expect was how quickly our bet would become a reality. In the last decade, we have invested roughly $20 million in 18 enterprises working across every rung of the energy ladder and built the largest portfolio of off-grid companies serving the poor.
Our investees have provided tens of millions with access to energy, saved them more than $1.7 billion in energy-related expenses and offset more than four million tons of CO2. We have made incredible headway because these entrepreneurs not only possess grit and determination, but they also know how to seize opportunities emerging from a rapidly evolving energy landscape. As the price of solar dropped from $4 to less than $1 per watt, the cost of LED lamps fell by 85 percent and mobile technology penetrated the world, even its hardest-to-reach places, our entrepreneurs revolutionized the energy industry. They developed affordable, decentralized energy solutions and financing tools to bring power to low-income communities everywhere, proving the days of relying on dirty fossil fuels while waiting for the grid were numbered.
Those days are now upon us. Solar has never been cheaper, the price of LED lights continues to drop and the proliferation of cell phones has put purchasing power in more hands than ever before. More and more countries in the developing world are opening up their markets to private investors. And thanks to the success of catalytic companies like d.light and M-Kopa, the world now understands the investment and impact potential that off-grid energy represents. What was a moonshot a decade ago is now within reach.
With off-grid energy poised to leapfrog the inefficient, expensive grid to bring electricity to millions of people, now is not the time to walk away. There is a large and growing pipeline of renewable energy companies — both in their early stages and on their way to massive scale—committed to tackling poverty, and they need our support. Although they have moved tens of millions up the energy ladder, many of these companies remain small and under-funded as they try to do too much with too little capital.
It’s time to raise the stakes, and that’s why we are taking a big bet on energy. To us, it’s worth the risk. For 10 years we have experimented, succeeded, sometimes failed, yet always had the courage to try again. We have learned a great deal and built the right networks along the way. We are now poised to create a seismic shift in off-grid energy by building large-scale solutions that can bring all customers into the modern economy and move entire countries to the next level of prosperity. We have learned what it takes for companies to survive and thrive in the toughest markets — and we know what it will take to power the 1.3 billion people still living in the dark.
It will call for big bets and even bigger investments, teaming up
with governments, partners and civil society and investing not just
patient but catalytic capital. That is why we are developing two major
energy investment initiatives, beginning with a $100 million initiative of early growth stage capital to bring energy to 15 million low-income customers in Rwanda and Kenya. We also expect to deploy an additional $20 million of pioneer capital to experiment with new business models and support the next wave of energy companies committed to serving the poor and driving innovation in the industry. Ultimately, we aim to replicate this ecosystem approach throughout Africa and the other areas we work without access to energy.
We aren’t stopping there, though. While our pioneer investments have helped us find and build promising individual companies, they have also shown us which business models have the potential to drive real change for the poor. What off-grid energy is showing us is that decentralized solutions are creating a faster timeline not only for energy access but for our other sectors as well. Our new, scaled-up approach to energy is a first step in the evolution of our investing as a whole. We see the same needs and opportunities to put a bigger stake in the ground in education, agriculture and beyond.
As we continue to support our companies with early-stage patient capital, we will seek out and develop much larger initiatives. What we do as a pioneer investor is crucial for the growth of social enterprises, but if we want to accelerate our impact, we must stand with our companies as they scale and create expansive change in not just one area but all areas. Only then will we permanently disrupt the systems that keep people in poverty.
This is the first Big Idea of our five-part Ideas into Action series based on our 15-year report, Making the Impossible Possible. In the report, we lay out the five Big Ideas we believe will move the world forward, bringing an end to poverty to create dignity and opportunity for all.