Tanzania, Africa — Thato Keineetse on the top of a mountain

Energy for the People — Thato Keineetse

For my summer internship, I spent ten weeks in Tanzania conducting a product management internship with Off.Grid:Electric, a social enterprise that leases solar systems to the energy poor. The internship could not have started at a more challenging time as the company was preparing to pivot its business model, restructure its human resources, launch a new sales channel, target new customer segments, expand into several international markets and rebrand the operating company.

Historically, Off.Grid:Electric had operated an energy-as-a-service business model, in which the company offered customers long-term lease contracts which included installation, servicing and unconditional system replacement warranties. However, after several years it became clear that customers have a strong desire to own their solar systems. As such, the company decided to shift to a lease-to-own business model with short-term lease contracts, which would allow customers to pay off their systems and own them in as little as three years.

Off.Grid.Electric employee installing a solar system for a home

As part of the newly created product management team, I was put in charge of three related projects to address the challenge of customer churn. The first project involved doing field research to improve the company’s understanding of what was driving customers to churn. The second project involved structuring a pilot to offer churned customers short-term leases of discounted refurbished systems. The third project involved conducting a pilot using socio-economic surveys, psychometric testing and mobile transaction data to risk-assess customers and estimate Customer Lifetime Value (CLV).

Off.Grid:Electric refurbished systems in Thato’s second project

One of the key challenges I faced in Tanzania was the language barrier. Even after two months in Tanzania, my Swahili is elementary at best and customers rarely speak English. To overcome this, I worked closely with local research analysts to interview customers. Because I relied heavily on these analysts to collect the data I needed to make informed decisions, it was critical to establish a good relationship with them. I found myself drawing on lessons learned in Leading People to establish a good rapport with the analysts by using an affiliative leadership approach.

Another major challenge was collecting reliable socio-economic data from customers. Because we were dealing with thin-file customers working in the informal sector, the data we sought to collect was often unverifiable. To mitigate this, I applied lessons regarding sampling and surveys that I learned in Data & Decisions to structure questions in a way that minimized bias. This course also helped me to develop predictive models using the data I collected.

This internship highlighted the potential of data analytics for increasing financial inclusion and energy access in Africa. I also learned about the challenges people with limited credit data face when trying to access capital for farming. For example, many Tanzanians aspire to be farmers. However, farmland in rural areas is often not surveyed, making it impossible for banks to accept the land as collateral for loans. Building on my internship experience in Tanzania, I am now exploring how data analytics could be used to unlock capital for agribusiness in Africa. I have also resolved to leverage my experience to advise and collaborate with other students at Haas that are focused on addressing energy access, financial inclusion and agricultural productivity challenges in emerging markets.

Thato’s collaboration with Off.Grid:Electric was made possible through the funding of HSIF. To find out more about how to get involved, visit the Haas Social Impact Fund page.