Want to End Poverty? Start with Electricity

I have worked as a social entrepreneur for 14 years, founding two for-profit social enterprises and advising dozens of others. As CEO & co-founder of Off Grid Electric, a company dedicated to making solar power accessible and affordable to the mass market in Africa, I’ve spent a lot of time talking to people around the world and trying to understand their everyday challenges. And the more I’ve learned about global poverty, the more passionate I am in my belief that the solution lies in the fundamentals.

We have a tendency as a society to be captivated by technological solutions to poverty. These are intellectually convenient — we see an article and think that poverty will soon be history. The inconvenient truth is that developing technology is the easy part. The hard part is making sure the technology actually solves a problem and building a sustainable, commercially viable system to deploy the technology. The average African living on a few dollars a day is not held back by lack of technology. They are held back by lack of access to roads, electricity, and running water.

There are no shortcuts to building infrastructure, but there are innovative business models like pre-paid solar that can reduce the cost and accelerate the deployment.

Small businesses transform lives

In my time living and working in Tanzania and traveling across the continent, my eyes have been opened to the power of small-scale entrepreneurship to transform lives. Small businesses don’t have to be particularly innovative to be hugely impactful. A small barbershop or vegetable stand provides enough income (usually coupled with farming) to build a house, send the kids to school, and bring the family out of poverty. An additional $100 of monthly income can make the difference between extreme poverty and relative security.

Shops can double or triple their income by staying open after dark

What prevents more of these businesses from getting off the ground? Often, it’s the lack of reliable, affordable electricity. Without electricity, the barber can’t power his clippers and the vegetable stand can’t stay open after dark. More than 620 million people in Africa live without access to electricity. Even those that do have access face extremely high electricity costs or suffer through routine blackouts that can last for days, prohibiting them from successfully operating their businesses.

At Off Grid Electric, we have developed a scalable and commercially viable solution to this problem. Thanks in part to a $5 million grant from USAID Development Innovation Ventures, we are already providing solar electricity to over half a million people in Tanzania and Rwanda.

Today, we are announcing a product line designed specifically for African entrepreneurs at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit. Our “Kazi na Zola” or “Work with Zola” product offering provides a simple business plan, the solar electricity and the low power appliances local entrepreneurs need to build and grow their businesses. Since our solar energy systems are sold on a lease-to-own model, the entrepreneurs can pay for the system out of their revenues rather than having to make a large upfront investment.

All the tools for a solar-powered barbershop

Whenever local entrepreneurs burn imported diesel to power a generator because they don’t have reliable electricity, it keeps their country poor. Whenever that power is generated on their rooftop, they make their country richer.

Entrepreneurs generate income charging customers’ phones — 15 cents a charge

Energy is wealth. Every watt of power generated on an African rooftop builds wealth right where it is used. Every watt powers businesses and improves lives. Want to end poverty in our lifetime? Join us in helping power economies from the sunlight that falls on their roofs.