Bringing solar energy to remote villages in Africa with Thomas Gottschalk
“Mobisol’s target group is living in rural, remote areas in Sub-Saharan Africa.”
Thomas Gottschalk is founder and CEO of Mobisol, a company that combines solar energy with innovative mobile technology and microcredit to provide high-quality solar home systems to low-income individuals in developing countries. Within just five years, Thomas grew a team from scratch to over 1.000 people — raising Mobisol from a startup to a strong brand.
The Beam: Since its creation in 2010, Mobisol has installed over 50,000 Solar Home Systems for households in Tanzania and Rwanda. Why did you choose these countries to begin with?
Thomas Gottschalk: We started with a pilot phase in Kenya and Tanzania, which went particularly well in Tanzania, where we found a local partner who was pretty supportive and enabled us to establish ourselves as a company without any major barriers. After having gathered valuable experience in Tanzania, we applied for a Grant from the European Development Fund with a project in Rwanda.
During our research about the country’s particularities concerning policy and market, we realized that it was an intuitive choice to channel parts of our supplies into Rwanda and benefit from the favorable momentum in the country. We then even won the Grant and have, since then, been working together with the Government of Rwanda and the European Union. It shows that our decisions, based partly on gut feel were the right ones. Our work in Tanzania and Rwanda has reached almost a quarter of a million people — enabling us to scale operations to new countries and impact even more lives.
What was your vision when you first created Mobisol? Did you realise you would change so many people’s lives in terms of raising the standard of living, removing the reliance of burning kerosene, providing independence from fossil fuels, creating socioeconomic opportunities, and empowering entrepreneurs to start their own business?
Having traveled to 48 countries with « the SolarTaxi » before I started Mobisol, I had experienced the impact that the lack of access to energy has in so many regions of the world, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa. My basic idea with Mobisol was to bridge this ‘access-to-energy’ gap and leapfrog conventional grid deployment — thereby establishing renewables in rural Africa as the most important technology for electrification. This would combine the mitigation of climate change with a paradigm change in how people think about rural electrification. Independent of the overall idea, the actual impact that our work has on people’s everyday life still overwhelms me.
It’s a great feeling to know that whole communities raise their standard of living by starting new businesses and being able to access energy infrastructure in a reliable manner. Besides, solar provides them with a clean and healthy energy source, which implies a direct health benefit in addition to its positive impact on the environment. Most of Mobisol’s team members have spent weeks or months in Tanzania or Rwanda, thus having a pretty good idea of what it means to suffer from darkness after 6 o’clock in the evening, even in urban areas during power cuts. This helps us understand how important a functioning solar home system is to our customers and how much we can do by offering a reliable and comprehensive service. Working on larger systems to reach even more businesses is a very important task in the coming months and I am looking forward to supporting an increasing number of entrepreneurs, steering economic activity and thus working towards the “best life” they can reach.
Your clients currently pay off their monthly instalments using their mobile phones and they fully own their personal electricity source after only three years. How do you make your products affordable for people in Africa? How much does it cost?
In order to make our high-quality products affordable to lower-income households, we offer our products on a loan basis. Our customers can pay off their system in 36 months, transferring instalments in a flexible manner via mobile banking and for as low as USD 0,50 per day. They can basically make a payment via SMS, in daily, weekly or monthly rates — in whatever frequency they wish. That’s particularly useful for e.g. farmers, whose income streams follow a certain seasonality. They can pay off a larger tranche of their loan after harvesting season and then save money during times when less cash flows in.
Our system prices range from 500 to 1400 USD, depending on size and appliances. Our financing scheme works only with mobile banking, which is a very important and useful innovation in Africa. Our customers do not need a bank account, just some money that they bring to the next mobile network operator shop. They transfer the money to their mobile banking account and then pay their instalments via SMS. The payment is notified by our server and the system is switched on remotely via mobile connection.
What is the main goal of Mobisol Akademie? How does it work? How is it financed? Who do you train to do what? Entrepreneurs, teachers, managers?
When we started our operations, we realized that it is pretty difficult to find candidates for joining our work force that are already trained in solar technology. As the industry is still very new in Sub-Saharan Africa, training courses are rare. Therefore, we established an in-house training institute, taking care of the suitable preparation of our employees and contractors. Each Mobisol sales and technical staff member receives training at the Mobisol Akademie, being specialized on the benefits of solar energy and the correct operation of Mobisol products. Sales agents and technicians work for us on a commission basis, whilst all other positions are filled by full-time employees. The Mobisol Akademie offers training courses to contractors, but also introduction training to all our staff and language courses for those who wish to improve their English skills or expat staff learning the local language such as Swahili.
You are currently working on expansion strategies into further markets. Which markets are you trying to reach and in which countries? What are the main obstacles?
There are many countries on our priority list. Whether we enter a country or not depends on various factors. First, we are going to focus on Kenya as it has a fairly well-established solar market with high customer acceptance for solar solutions.
We are preparing ourselves for further market entries by working with student scholars in order to train high-potentials for effective expansion to other countries. The demand for electrification in Sub-Saharan Africa is beyond all limits, the market is vast and there are so many opportunities. That’s what’s so exciting about Mobisol — even I, myself, am sometimes surprised about the development that we’re experiencing and glad that, so far, everything has proven to be the right decision.
You recently began efforts in Kenya. How do you choose the countries you work with? Is it politics? Legislation?
It’s a mixture of market data and gut feeling. Of course, it is important to us that we start operations in countries which are fairly stable, easy to do business in, and provide certain political support for solar energy. Nevertheless, it also depends on our already existing setup and potential partners that we could engage with.
Being operative in Tanzania and Rwanda, Kenya is a strategic choice. With regards to logistics, experience in neighboring country and the abovementioned market openness towards solar solutions, it is one of the most popular markets for solar products, particularly pico PV systems. We are now entering in order to demonstrate that the market is still in need of large solar home systems, being able to provide households with a real substitute to the grid, not only a few lights and a phone charger.
Mobisol Rwanda has donated a solar system to International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to support Burundian refugees in Gashora transit camp, Bugesera District. How does it work? What is it going to bring to refugees?
The system that we have provided to the refugee camp is a very special one: It’s Mobisol’s only mobile system, being installed on a car. We were contacted by the ICRC being in need of finding a solution for charging the refugees’ phones. Imagine you are far away from home in a camp, without being able to even call your family because you can’t charge your mobile. Our moving 200W solar system is powering various Mobichargers, our in-house developed mobile charging stations which can power up to ten USB devices at a time. All Mobichargers attached to the solar system can power up to approximately 100 phones a day. This enables the refugee camp to have an easily accessible charging station available all day long, being recharged each new day.
We understand you are currently testing smart drones to supply electricity to remote areas of East Africa. Can you tell us a little bit more about this?
Mobisol’s target group is living in rural, remote areas in Sub-Saharan Africa. The transport of our spare parts and additional accessories is still challenging and comes with high costs, effort, and is very time consuming. In-time delivery of critical health products and a strong development of e-commerce in Africa lays the basis for our aspirations to establish an interconnected East African solar drone network. This is why we have initiated this pilot project, aiming at assessing the actual potential and feasibility of basing our business partly on drone infrastructure. The drones can be charged easily on their way by landing on a station linked to our customers’ solar systems. Mobisol customers can, in exchange, get a reduction on their outstanding payments by offering this service to us. This way, critical health products, but also electronic appliances and even Mobisol components would quickly reach rural households. Through the combination of technological means such as GPS, GSM and the latest autonomous drone technology, we believe that we can radically change the transportation sector and help to transform Africa into a global leader in innovation.
You are now a partner of the Power for All campaign. What does this mean exactly? What are the main challenges to this project? What would it mean for Mobisol?
The Power for All campaign is one of the most powerful and acknowledged initiatives supporting the notion that decentralized electricity is indispensable in order to follow the objective of bringing power to the whole world population, reaching the 2 billion people that are currently still without reliable access to energy. On-grid measures have failed to a certain extent, and the current electricity grid in most SubSaharan African countries is both insufficient and unreliable. Off-grid means represent a real alternative, a substitute. Millions of households and businesses will most likely benefit from these means — that’s what the Power for All campaign sheds a light on and what we think the world should acknowledge.
You have been recognized as a “Lighthouse Activities” award-winner, being awarded the “Momentum for Change” Award by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) during the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP21) in Paris. This award highlights some of the most innovative, scalable, and replicable examples of what people and companies are doing to address climate change. What does this mean to Mobisol?
Being awarded this honorable prize, Mobisol as a company has stepped up amongst those players that are not only profit-oriented, but recognized for their social and environmental engagement. The UNFCCC’s Award focuses on exemplary initiatives showing that the world is already skilled with the tools that mitigate climate change without being dependent on development cooperation and public funds. It is important for us to call others to action and demonstrate that you can actually be a social entrepreneur with a profitable, environmentally favorable business.
Mobisol is one of the world’s leading companies for Solar Home Systems with approximately 1000 employees. What kind of profiles are you recruiting?
In order to work for Mobisol, you should be creative, ambitious and willing to share our vision. If you believe in the importance of solar energy for developing countries and our environment and further wish to work in a fast-moving, ever-changing company with new challenges and opportunities every day, you might be the right candidate for Mobisol. We offer an intercultural team and a high degree of personal responsibility to all our employees — and expect our staff to be willing to contribute actively to our development.
You have provided electricity to over 50,000 households in East Africa and installed more than 5 MWs of solar capacity. Today, over 250,000 beneficiaries are profiting from electricity powered by Mobisol. What advice would you give to a startup who wants to work in renewable energy in emerging countries?
Every new startup has to gather its experiences from scratch and on its own — just as we did. We are proud of the mistakes that we have learned from. When entering this market, you should be prepared for some set-backs and frustrations, but even more for the great success stories that you can generate new energy from. We see many companies entering the rural lighting sector, but very few actually joining in productive use systems and larger solar home systems. It is very important to have the public acknowledge that it’s not only portable lanterns that are being provided to the people, but that products like ours can actually substitute the grid — this way, the market will gain more momentum and political support will help break down barriers to entry. We are looking forward to working towards the mentioned paradigm change and enable the generations to come to benefit from reliable, clean and affordable energy.
Interview by Anne-Sophie Garrigou