Green Technology

Global Partnerships investee Greenlight Planet provides solar products to 5+ million households


With a mandate to deliver social impact alongside financial returns, Greenlight Planet is now the world’s largest direct-to-consumer, pay-as-you-go (PAYG) solar product distribution business. They now provide clean energy to more than 5 million households in 62 countries, selling 25,000 solar products to off-grid consumers each month.

 

Greenlight Planet has just completed raising $60M to finance their off-grid solar products and solar financing service for underserved populations around the world. Global Partnerships is one of their first institutional lenders dating back to 2014, investing $4M and helping bring in additional funders including the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC).

 

“Global Partnerships was one of the first institutions to invest in us,” said Patrick Walsh, CEO of Greenlight Planet. “Global Partnerships’ early vote of confidence in us helped Greenlight Planet attract other investors including OPIC. Since 2014, GP has been a valued partner to help us scale and reach more people living in poverty with our impactful solar products.”

 

Global Partnerships invested in Greenlight Planet as part of our Solar Lights Investment Initiative. For this initiative, Global Partnerships invests in partners who serve populations beyond the electric grid, mostly living on less than $3.10/day. An estimated 1.2 billion people worldwide lack access to electricity. The main alternative is kerosene, which is dangerous, dim and expensive. Our partners like Greenlight Planet provide low-cost solar lights, solar lights with mobile charging ports, and small solar home systems that pay themselves off over time compared to the cost of alternative light sources like kerosene.

 

“As the off-grid solar light market grows, products of questionable quality and products from more commercially-driven businesses with less focus on positive impact for people living in poverty are entering the market,” said Mark Coffey, Global Partnerships’ Chief Investment and Operating Officer. “We continue to selectively allocate our funding to the most impactful social enterprises like Greenlight Planet who are market leaders in both quality and affordability for people living in poverty.”

 

Greenlight Planet is a social enterprise that manufactures and distributes affordable solar lights for low-income communities in the developing world. Their solar-powered products include lighting, home energy systems, phone chargers, radios and fans.

 

Greenlight Planet has been consistently profitable for each of the previous 10 quarters. They have 2,400 company-managed sales agents and partner with a network of more than 100 distributors including microfinance institutions to reach off-grid communities. This kerosene-free lighting also prevents emission of an estimated 400,000 metric tons of greenhouse gases annually.

 

Led by Apis Growth Fund I, Greenlight Planet has raised $60M, including equity from Eight Roads Ventures and Bamboo Capital Partners in addition to new debt investments from the company’s earliest institutional lenders, Deutche Bank and Global Partnerships, as well as SunFunder, PG Impact Investments, responsibility and SIMA Funds.

glp rs

Honoring Four Women on International Women’s Day


Every day, Global Partnerships strives to expand opportunity for women. International Women’s Day is an occasion to recognize that our world needs to do more to break down barriers that inhibit women from equal opportunity. Today, we honor women who are investing in their families, their businesses, their communities, and most importantly, themselves.

These four women are just a few of the millions of women who, through our partners, are turning opportunity into impact and lifting themselves out of poverty.

 Ana IWD

Ana Victoria Dubon is the president of her village bank in Panajachel, a rural town in Guatemala. A village bank is a group of women who not only receive business loans, but also receive financial education and technical training to help them make the most of their loan. Ana uses her loan to run a food stall business to provide for herself and her son and daughter. She is saving to one day fulfill her dream of going to school to become a registered nurse. Global Partnerships invests in partners like Friendship Bridge who support women entrepreneurs like Ana. In this 2-minute video, listen to Abner, Ana’s son, share her story of independence and success.

 

Maritza IWD

Maritza Jarquin, lives in a remote Nicaraguan town called El Aguacate, where there is no electricity, water or access to sanitation. She is married, and has 13 children, 27 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. GP partners like MiCrédito and Greenlight Planet provide Maritza with access to clean, renewable and affordable solar lights to replace toxic and expensive kerosene lamps. Watch this video to hear from Maritza how solar lights have brightened her family’s and her community’s future.

 Nerida family IWD

Nerida Gutierrez Velasquez is a coffee farmer in Peru. In 2005, she joined our partner Crediflorida, which provides loans, access to markets and technical assistance for small farmers. Nerida used her loan to buy a plot of land to grow coffee. Today, she and her husband have grown their coffee business enough to expand to a larger plot of land. Nerida is so successful that other farmers in the area hire her to teach them how to plant and cultivate coffee. Learn more about our partners serving smallholder farmers.

 Donna IWD

Gilda Maribel Say Nimatuj runs a pharmacy in her community of Quetzaltenango in rural Guatemala. Most of her clients are women and children. Within her community there is a critical shortage of access to affordable medicine. Not only does Gilda sell affordable medicine at her pharmacy, she also provides health consultations for free. "It’s what I like to do more than anything else: to support the people in my community." Gilda is a client of Friendship Bridge in Guatemala, one of Global Partnerships’ 19 health partners who have delivered a combination of health education, basic screenings, essential medicines and affordable care to 1.1 million people living in poverty. Gilda’s story will be featured in next month’s newsletter. Sign up if you would like to subscribe to Global Partnerships’ newsletter.

We are inspired by what one woman can do with opportunity. Yet women continue to be the majority of the world’s poor. Global Partnerships will continue to seek out social enterprises who are dedicated to impacting the lives of women living in poverty around the world. 

Ana, Gilda, Maritza, and Nerida are just a few of the millions of women who inspire us every day.  We hope they inspire you as well.

Blog Tags: international women's day   

Feature IWD

Behind the scenes: Stories from the field


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by Evonne Liew, marketing and communications officer, Global Partnerships

Global Partnerships' marketing and communications team recently traveled to Central America to capture interviews, photos and videos. This is the first of several "behind the scenes" stories from the trip. In this post, the team visits an off-grid community to interview a client whose life has been improved through obtaining access to solar lights.

Don Roberto, our driver, stomps down on the accelerator but our car continues to roll downhill. We've lost traction on the steep road to El Aguacate, a remote village perched on top of a mountain in Boaco, Nicaragua. We need to get there to interview Maritza, a client of Global Partnerships' partner, MiCrédito. I begin to worry that we won't make it.

Maritza, 62, is a client of GP partner MiCrédito. She and her family have benefited from MiCrédito's move to incorporate solar technologies into the products and services they offer clients.

Thankfully, Don Roberto manages to get the car going again. It whines the whole way up, filling the interior with burnt rubber fumes. When we arrive, Maritza welcomes us to her modest home, which consists of two main wooden buildings with dirt floors. We learn that the community has no running water, electricity or a sewage system. But through Global Partnerships' partner MiCrédito, Maritza and her family now have access to solar lights, fulfilling a crucial basic need for her family.

Despite living in difficult conditions, Maritza, 62, is extremely upbeat. Without hesitation, she latches on to my wrist and pulls me around, proudly introducing me to family members. I learn that Maritza has been married to her husband Diego for 44 years. Together, they have 13 children, 27 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. The men work on the family farm, which is a two-hour walk down the road.

They cultivate beans, corn and other crops on 40 manzanas of land (approximately 138 acres). They also own about 60 cattle. While this may sound like a lot of resources, they have an enormous family to provide for.

The view from behind Maritza's home over a stunning valley in Nicaragua's Boaco Department.

After the introductions, our team splits up to film and photograph what daily life looks like for Maritza and her family. At one point, Maritza takes me to see the stunning view behind her home: a sea of green hills in every direction. It's here that I meet some of her neighbors. I explain that we're capturing the story of Maritza and her family's use of solar lights. Then I ask if they use solar lights too. One neighbor says he does. Another says she would like a solar light but thinks they are too expensive. She and her family still use candiles—modified tin cans filled with kerosene. Candiles emit dim light and toxic fumes. They are also expensive; the neighbor explains that she spends about 400 córdobas (about 14 USD) per month on kerosene. She's unaware that the small solar lights offered through our partner MiCrédito cost about 1,500 córdobas (about 55 USD) each. Four months of kerosene costs could pay for a solar light with a lifespan of five years. That is five years of bright, smoke-free light that enables families to be productive at night and save hundreds of dollars in kerosene costs.

Maritza tells me that about one year ago, she took out a loan from MiCrédito to purchase three Sun King Pro solar lights (manufactured by GP partner Greenlight Planet). Fully charged, they provide between six and 30 hours of light, depending on which of three brightness settings is used. The lights can also charge cellphones, enabling Maritza and her family to save money on cellphone charging costs too.

To film the solar lights in action, we stay until after dark. Soon after 6:00 p.m., the sun sets and it quickly becomes pitch black. It's easy to understand why Maritza and her family used to go to bed shortly after sunset. The crew and I turn on our headlamps, while Maritza proudly uses one of her three Sun King Pros to light her kitchen to cook dinner for the family.

Maritza cooks dinner for her family after dark using one of her Sun King Pro solar lights.

After dinner, one of Maritza's daughters shows us how the Sun King Pro provides ample illumination for her to sew at night. While she works, she explains that she makes all kinds of designs—from table cloths to clothes—whatever her customers ask for. Her sewing has brought in vital additional income for the family.

Maritza's daughter demonstrating how her mother's solar lights help her continue working after dark.

Some of the children show us how they use the Sun King Pro to do their homework. It used to be difficult to study because the wind would blow out the candiles. Now, sometimes even the neighbors' kids come over to Maritza's house to study.

Some of Maritza's younger family members studying by the light of a solar lamp.

At one point I walk to the car to get something and place my hand on a rock wall to find my way. Someone tells me to stop doing that. They tell me that several weeks ago a man was bitten by a poisonous snake after doing the exact same thing. I retract my hand immediately and think about the toilet that I used earlier—an open-air rock field behind Maritza's home. I imagine using it in the dark with snakes slithering around and gain an even greater appreciation for the solar lights.

After we finish our visit, I reflect on the day during the drive back to our hotel. It's clear that a solar light by itself is not going to lift Maritza and her family out of poverty. But they now have opportunities to work and study at night if they choose to, and they save money. Additionally, Maritza and her family can stay up until 9:00 or 10:00 p.m. chatting with one another. After all, spending quality time together after the work day is over is important too.

By investing in social enterprises like MiCrédito, Global Partnerships expands opportunity for millions of people who deserve the opportunity to succeed. Maritza's story is just one of hundreds we have heard over the past two decades. Stories like hers keep us inspired to continue finding market-based ways of delivering opportunity to those who need it most.

To hear more stories and to see our video interview with Maritza, please subscribe to our blog and come to our luncheon in Seattle on October 29th. All photos © Global Partnerships.

Blog Tags: Central America   field visit   Green Technology   impact   impact in action   Latin America   Nicaragua   off-grid   solar energy   solar light   solar lights   solar technology   

Lack of awareness about the benefits of solar technologies and how affordable they can be is one of the barriers to adoption in Latin America. GP's partnership with MiCrédito has helped them hire a dedicated solar coordinator to educate clients, as well as import small solar solutions and make them affordable for families like Maritza's. Photo © Global Partnerships.
Lack of awareness about the benefits of solar technologies and how affordable they can be is one of the barriers to adoption in Latin America. GP's partnership with MiCrédito has helped them hire a dedicated solar coordinator to educate clients, as well as import small solar solutions and make them affordable for families like Maritza's. Photo © Global Partnerships.

Impact in action: How solar lights brighten homes & futures


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Francisco Sambrana, 34, lives with his wife and two young children in Las Conchas, Nicaragua. He is a primary school teacher, and when he’s not in the classroom he’s often helping his kids with their homework or preparing lessons. He used to depend on candles, kerosene lamps, and flashlights to illuminate his work after sunset.

However, after purchasing a solar-powered Barefoot Connect 600 plug-and-play system, he has a “brighter and clearer light” that is also significantly more economical. He only uses two of the four lights that came with the system, saving the other two for emergencies. But the lights are bright enough that he can put one in the kitchen and keep one light over the threshold of his living room and bedroom, effectively using two lights to illuminate three rooms.

The system also has USB ports through which he can charge cell phones or power a portable DVD player. Now that he no longer has to buy candles and batteries, or travel to the nearest town to pay to charge his phone, he saves several hours and about 565 cordobas ($22) each month. His solar system allows him to cut down on costs, cut down on contamination from kerosene smoke, and even provide phone charging services to his extended family.

The son of one of Francisco's clients

The son of one of Francisco's clients poses with the family's solar light. Photo © Global Partnerships

The positive impact of his solar-powered system was so great that Francisco decided to take out a loan from FUNDENUSE, a GP partner, to purchase five SunKing Mobiles, which are solar lights with cell phone charging capability, and sell them in his community. He knew from his own experience that “these lights are a great benefit,” and his conviction makes him a natural salesman. Francisco's customers now benefit from reduced energy costs and cleaner air by no longer being dependent on kerosene lamps, and Francisco has been able to supplement his income with a 20 percent commission on sale of the solar lights.

By investing in social enterprises that provide access to solar products, GP helps connect individuals like Francisco with clean, affordable solar solutions. In turn, individuals like Francisco also receive the opportunity to supplement their incomes by reselling solar lights.

Learn more about our solar investments by watching this video explanation about why solar lights are important in developing countries. 

 

Blog Tags: Latin America   off-grid   solar   solar lights   

Francisco Sambrana relies on solar lights to illuminate his home and prepare his lesson plans. Photo © Global Partnerships
Francisco Sambrana relies on solar lights to illuminate his home and prepare his lesson plans. Photo © Global Partnerships

How to meet the solar needs of the rural poor — 3 lessons learned


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by Agnes Cho, program associate, Global Partnerships

Recently, Global Partnerships and Solubrite, a solar distribution company in Nicaragua, worked together to organize a one-day workshop in Ocotal, a city in northern Nicaragua and home to GP’s partner, FUNDENUSE. I attended the training to share with FUNDENUSE’s credit officers what we at Global Partnerships have learned during our two years of experience of working in the off-grid lighting space in Latin America.

solar training session

The purpose of the workshop was to train FUNDENUSE's credit officers in the technical aspects of solar products and share with them effective sales strategies to use when pitching them to their clients. Small solar lights and plug-and-play home systems are relatively new products to enter the market in Latin America. For the most part, they remain an unfamiliar technology to both the people living in off-grid communities as well as the credit officers that work with them. Facilitating this knowledge transfer and familiarizing the buyers and sellers of these solar products is integral to the development of this new sector in Latin America.

Observations from the training session

During the workshop, I led an exercise and had each credit officer in attendance write down several reasons why their clients do and do not want to buy a solar product.

Examples of reasons for solar

  • To attain a higher standard of living
  • Less harmful to your health
  • To charge other electronics, such as a cell phone
  • To save money
  • Easy and practical to install and use
  • To be able to work and study at night

Examples of reasons against solar

  • Lack of ability to pay
  • Limited capacity
  • Lack of trust in quality and durability

Just from these several hours, we learned a few things about what drives demand for solar lights amongst poor, rural communities in Nicaragua.

 1. Solar distributors should offer a range of products, from simple solar lamps to aspirational products like TVs.

  • The first thing that rural customers want is a better light, and a solar lamp is as a cleaner and safer alternative to kerosene and candles. This is why we are supporting small light distribution, to build the early rungs of the energy ladder that enable rural families to begin climbing. And once they start climbing, people are interested in a solar product with additional functionality.
  • Our experiences with Franco, one of FUNDENUSE’s solar clients, clearly illustrates this point. In his home, he has a Barefoot Connect 600, a small plug-and-play home system, which he uses to light up his house and charge his cell phone and portable DVD player. But not many people in his town in the mountains of northern Nicaragua can afford such a system. Understanding this constraint and yet wanting to spread solar technology in his community, Franco took out a loan to buy and resell five Sun King Mobiles, a solar lamp with phone charging capacity, to his friends and neighbors. Although his customers eventually want more lights and more solar power in their home, they all started with a smaller lamp. Solar distributors should be aware of this range of demand and capacity to pay and have the appropriate products available to offer their rural customers.

2. Poor customers want high-quality products

  • Anecdotally, I’ve heard about how in Latin America, some people have had the misfortune of spending a lot to buy cheap products that broke down soon after. Whether this is true or not, people are wary of spending a lot of money on items that are “Made in China”. In fact, I wish I had a cordoba for each time I heard during the workshop, “It’s not a Chinese product.”
  • To address this, the Solubrite trainer emphasized a clear distinction between generic, poorly-designed products made in China and high-quality products designed by international companies that are manufactured in China. Solubrite also spent considerable time convincing the credit officers of the durability and quality of these lights. This goes to show how rural Nicaraguans are looking for the highest quality product that will not break down and those who sell solar lamps to the BOP must be conscientious of the low confidence in the technology. Because even more so than the rest of us, the rural BOP cannot afford to purchase a cheap, flimsy product.

3. Seeing is believing

  • During the workshop, credit officers explained that their job of promoting the solar lamps would be a lot easier if they could travel to the field with the lights and show, on the spot, the technology and product to their clients. This has to do with the relative novelty of solar lights. Credit officers want to give their clients the opportunity to see the light with their own eyes and feel it in their own hands. By doing so, they find that it is easier to interest and convince people of the benefits of solar energy.

Central to GP’s thesis of investing in last-mile partners is their access to rural, off-grid communities. By contributing to the training of FUNDENUSE’s credit officers, we ensure that the very people who are reaching these last-mile households are  well educated about solar technology. It is also a great opportunity for us to learn from our partners’ challenges and collective experiences to further the goal of expanding solar energy in Nicaragua.

Blog Tags: FUNDENUSE   Latin America   Nicaragua   solar   solar light   

Francisca is the happy owner of a solar home system
Francisca lives in a rural area in northern Nicaragua, where roughly 56 percent of the population lacks access to electricity. She purchased a solar home system through Franco, a FUNDENUSE client and solar reseller. Now, she saves money on kerosene, battery and phone charging costs and is able to be productive even when it's dark outside. Photo © Global Partnerships.

Global Partnerships in the news


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News: Global Partnerships was recently highlighted on The Huffington Post and on the OPIC blog (OPIC is the U.S. government's development finance institution):

  • In Impact Investor Global Partnerships Invests in Solar to Connect the Poor with Light, The Huffington Post speaks with GP's Chief Impact & Research Officer Peter Bladin about the challenge of connecting poor off-grid communities with access to solar lights. Peter explains, "Solar lights for poor people living off the grid are likely to scale the way cell phones have in the developing world over the last 15 years. [...] The case for solar is extremely compelling but social enterprises serving the base of the pyramid need working capital to scale product development, manufacturing and distribution." Click to read more news >

     

  • In Reaching the Neediest, OPIC interviews GP President & CEO Rick Beckett about the challenge of using impact investing to reach the poor, and about the impact of integrating credit with services. Rick says,"The challenge is that the deeper we go into poverty or the further we go into remote places, the more difficult it is to make markets work. The economics just get harder. The poorer people are, the fewer resources they have to purchase anything, and the more remote their living conditions, the more expensive it often is to reach them. But we can make progress 'extending the frontier' if we’re willing to think differently and try innovative approaches."  Click to read more >
Huffington Post features Global partnerships
Global Partnerships' investments in solar were recently highlighted on The Huffington Post.

GP invests in Greenlight Planet to bring more solar lights to rural poor in Latin America


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by Danny Stokley, green technology officer, Global Partnerships

In regions of the world where grid electricity is inaccessible, Greenlight Planet’s line of Sun King branded solar lights is becoming a household name. In simple terms, Greenlight Planet (GLP) makes really cool products designed for people living in poverty. They represent what many impact investors, like Global Partnerships, look for - overlap between reaching underserved families with products that improve their lives, while growing sales and maintaining margins that make them an attractive investment opportunity. Global Partnerships (GP) has been in conversations with GLP for over a year, and in October disbursed a working capital loan to support their continued growth as a company.

Why is GP investing in Greenlight Planet?

Global Partnerships has been working for some time to address the working capital crunch at the solar light distributor level in Latin America. We believe that partnering with GLP will help get more high-quality solar lights into local distribution channels, increasing the supply of products that make a tremendous impact at the household level. We learned a lot about the company through desk research and Skype calls, but visiting each partner, interviewing staff at all levels, and meeting their clients is an essential part of our due diligence process.

Visiting Greenlight Planet in India

So, after several months of pouring over financial statements, growth projections, and management bios, GP’s Chief Investment and Operating Officer (CIOO) Mark Coffey and I packed our bags and traveled to GLP’s headquarters in Mumbai, India. We spent two days on site working with GLP’s team, and then flew to Lucknow, the bustling capital of Uttar Pradesh, a state in northern India.

Our ultimate destination was an off-grid community three hours outside the city, where we spent the afternoon interviewing families that had purchased Sun King products. However, we did get a chance to visit the GLP branch office in Lucknow. Still jetlagged, we were tired, hungry, and sweating profusely by the time we arrived. However, our exhaustion faded away when we were met at the door by the entire GLP branch team. They had stopped what they were doing to greet us, presenting each of us with a bouquet of flowers.  That small extra gesture made us feel like we were already part of the family. 

While this warm greeting is just one example, I believe much of GLP’s success can be attributed to their attention to little details. This ethos seems to be woven into the fabric of Greenlight Planet, and nowhere is this more evident than in their best-selling solar light, the Sun King Pro (SKP).  At first glance the SKP is beautifully designed and elegant in its simplicity. Picking it up reveals that all external components are smooth, compact, and durable, made to withstand potentially rough treatment in rural environments. Beyond the attractive look and feel, the SKP offers a couple of key innovations – little details that make a big difference for families living off-grid. 

Innovations in solar light design

By way of example, the SKP includes a solar charging gauge, a simple display showing the strength of charge while the panel is in the sun. This acts as a built-in guide to assist with panel placement decisions during the day, helping users determine which direction to face the panel and learn the effects of shading.  Allowing each customer get the most out of their light not only increases user satisfaction, it ultimately increases impact through additional hours of light.

Attention to detail and focus on improving the user experience has proven to be very disruptive in technology markets in the developed world, and GLP’s Sun King solar lights are beginning to have the same impact in off-grid communities. Families living in extreme poverty are some of the most discerning customers on the planet, and companies that want to sell them new technologies must design intuitive, aspirational products.

Having a great solar light product is not enough to succeed

Most people working at the last mile will tell you that having a great product is just the beginning, and during our visit we also learned about a number of GLP’s innovations in building out distribution channels. In order to support GLP’s expansion in Latin America, Global Partnerships will provide working capital that allows them to offer more flexible credit terms to select partners in the region.  These small social enterprises are acutely affected by cash flow challenges inherent in importing products manufactured across the world, yet are a key part of the value chain reaching off-grid consumers. We hope that a small grace period on payment terms will allow these companies to import greater quantities, avoid stock outs, and begin scaling their impact. 

If you enjoyed this blog post, you might also like:

Blog Tags: last mile      solar lights   solar tech   

Mastram is a last-mile reseller of GLP's Sun King Pro solar lights
Mastram (left) was one of the first residents in his village to buy a Sun King Pro. He was then recruited to become a last-mile reseller for GLP, referred to as a Saathi (Friend). He now earns as much from selling lights as he does from farming, and is known around his community as the “Solar Light Wallah (Guy).” Photo © Global Partnerships

To reach the last mile, learn from the locals


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Morgan Babbs was Global Partnerships’ (GP’s) Green Technology field associate intern throughout the summer of 2013 (read about her experience here). Since then, she won a D-Prize and a Davis 100 Projects for Peace grant to start her own solar power social enterprise in Nicaragua, SolarRoute, which delivers solar lights to rural communities by tapping into existing last-mile distribution channels. Morgan shares some of the lessons she’s learned since founding her start up. Morgan is a rising senior at Tufts University, where she’s majoring in economics and international relations. She can be reached at morganlbabbs@gmail.com.

by Morgan Babbs, founder and CEO of SolarRoute

In the field of development economics, the “last mile distribution challenge,” how to service the most geographically isolated corners of the world, is often portrayed as an amorphous concept that stumps social entrepreneurs around the world. In the search for a solution, many come up with innovative strategies and new delivery models.

This kind of innovation is important in order to advance global development, but it’s even more important to focus on what you can learn from existing day-to-day supply chain movements and business practices in order to best reach the last mile. Before we jump to the question of, “How do we solve the last mile distribution challenge?”, it is important to ask, “Who is already going the last mile?”

If you transport solar lights atop a chicken bus, will they arrive at their destination?

Doing business in low-income countries is certainly challenging and frustrating at times. However, it would be imprudent to think that things just don’t function in these markets — in fact, it’s quite the opposite. There are intricate, albeit informal, last mile networks that move cash and goods all around the country.

How is it that cash and tons of passion fruit, mattresses, pots and pans, and other items are routinely moved around the country on top of a bus or in the back of a pick-up truck with no record, receipt, or insurance? The answer: trust.

Try to imagine all the players in this supply chain that have to uphold their end of the bargain in order for this to run smoothly. You’re counting on the fact that your goods won’t be stolen, that your contact on the other end is there on time, that the vehicle doesn’t crash or get robbed. The possibilities for disaster are endless. Yet, I’d be lying if I said that SolarRoute hasn’t sent a box or two of Greenlight Planet SunKing solar lights on top of a chicken bus for a staff member to pick up in his hometown two hours away from our base. Trust plays an important role in ensuring that informal last mile distribution networks function in Nicaragua, where the petty crime rate is high. It is an impressive system that functions against all odds.

Thus, selling solar lights in Nicaragua forces you to see things through this new lens. You naturally start to think more about supply chain and distribution of universally popular products: where do things move, where do people go, what is best advertised? Simply standing in a bustling market or at a busy bus stop for several hours in the municipal capital of a rural zone can teach you more than you could possibly imagine about local last mile distribution tactics. And that’s what inspires SolarRoute’s strategy.

What is the last mile and how can we reach them?

SolarRoute provides dual solar lamp-cell phone charging technologies to the last mile in Nicaragua. The “last mile” is a development term used to describe geographically and economically isolated populations with little access to relevant information, services, and resources to lift themselves out of poverty. It’s a definition largely applicable to the 30 million people in Latin America and the 1.3 billion people in the world who do not have affordable access to energy. This group makes significant use of kerosene lamps for energy, which are harmful for their health, the environment, and provide limited visibility during evening hours. Lack of lighting and proper technologies inhibits productivity — resulting in fewer hours spent studying or working, which translates to a smaller chance of progressing out of poverty.

There is an entrenched system of last mile interactions that SolarRoute has tried to replicate in order to maximize customer reception. For example, the most far-reaching and recognizable companies in Nicaragua are the two competing cell phone carriers, Movistar and Claro, Coca-Cola, and the largest chicken distributor, Tip Top. What they do best? They ensure that their brand is everywhere. In every corner of Nicaragua, you can add Movistar and Claro minutes to your phone, and you can buy a Coke to wash down your Tip Top chicken. Lucky for them, these companies gross huge profits so they can easily afford to take big off-road vehicles around the country every week to distribute their product. So if your goal is last mile distribution, the most logical, scalable, and cost-effective thing to do would be to tack onto the guys already going the last mile.

SolarRoute does last mile distribution like the local experts

SolarRoute works with agro stores, microfinance banks and school teachers to reach each institution’s last mile network. Our most recent development in last-mile strategy lies with a network of dirt-bike mounted distributors contracted by Movistar to deliver Movistar cell phone credit throughout the country. They span most of Central and South America and we recently scaled nationwide with them—allowing us to reach their 30,000 resellers (and more along the way). So, in addition to selling cell credit and cell phones, they also sell solar products. At every kiosk in every corner of a developing country you can find a “Movistar: recharge here” sign indicating where you can add more minutes to your cell phone. SolarRoute hopes to make small solar solutions as accessible and commonplace as cell phone minutes.

It’s doing the little things to imitate already successful brands that will hopefully add to SolarRoute’s success. For example, every SolarRoute retailer gets a sign indicating that SolarRoute products are sold there, a move inspired by the Movistar, Claro and Tip Top retail signs seen outside shops. Movistar and Claro paint their logo on concrete walls in every town: so do we. Movistar and Claro host small marketing events in the local markets and bus stops once per week: so do we. The idea is to engage in marketing, sales and business strategies that are already employed by the local experts in Nicaragua.

Of course there’s a need for improvement in these markets. Increased reliability and accountability, and a reduction in bureaucracy can help make huge strides towards increased availability of life-changing resources, services and technologies. But a huge discussion exists around creative last mile solutions. It’s a challenge, but it’s important to remember that there are already companies doing this. The question to ask is, “What can we learn from them in order to better distribute life-changing things such as tablets, cell phones or vaccinations?” In fact, it would be taking undue credit by saying SolarRoute employs “innovative” last mile distribution tactics. SolarRoute has really just latched on to what the country already does best. Maybe it’s innovative to us outsiders, but in Nicaragua, it’s the norm.

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Blog Tags: interns   last mile   Latin America   Nicaragua      solar light   solar technology   

Morgan Babbs, founder & CEO of SolarRoute, conducts a solar tech demonstration.
Morgan Babbs (far right), founder & CEO of SolarRoute, conducts a solar tech demonstration. Photo © SolarRoute