18 October 2018


Innovation Off-grid Asset management software Data analytics

Empowering the Off-grid Solar Industry With the Technology to Scale

Author: GOGLA

Loan enforcement technology and digitized payment collection enable more people in emerging markets, who are excluded from accessing modern financial services, to gain access to solar and other life-changing products. A key factor is that considerations like the intuitiveness, ease-of-access and proper localization of the off-grid solar solutions are carefully met. 
In this new interview, Lesley Marincola - CEO at Angaza, winner of the 2018 Skoll Award, and named as one of Forbes’ “30 under 30” and Businessweek’s “Best Young Entrepreneurs” – explains the philosophy behind Angaza’s unique approach to the off-grid solar market.

From the outset, the off-grid solar sector has been driven forward by technological innovation. In which areas do B2B providers such as Angaza bring in their expertise to further advance the sector?

Angaza’s B2B technology platform advances the off-grid sector by enabling any solar distribution business to offer and manage pay-as-you-go (PAYG) end user financing. With PAYG, distributors increase energy access for consumers by allowing them to pay over time, through affordable installment payments, for off-grid solar energy systems. We enable distributors to offer PAYG in two fundamental ways:

“Through our extensive network of telecom partnerships across the globe, distributors are able to digitize payment collection from their clients.”

The first is by equipping device manufacturers with metering and monitoring technology that they embed into their solar products to specialize these devices for PAYG sales. With Angaza’s metering technology, the product activates to emit light or power for a period of time based on that client’s payment amount. If a client does not make another payment before the time period elapses, the product will automatically deactivate until the client pays again. With this metering technology, distributors of PAYG solar products can confidently offer credit to unbanked individuals with no formal credit history. This ‘loan enforcement’ technology enables more people in emerging markets, who are excluded from accessing modern financial services, to gain access to solar and other life-changing products. Additionally, with Angaza’s remote monitoring technology, distributors can improve their clients’ after-sales experience; they can predict and prevent product failures, and they can remotely diagnose and address issues without incurring the cost of an expensive technician traveling to the client’s rural home.

The second way Angaza is advancing the off-grid solar sector is through the digitization of sales in emerging markets. Through our extensive network of telecom partnerships across the globe, distributors are able to digitize payment collection from their clients. Distributors can receive mobile money installments from clients, a faster and more secure way to collect payments. This payment data is stored in Angaza’s sales and loan management platform, the Hub, which was specifically designed for the unique business needs of distributors in emerging markets. The Hub’s utility is enhanced by the Activator, our mobile app for sales agents in the field. With tools to digitize their businesses, distributors can collect and analyze valuable information, including client payment history, and product usage and maintenance. They can improve client support and offer additional product loans to low-risk clients. Ultimately, distributors can leverage digitized data to sell more and scale up, helping to expand access to life-changing products across the globe. 

How do your solutions help off-grid solar companies optimize their operations?

Our technology platform enables distributors to collect and analyze valuable client, payment, and product data, which they can use to identify trends, gaps, and opportunities in their businesses. These distributors can then make data-driven decisions to optimize their operations for their local market conditions. For example, distributors can identify which types of products are the most popular and have the highest repayment rate across different regions, so they can run focused client marketing initiatives in specific geographic areas. 

Our software and hardware solutions also enable distributors to optimize their client relationship management by decreasing the time and money they spend on communicating with and traveling to clients for payment collections and troubleshooting product issues. They can send automated SMSs to clients in specific situations, in lieu of manually calling each individual client. Instead of sending an expensive technician to rural areas, distributors can remotely diagnose and address user error issues on products embedded with Angaza’s metering and monitoring technology. And, by offering clients the option to pay with mobile money, distributors can reduce the frequency with which sales agents need to travel to collect cash payments. 

What are some of the latest innovations in the field of PAYG software?

To best serve the complex needs of distributors in emerging markets, we’ve focused on ways to foster an efficient and profitable distributor-client relationship by creating software that equips businesses with digital tools to collect client data, manage ongoing payments, and communicate with them. Based on their clients’ repayment history, distributors can determine whom to sell additional life-changing products (such as cookstoves or smartphones) to, in order to capture additional value from this consumer base beyond the first product sale.

“Even without mobile coverage, sales agents can now collect client data, register new accounts, generate new keycodes to activate products, and collect cash payments.”

One of our latest feature releases -- offline functionality in our mobile app -- meets a very specific need for sales agents, who often deal with limited or no mobile connectivity in the rural areas where their clients live. Without a reliable mobile data connection, it is much harder for sales agents to conduct their day-to-day work of registering new clients and processing payments. For instance, in order to activate a client’s newly purchased product, sales agents without offline app capabilities had to travel to an area with mobile connectivity in order to access a keycode for the activation to work. Our new offline mode in the Activator, our mobile app, directly addresses this need. Even without mobile coverage, sales agents can now collect client data, register new accounts, generate new keycodes to activate products, and collect cash payments. 

How do you select the areas of innovation on which you focus your research and development?

One of Angaza’s core company values is to “innovate with empathy.” To embed this value in our work at Angaza, we apply principles of human-centered design by first gaining a deep understanding of our users and developing our products with their needs in mind. We conduct rigorous user research by interviewing distributors and observing how their call centers leverage the Angaza Hub. We also make field visits to continue to better understand the unique realities of last-mile distribution and to observe how sales agents conduct their jobs using our mobile app. All the observational and situational insights that we collect help to shape our product development roadmap and inform our prioritization about what areas we focus our innovation on.

What are some of the challenges you are facing as a digital solutions innovator in the off-grid solar sector?

We strongly believe that helping solar distribution businesses in emerging markets to scale requires technology solutions that enable the digitization and automation of their operations. However, a lower technical literacy level of many stakeholders in the off-grid sector -- from small call centers to remote sales agent networks to end consumers -- often hinders technology adoption. Angaza’s approach to this challenge is to make the use of our software solutions as intuitive as we can to all stakeholders. For example, we design our software interfaces and user workflows with sales agents and shop owners at top of mind, as these stakeholders might be first-time smartphone users, and Angaza’s mobile app, the Activator, might be the first mobile software product they’ve engaged with.  

We also have to operate within a different set of constraints than many B2B software companies working in fully fledged markets. The complex realities of last-mile distribution in emerging markets presents unique design challenges, such as limited-to-no mobile connectivity in many sales regions, or expensive data costs for sales agents. We have been able to innovate around these challenges to meet our customers’ unique needs, from developing the Activator as an offline-first mobile app, to strategically planning app upgrades to minimize sales agents’ data usage, to ensuring the Activator works on all the different types of phone models more commonly used in emerging markets.

Lastly, the end users who would benefit the most from access to off-grid solar products are distributed across remote regions of the globe. Our B2B business model requires that our software platform works in any country around the world. We need to provide localized solutions that take into account the preferred language of communication, and available telcos and mobile money platforms. While Angaza now has 25+ integrations with mobile money platforms across Sub-Saharan Africa alone, building these integrations is complex and resource-intensive. We had to form telecom partnerships and connect to often archaic software platforms via outmoded integration technologies. We invested in creating these partnerships because we believe enabling mobile payments in the off-grid sector is critical to its growth. 

Despite the challenges we’ve found and are bound to come across in the future, we know that overcoming them is well worth the impact we can make in spreading access to off-grid solar in emerging markets. 

You are a B2B company while your customers are focused on reaching individual consumers in often challenging environments. In light of the consumer-centric approach to operations pursued by off-grid solar companies, to what degree do you consider the needs of the end consumers of your business customers when developing new products and services?

“Angaza’s mission is to create technology that allows businesses to offer life-changing products to anyone, anywhere.”

As a B2B social enterprise, Angaza’s mission is to create technology that allows businesses to offer life-changing products to anyone, anywhere. To better support distribution businesses, we absolutely consider the unique challenges and needs of our distribution partners’ clients in our product design and technology development. Focusing our user research on the whole pay-as-you-go stakeholder ecosystem, including end users, ensures Angaza is truly solving the needs of our distribution partners and helping them to more effectively identify and sell to clients, as well as manage their ongoing client relationships. 

One of the ways we ensure we are considering the needs of end consumers is by making regular field visits with our distribution partners. During these visits, we observe and engage with their clients, and take what we learn back to the office. Our distribution partners share their clients’ experiences with us as well. As one example, when distributors expressed to us that end users had various interpretations of the payment and battery status indicators on their PAYG products, we met with a variety of end users to gain insight into their product feedback reactions. Then, in collaboration with our manufacturing partners, we applied our research findings to help them redesign those device indicators to make them easier to understand by consumers.

Unlocking Solar Capital Africa aims to facilitate financing deals which are a win-win for companies and investors. How do you support companies in further increasing their value proposition for investors?

Angaza’s goal is to accelerate capital into the industry in order to ensure our distribution partners have the capital they need to meet their growth targets. We do this in two ways: 

(1) We provide a complete technology solution that enables distributors to digitize and automate their businesses. By collecting and analyzing sales and repayment data with our technology suite, distributors can effectively leverage digitized data analytics and data insights to facilitate more efficient due diligence with investors. Using this data, distributors can, for instance, show how they were able to achieve up to 5x increase in sales with pay-as-you-go, and provide valuable key metrics to investors, such as loan portfolio performance and client repayment rates.

(2) We are helping to influence the standardization of PAYG key performance indicators, so investors can more easily understand the risk level of lending into the energy access industry. By making the due diligence process more efficient and transparent from the investor perspective, we believe more capital will be mobilized.

“Using this data, distributors can, for instance, show how they were able to achieve up to 5x increase in sales with pay-as-you-go.”

Why did you decide to support Unlocking Solar Capital Africa as a sponsor?

Angaza’s leadership in the off-grid solar industry, our commitment to increasing the pace of scale in the sector, and our partnership with GOGLA made the event sponsorship a solid strategic choice. I applaud Solarplaza and GOGLA for organizing an event that convenes all the stakeholders needed in the solar sector to strategize how to close the funding gap and accelerate the industry’s growth. We’re excited to sponsor Unlocking Solar Capital: Africa and look forward to exhibiting, along with participating in a panel discussion on pursuing profitability in low-income contexts.

This article was created in preparation for Unlocking Solar Capital Africa. Be the first to know when the new edition will be held by signing up for updates.