Erica Mackey, Cofounder & COO, Off.Grid:Electric
Originally backed with $100,000 from USAID's Global Development Lab, Off.Grid:Electric is scaling up to light one million homes in the next five years— expanding into East Africa, where 85% of homes are off the grid.
Fluent in Swahili and with a deep network in sub-Saharan Africa, Erica Mackey co-founded Off.Grid:Electric in 2011 to bring solar to Africa for the same daily cost as kerosene. Two years later, the company managed to outpace the Tanzanian government in areas such as the Arusha and Kilimanjaro Regions, when it came to connecting more people to solar power and electricity.
Currently, OGE uses both mono and polycrystalline panels in combination with lithium iron phosphate batteries for storage. "We find that we can reduce total cost to the customer by using a partial cell configuration in our smaller panels. This allows us to reclaim perfectly good parts of otherwise unusable cells," says Mackey.
But given CPV solar's off-grid history, we thought not just PV, but also CPV specialists may want to learn more about this company that is really changing lives for the better through off-grid power.
Q: What inspired you to establish Off.Grid:Electric?
A: I have spent the better part of the last decade developing effective service delivery mechanisms in extremely resource-poor environments. The first problem I focused on was bridging the gap between Tanzania’s free urban health services and the rural poor. Spending time rolling out mobile clinics and training rural health workers, I became curious about what these communities believed were their biggest challenges to development. Access to electricity topped their list.
At this very moment, 1.6 billion people live without access to modern energy. This fact quickly inspired me to address why the world’s poorest people pay the most for the dirtiest energy. As soon as I connected with my co-founders, Xavier Helgesen and Joshua Pierce, I knew we had a diverse team that was laser-focused on finding a business model that would be able to scale to meet this massive demand.
Q: Off.Grid:Electric is described as the world’s first massively scalable “solar energy as a service” company. Could you please elaborate?
A: Off.Grid:Electric (OGE) exists to provide affordable and reliable energy (known in Africa as MPOWER) to communities that currently lack such power. The company utilises distributed renewable energy to sell power as a service to customers who suffer from an expensive grid, an unreliable grid, or have no electrical grid access at all.
Q: How does solar PV feature in your lighting solutions and which technology is working best for you?
A: Currently, OGE uses both mono and polycrystalline panels in combination with lithium iron phosphate batteries for storage. We find that we can reduce total cost to the customer by using a partial cell configuration in our smaller panels. This allows us to reclaim perfectly good parts of otherwise unusable cells. This has little impact on efficiency, but reduces waste in the cell manufacturing process and allows us to keep our cost per watt competitive with larger modules.
Our systems are low voltage DC output, allowing us to minimise losses, utilise low power DC appliances and ensure customer safety. In our opinion, solar is the best technology, renewable or non-renewable, for a distributed household utility.
Q: How do your customers deal with servicing and spare parts if needed?
A: In Africa and other emerging market environment, the main barrier keeping solar home systems from being adopted is risk. Risk of poor quality equipment, lack of service infrastructure, expensive loan payments, risk of damage and lack of technical understanding all hinder the adoption of traditional solar energy systems.
Off.Grid:Electric’s M-POWER solution eliminates all of these risks: it sells solar energy as a service – not as a product. This dramatically reduces cost (both upfront and lifetime) for the customer, but it also does something more remarkable: it eliminates customer risk. If any of the equipment in our customer’s home breaks, one of our village agents in our M-POWER agent network will visit the customer’s home and replace the equipment.
Q: Off.Grid:Electric succeeded in securing $7m in venture capital funding. Could you tell us about the funding approach that you took?
A: When you are a start-up company in a growth market like the off-grid energy market, it is absolutely necessary to raise equity if you want to scale enough to make an impact. It was an important proof point for us to make an African rooftop an investable asset that attracts world-class investors.
Our incredibly supportive equity investor base includes SolarCity, Vulcan Capital, Omidyar Network, Jasmine Investments, Givia Pty, The World We Want Foundation, Segal Family Foundation, Mulago Foundation, Serious Change LP, as well as a handful of key angel investors.
Q: How many households have you connected to solar power to date and what are your ambitions for the next few years?
A: We have connected over 15,000 households in the last year. Our vision is to light Africa. We define that as lighting 10 million households within this decade.