CEO of Off Grid Electric Xavier Helgesen discusses the company’s goal of bringing solar power systems to three million West Africans and explains how off-grid solar is gaining wider acceptance as a “real” power source that can transform local economies.
It has been a big year for off-grid solar in Sub-Sahara Africa. What have been the major developments in the market, and how has Off Grid Electric taken advantage of them?
Xavier Helgesen: We have seen corporates move into the market at scale. We saw this with partnerships such as Engie and Bboxx. We have seen the Department for International Development (DFID) and Power Africa raise the profile of the sector dramatically from a development perspective. Ultimately, though, the battle is for the hearts and minds of customers. In that, we have focused heavily on product innovation and customer insight, and our offering has gotten dramatically more compelling as a result.
Can you give more details about the partnership with EDF, and are there plans for further expansion in 2017?
XH: In November we announced a partnership with EDF, a global leader in low-carbon energies. We’ve kicked off a pilot in Côte d’Ivoire and have plans in place to expand across West Africa. This is the first partnership of its kind, bringing together the largest energy production company in the world with the leading African off-grid solar company. In these first few weeks, it’s heartening to see that our technology and business model combined with EDF’s extensive experience is a success. Solar systems are flying off the shelves and we’re confident we’ll be able to reach our goal of supplying power to two million people in Côte d’Ivoire [Ivory Coast] by 2020. In that period, our goal for West Africa generally is closer to three million people. Given our warm welcome in Côte d’Ivoire, we’re excited to see what the rest of the region brings.
Are there any business opportunities for Off Grid Electric outside of Africa?
XH: Powering modern Africa is the fundamental mission of our business, so we are going to keep our focus. There are certainly opportunities elsewhere for distributed solar, but none as compelling for us as in Africa.
In a more general sense, what do you see on the horizon for off-grid solar in 2017? As you said, are you expecting a fresh wave of new global partnerships?
XH: We expect governments to increasingly realize that off-grid solar is “real power” and that it can solve many of their citizen’s needs without spending precious funds on costly grid extension. We certainly do expect to see new partnerships, as off-grid solar is now squarely on the radar of telecoms and global energy companies. It is becoming increasingly clear to global energy companies in particular that Africa and distributed energy is where the potential for tens of millions of new customers lie.
You’ve previously talked about the Tesla and SolarCity merger; are you expecting this to affect the general solar terrain?
XH: We now have a true global power brand in home solar and storage with Tesla. We see the merger as a great thing for the planet and a great thing for the mainstreaming of home energy independence. People are becoming more aware than ever around the globe that they can truly take their energy costs and reliability into their own hands and own a productive energy asset rather than pay an electric bill in perpetuity.