The Irishman bringing solar electricity to rural Mozambique

Kevin Kennedy’s company sells solar systems to the 4m households without power

Each week, Irish Times Abroad meets an Irish person working in an interesting job overseas. Here, Kevin Kennedy from Rathgar tells us about selling and financing solar systems to families in rural Mozambique

When did you leave Ireland?

I left  in 1983. I was one of those people who used to take the ferry to Holyhead to save money. At least 30 per cent of my year of science graduates emigrated. We went to London and other English-speaking places. Though I left Ireland when economic migration was high, for me it was always going to happen. I wanted to get to know other places, so once I started to travel, I just kept adding other countries such as Peru, Uganda, Spain and Mozambique. Learn a few languages and the world opens up . England was not my destination. It was a place to earn money and a stepping stone.

“So much of what I am was formed in Synge Street. I still feel it”

Did you study in Ireland? 

Over the years and after Trinity College, I’ve picked up a few degrees. The university environment is perfect for learning, but terrible for doing – and I like both. So I’ve used each degree to help me shift direction – from zoology to accounting to social enterprise. In 2009 while dealing with the new reality that a 50-year-old man was never going to get another job in financial services in Europe, I did a Master’s in International Development and used it to get into solar system financing and then mobile money in East Africa. And yet so much of what I am was formed in Synge Street. I still feel it.

Where have you worked since you left Ireland?

I spent five years in the US, and 20 in London riding the financial services boom and raising a family in Surrey. After selling my business in 2008, I lost half of my money trying to rent art online in something that seemed very cutting edge at the time, but was like trying to light a candle in a hurricane. So I stopped that and went to Uganda to help a new company learn how to rent solar systems. I did the “I liked it so much I bought the company” thing, though the reality is I made a small investment which represented the last of my capital.

I managed that company for 18 months and then started being asked to work in other countries in Africa to help do the same. Last year, beginning to feel like consulting was becoming too much like talking about something rather than doing it, I decided to set up another company. I liked the look of Mozambique, got on a plane and did the damn thing.

Kevin Kennedy far off-road in Mozambique
Kevin Kennedy far off-road in Mozambique

Tell us about your work now.

My company here, Epsilon Energia Solar, sells small solar systems to the four million Mozambican households that do not have electricity. We’ve sold about 1,500 so far, so there’s a way to go. The systems cost about €140, which is what many households already spend over a year on kerosene, batteries and the weekly trip to charge up the phone. So while our system represents great value given that it lasts four to five years, the challenge is that almost no family has a year’s expenditure on hand. So we offer hire purchase, and collect the payments using the mobile money system MPesa. This is finance for the poor. Like paying for the telly on the never never in another place and time. Well, in Mozambique we use mobile money as I said, and “never never” becomes “poco a poco” [little by little] over the course of a year, and then it’s done, and family expenditure on light and phone-charging drops to zero.

“A stalwart support base for Benifca, Porto, Sporting Lisbon. Eusebio came from here”

I spend half my time raising money for the business, and half working with staff to build up the company. The team sells far off-road in Central Mozambique where electricity poles will never ever come. We meet local community leaders and begin the process of introducing ourselves, our product and mobile money. It is amazing that where electricity will never arrive, mobile money is already present. So we are filling the gap creating what is beginning to be called the “distributed grid”, which means families with their own stand-alone solar systems.

What challenges are there?

We are taking solar to places where it is unknown, and trying to persuade people to switch over their spending from batteries and candles. And then we tell them that they will be paying using their mobile phones. So it takes a while to get things off the ground, but people learn very fast, particularly when some neighbours take the leap and demonstrate that it actually is a good idea that saves them money and houses full of smoke.

If you wanted to come and work in Ireland, what would your career opportunities be like?

I would estimate the chances of me getting a job in Ireland as a shade over absolutely zero. I am 56, and by now indelibly labelled strange and too independent to manage. There’s no happy return to a professional career when you have been an entrepreneur in strange places. You’ve see behind the curtain and know how companies are made and run and sometimes fail.

What is it like living in Mozambique?

It’s beautiful and interesting. It’s a strange anachronism being a large ex-Portuguese colony, speaking the language of the old oppressors, embracing their music, importing vast quantities of olive oil and wine, and representing a stalwart support base for Benifca, Porto, Sporting Lisbon. Eusebio came from here. Maputo and all the regional capitals have their cafés and villas. There are 4,000km of Indian ocean coast which offers access to the islands, reefs and beaches of Tanzania and Kenya. And then there are the parks – big and empty. Empty because the animals were mostly killed during the long long civil war.

What advice would you give to someone interested in pursuing a career away from Ireland?

I don’t know that I can give advice. For me the urge to get to know the world is an irresistible force. If I am somewhere interesting, and I know it well, there are other places that are more interesting that I don’t know yet. But I suppose what I would say is give it time. A couple of weeks or months doesn’t get you under the skin of a place, and for me, working in a new country is the way to understand more.

What do you think your future holds?

If I have the health and some savings, the future will be interesting because I won’t accept anything less. I think Mozambique will be the last country in Africa that I live and work in though. If we are successful here, I will want to take another leap of faith. Russian is a beautiful language … but maybe now that I speak Portuguese, Brazil might be more fun.

What emigration meant for me as a child simply doesn’t exist any more

Is there anything you miss about living and working in Ireland?

My aunt and her young husband took the boat to New Zealand. Another one went to Canada. It was accepted that we would hardly ever see them. The distances were unimaginable, and I always felt a bit sad for my mother who was close to both. But now, if you miss people, you get on the plane and there you are. What emigration meant for me as a child simply doesn’t exist any more. We have extended absences and much more ability to decide how long we stay away, and how quickly we return. In the return suitcase… scotch eggs and English mustard.

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Renewables using Vendor Finance, Insurance and Islamic Finance

There are more options to funding solar systems to the 600 million who need them than development bank loans

Vendor Financing

  • More is sold on credit than for cash.  This effect is multiplied in developing markets.
  • Major global brands exist in relevant assets in agriculture, transport and equipment.  There is not yet a major global brand in small solar but some Chinese producers of lighting Africa approved products look promising
  • Major vendors are willing to assume or subsidise credit risk because of the dramatic impact on their sales.
  • In developed markets major vendors may well have their own in/house financing companies and achieve a blended higher profitability by combining a manufacturing, distribution and financing margins
  • In developing markets manufacturers have shied away from vendor finance because they do not have the in house credit skills
  • The opportunity is to bring them into the pool of potential funding offering either buy back structures for repossessed equipment; loss pool structures where they absorb losses above a predefined limit or direct subsidy to open up new markets

Insurance

  • The sector has the risk expertise to support innovative structures to fund portfolios of solar equipment through in house or niche advisory that offer bespoke insurance products for projects and trade in developing markets
  • The sector also needs to diversify their investments to match premium to pay outs.  The funding of portfolios and the repayment profile is a good fit with their financing needs
  • Insurance is a complimentary product for equipment sales into the base of the pyramid for theft, life, health and crop protection
  • The opportunity is to bring them into the pool of potential funding offering offering insurance wrap products for portfoilos; first loss’ catastrophic loss; and default risk

Islamic Finance

  • Equipment financing structurally suited to Islamic finance where shared ownership and sale in place allows one to overcome prohibitions against interest
  • A large part of the target population for financing in North Africa and the Sahel, as well as significant minorities throughout Africa are likely to be more open to sharia compliant structures for solar and other productive assets
  • Islamic governments are also looking for compliant funding structures to invest at the institutional and development level
  • Islamic finance has focused on bonds, property and not on equipment in a systematic way
  • The challenge is to develop the offer at a household level supported by the compliant funding all the way back through the delivery institution to the funding consortium

My recommendation is to drive for proof of concept in a single market. In the case of vendor finance and insurance the counterparts are amongst the largest commercial entities and are currently unfocused on their potential role, failing perhaps to see a short term commercial benefit. To get them to the table one would need something like the PowerAfrica initiative which successfully engaged with major global companies like GE, but in this case it would need to be extended to insurance.

For Islamic finance the issue would seem to be that there is a blind spot to the immediate large scale potential for an Islamic financing program  designed around a particular asset such as small domestic solar.  The same effort needs to be made as in non Islamic finance to figure out and then the detailed financial needs of sourcing, financing and last mile distribution but in this case from an Islamic finance perspective.

This note lacks detail because until there is exchange of ideas at a senior level between the WB and global manufacturers, insurers and providers of Islamic finance, any guess at detail would be just that

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MFIs and PAYGO Companies Need to Get Together

Executive Summary

This overview was funded by PAMIGA

As the installed base of Pay As You Go solar companies in East Africa surpasses 1,000,000 households this form of consumer financing has come to dominate discussions of solar energy equipment lending.  Previous growth strategies of working through partnerships between MFIs and non PAYGO solar companies have generated far less access over a longer timeframe.  However, while PAYGO companies are currently successful as stand-alone companies they face difficult growth hurdles unless they can match costs of funding at bank levels, borrow in local currency, and negotiate a light touch approach to inevitable regulation.  The early competitive advantage of running a dual finance and distribution model will be eroded as agency banking models are adopted by microfinance and other banks and transaction costs are driven sharply down.  Governments and large scale multilateral funding programs seeking to achieve massive scaling of energy access with financing need to encourage a new partnership model where MFIs embrace fully the potential of digital finance and become expert at large scale vendor financing. The best allocation of resources is where MFIs handle credit while PAYGO solar companies provide distribution and manage the software interface for payments and equipment control.

1.  Introduction

The Pay As You Go Solar business model represents a breakthrough in energy access and equipment financing.  The combined portfolios in sub Saharan Africa are already in excess of 1,000,000 households less than 10 years after launch and continue to grow.

Connected equipment provides on/off control of equipment and substantially reduces equipment risk.  Connectivity also provides valuable data about usage which improves portfolio management and feeds into credit scoring models.  The ‘airtime’ model for loan repayment is cheap, flexible and enables matching of repayments to pre-existing household energy budgets, even down to daily instalments.  Equity and debt financing has crowded in to the few companies that have successfully deployed the model to date.

Affordable access to electricity through the medium of PAYGO solar has huge potential to expand – so how can this best be supported beyond the crowding in of equity and debt to a limited number of start-ups?  This short piece looks at some of the obstacles to massive and how to overcome them.  In particular it proposes a revised role for MFIs to engage with the technology and play a fundamental role in expansion.

2.  PAYGO is Transformational for Equipment Lending

Pay As You Go models for the purchase of [solar] equipment combine the supply, service and financing of solar equipment in the same company.  What takes this beyond classic consumer financing arrangements such as car financing is connectivity.  Solar equipment is under the control of the PAYGO company until fully paid.  Various technologies from Bluetooth to mobile phone allow a two way data exchange between the equipment and the PAYGO operator.  In turn data can be managed to enable control of the equipment, switching it off when instalments payments are not made, thus brining the mobile phone ‘airtime’ model to solar.  Where mobile money is available, payments can be made in very small amounts at a very high, even daily frequency.

Connectivity: The ability to turn off the equipment when a customer does not pay has substantially reduced the downside of equipment risk while adding upsides of better screening and information about usage.  In the absence of cost effective repossession, disabling the equipment is a powerful message to the borrower that default has consequences.  Switch off happens immediately a payment is missed and is therefore much more effective than negotiation over days and weeks that is typical of a bank led collections process.  With solar, but also with any income generating asset, the loss of the benefit of light is a powerful incentive to resume payments in the very short term

Data: Connectivity allows data to flow from software platform to equipment and vice versa.  Data flowing to the equipment controls not only the ‘on/off’ state but can be programmed to achieve far more.  Most notably it can control the operation of the equipment in direct proportion to the payment made – just as airtime on a mobile phone.  Data flows the other way, from the equipment back to the software management platform communicate how the equipment and even its various components are working.  Information about usage aids proper management and maintenance of the system.  This allows a customer service function to help rural households get the best from their equipment without the need for a visit from a technician.  Data collected about the installed base and how it is actually used by consumers allows for better design by manufacturers.  Data about customers combined with equipment usage feeds credit scoring models, pricing and marketing

Mobile Money: As mentioned above data and connectivity together allow equipment usage to be tied exactly to the amount paid by the customer.  Mobile money, or mobile banking apps bring a critical third element to bear which is the payment in very small amounts, at very low cost.  The affordability issues of paying for a $100 system are solved only in part by turning this into 12 payments of eg $10 per month.  For a rural household finding and saving $10 is a challenge of itself.  Apps that allow payments in very small amounts can match the actual spending on eg kerosene, candles and batteries, so that no ‘saving’ is required.  Payments for solar energy can be made at the same frequency and in the same amount as payments for previously used energy sources.

The triple effect of connectivity, data and low cost micropayments are what take PAYGO consumer financing models into breakthrough territory from a sales and customer acquisition point of view.  However, the scaling of a company goes beyond a successful product and customer interface

3.  How MFIs Contributed to the Emergence of PAYGO

Financial inclusion and energy access have been the focus of government and international development lending and support for over two decades.  They overlap in programs that seek to use microloans to enable rural households to purchase solar equipment to replace kerosene and achieve basic levels of electricity provision.  The rationale for the involvement of MFIs in solar lending includes their presence in rural communities; their social mission to improve the lives of their clients; their core activity of lending and their access to social funding.

However MFIs have not developed substantial activities in solar lending in Sub Saharan Africa.

  • The cost/quality equation of solar equipment has only reached an affordable level in the last 5 years.  Prior to this good quality equipment was too expensive and poor quality equipment did not last long enough for loans to be recovered without equipment failure causing collections issues.   Equipment risk has been too high for MFIs
  • Equipment financing requires a formal partnership between two completely different types of company – a bank and a technology distribution company.  Without strategic intent on both sides to a systematic approach of shared customer acquisition, customer service and collections, significant volumes cannot be achieved.  Where MFIs have tried to create and run distribution themselves, they have found the second business model too different from their core business to manage effectively
  • The transaction costs for both financier and supplier have high and can only be reduced through scale and good management.  Suppliers must be able to source, deliver and support equipment across large territories and over a long period of time.  Banks must be able to make sufficient margin when repayment amounts are small and disproportionately expensive to process

The cumulative effect of poor experience over more than a decade has made MFIs and banks uninterested to engage at a time when digital finance was transforming the model for solar lending.  When new entrants to solar distribution sought partnerships from banks to launch PAYGO models they encountered very little understanding and no enthusiasm.  This contrasts with the early interest of the mobile network operators who recognised the transformative potential of solar powered phone recharging and who moved quickly to make partnerships in Kenya, Uganda and other markets.

As a result new PAYGO companies set out to understand and incorporate the financing challenge of large scale solar distribution in house.  By combining connectivity, data and mobile money they created a consumer financing model that exists in the digital finance space and outside the regulated activities of banks and MFIs.

In retrospect MFIs have been critical to the development of PAYGO.  Their absence from the market has left a gap that others have filled.

4.  There are Real Barriers to Scaling Stand Alone PAYGO

There is exuberance at the early success of solar PAYGO business models.  In December 2016 Lumos in Nigeria announced $90MM of investment to roll out this business model in Nigeria based on the potential market in Nigeria, its partnership with MTN, its technology platform and the track record of its founder in running technology businesses.  As with other companies in the sector it highlights the sales and technology aspects and downplays the financial service elements.  However, a company that plans to finance multiple millions of customers cannot long avoid the realities of vendor finance – cost of funds, credit risk management, regulation and currency risk where funding is raised in dollars and euros when customers will be repaying in naira.

Cost of Funding:  Small companies pay more for financing than larger companies.  Commercial companies unless they have a ‘cash cow’ in their group, generally borrow higher than banks and MFIs that can leverage customer deposits.  In addition the market will price in a premium if it feels that it is operating a credit based business without the systems and management appropriate to the activity as found in a bank or MFI.  If banks and MFIs get into the business of solar lending at scale, they will have a sustainable and long term advantage of lower cost of funding.

Credit Risk Management: Equipment financing when done ‘in house’ is based on a tension between adding customers and collecting from them – between the short term and the long term.  Financing makes the acquisition of customers easier, but the company only survives if it can collect all the payments due.  Losses must be covered, and provisions push up the price.  It is easier to create an installed base than to collect all the monies due over 2 or 3 years.  While software and connectivity are new tools for managing this tension, ultimately management teams must embrace and include credit risk management into their core strategy and competence.  In the global sector of vendor finance far fewer distribution companies achieve this than choose a partnership route where credit management [and financing] is outsourced to a bank

Regulation: The regulation of vendor financing in Africa is less well developed than in in other markets.  While it is true that the risk of credit losses in companies that retain financing in house is ultimately borne by the shareholders and lenders, there is an overarching risk of abusive practices such as complex and predatory pricing, and upgrades that prolong hugely the indebtedness of the customers.  At present PAYGO companies are not subject to regulation and are seeking to preserve this situation by claiming that they are engaged in ‘credit sales’ or rentals rather than in financial transactions such as leasing, hire purchase or indeed lending.  As their scale grows it is unlikely that this situation will remain unchanged, particularly given the support from multilateral development organisations that promote fair financial inclusion.  The adjustment when it comes will have a price and an administrative effect as PAYGO  companies adjust their models to what banks and MFIs already do

Currency Risk: PAYGO companies are raising money mainly in dollars and euros, but have ever larger customer bases paying in local currency.  In uncertain economic environments this results in a mismatch where at best profitability is impacted, and at worst loans cannot be repaid in full and the company defaults.  Generally banks and MFIs are better matched due to their access to funds in local currency

In summary, the initial exuberance of a sector that has defined an exciting and important way to finance solar equipment must be balanced with a view on how they are positioned to deal with the medium and long term challenges of funding, credit risk management, regulation and currency risk.  Distribution is a short cycle business, and financing is a long cycle business.  Doing both of these in the same company requires a level of management skill that goes beyond sales and technology.  Globally the vendor finance sector has delivered scale more through partnership than though on stop shop distribution finance companies.

 

5.  Partnership … but not as we have known it

Despite the unpromising start to partnerships between the financial sector and solar distribution companies – even to the extent of solar companies going it alone and creating the PAYGO model, a future restructured partnership seems to promise the best long term outcomes for clients and for both PAYGO companies and banks.

The barriers to partnership in the past were very real for banks, just like the barriers to future scaling for PAYGO companies are also very real.  While it is possible for a PAYGO company to become a large scale, well funded, regulated fully integrated distribution and finance company, it hard to see this being the dominant model in 5 years.  Investors will become more knowledgeable about the true embedded costs and will price their investments accordingly.  Some PAYGO companies will get the sales/credit loss balance wrong and will fail.

More compellingly a positive incentive to partner with banks and MFIs will emerge.  Financial institutions will catch up with digital finance developments and become much more effective at the finance ‘side’ of the vendor finance equation.  Commercial PAYGO companies will look at the challenge of scaling PAYGO across SSA as a dual function company, and they will conclude that a partner that can offer a cost effective and integrated solution for the funding and credit activities frees them up to concentrate on expanding their footprint and bringing new products to market.

The partnerships of the future will be different, and there will be fundamental requirements for banks/MFIs before they can be considered ready.  Some of the requirements:-

  1. Hugely expand mobile banking
  2. Engage fully with digital finance encompassing substantial reductions in transaction costs that can be passed on to end users
  3. Catch up with new credit assessment techniques based on large data analysis and behavioural factors
  4. Lend based on cost savings and embrace equipment control in place of collateral
  5. Become expert at partnership with PAYGO companies
  6. Develop a PAYGO offer that is compliant under Islamic finance principles

The new partnerships will have to explore which tasks should sit in which organisation.  Both PAYGO and new digital finance enabled banks will both be software and data fluent, so potentially either could manage the platform that controls payments and equipment function.  The value of data generated by payments and by equipment needs to be allocated through negotiation.  Differences in initial scale and network need to be accommodated.  In summary a detailed and serious process of match making and partnership will need to be defined to marry separate but utterly complimentary activities and organisations.

But in the short term, banks and MFIs need to make the strategic leap and commit resources to this enormous market, and supporters need to encourage them.

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Scale versus Flexibility in New East African Financial Services

There’s a lot happening in East Africa Financial Services, and its interesting to see two different approaches at work.

Kenya is a hub of entrepreneurship.  Equipment distributors have given up waiting for the banks to engage in capital asset financing, so they are doing it themselves.  With limited funding and credit expertise they start small, and use technology and innovative business models to get started and get ahead.

In Ethiopia, there is a greater appreciation of how equipment financing can aid the economy.  The government has recently changed the laws to make leasing possible, and has immediately followed through to set up 5 regional companies to provide leasing up to $50, 000, while larger leasing from $50,000 to $15,000,000 will be done by an expanded Development Bank.  Using the pool of talent available in the banking sector, and in the context of a centrally planned economy, all 6 companies have been rapidly staffed up and now aim to fund up to $100,000,000 of new investments per year starting right now.

I am familiar with the companies in both countries.  Kenyan companies are constrained by a lack of capital and a shallow talent pool of credit and portfolio management expertise.  Their Ethiopian counterparts on the other hand, have allocated funds and technical expertise but are jumping into a market that has low awareness, poor connectivity.  They also deomstrate a distrust of entrepreneurship on any side of the leasing transaction.  So which will fare better?

Well over 100,000 new customers in Kenya have taken advantage of equipment financing products in the last 24 months.  This will certainly double before the end of 2016.  Looks impressive, and it is, even with the qualification that this is all small solar equipment.  In the same period Ethiopian leasing companies have funded less than 1000 albeit larger transactions.  The snapshot shows Kenya ahead at this early stage in a long perhaps endless journey.  This is not a race.  Both countries may well be in the same ‘place’ in 10 years time.

For what it’s worth my early assessments are that the Kenyan sector needs funding and credit expertise to maintain growth.  In Ethiopia they need technology and flexibility if they are to pick up speed and have a sustainable impact.  In my opinion, funding and technical expertise are easier adds than technology investment and cultural change.  So right now, Kenya is looking stronger than Ethiopia.

New financial services in East Africa is all about technology and revised credit strategies.  To date the SME and consumer sectors have been ignored as a core customer segment because credit assessment was unreliable, and because the cost of service on a transaction by transaction basis was too high.  My thesis throughout all these blogs is that technology is as always driving down costs, and that with the added element of big and real time data, new credit models are possible.

If I am right financial services companies that are built with reference to historic developed market banking models will not break through.  They will experience the same issues of high costs, and will struggle to approve deals and fund transactions.  The size of the organisation, and the amount of capital will not make any difference.  To prosper, the new nexus of software, data, connectivity must be first understood and then implemented in a flexible way.  Market conditions have always been challenging.  Trying to solve them with old models and without the benefit of new tools would seem likely to deliver no more than the past, missing out again the SMEs and real consumers of Africa.

So in the short term, flexibility and technology is ahead, while structure and funding lags far behind.  Of course the ideal is to combine both.

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Technology and Data Are the Way Forward in Developing Market Financial Services

Credit has been a slowly evolving mix of art and science. For most of the history of banking, loan officers have pored over historical information about you and your business, perhaps interviewed you and then used their experience to make the credit decision.

Science has sped them up, by giving them quicker access to things and doing the calculations for them. Credit scoring developed, which is basically someone elses rules and greater experience programmed and combined with statistical observations of what worked before, or what didn’t work.

But credit is also about things that have nothing to do with underwirting or science. How likely are you to keep paying when you encounter problems that were not apparent when you submitted the loan application, or when you become part of statistically predicted delinequency? Theses additional tools are social, legal, and the loss of other things you pledged and don’t want to give up.

All the above works fairly well where legal systems are trusted, and where contracts can be enforced. In fact it works so well that in developed markets the problem becomes banks over lending and depending more on the external things than on setting appropriate lending limits to their own business models. However in markets where the legal systems are weak; where people have no other collateral to support the requested credit and where historical information is absent, the financial service model has failed the majority of the population.

Micro-finance was a huge break through to wider financial service using the model of shared risk. If you could assemble or join a group and cross guarantee each others’ loans, lending became possible for those without a credit history. This worked well until multiple loans to the same groups from different banks eliminated the advantage of shared liability. 10 loans to 10 people may work if one fails. 20 loans to the same 10 people is less attractive, and so on as the loans grow. Multiple loans and the new risks they brought revealed that actually micro-finance in its initial incarnation was not banking at all, it was brokerage. Micro-finance banks using group lending processed the loans, did the administration and charged the interest. The borrowers carried the risk. So when multiple loans became unbearable, micro-finance, in Africa at least, resorted to the trusted methods described above…make sure you get separate collateral, and charge high interest rates. And by the way, stick to known customers and grow very very slowly.

Now data and technology are opening up new lending models. They are being pioneered by distribution companies because neither commercial banks or micro/finance institutions are alert to the changes.

At the heart of the new credit models is the triangulation of data, software and connectivity.
Data … where you are, how you spent your money the last 3 months, how are you using the equipment you acquired with the credit; is it working properly, have you used up your ‘airtime’ and should I shut it off , how are you comparing to your neighbours, how is the weather affecting this, and on and on and on.  Current data trumps old data.  Finally I can get at it, and I can keep it up to date.

Connectivity … Your equipment is used by you, but controlled by us together, until its paid. Gone are the days when you had 100% of the asset and I had 100% of the debt. Now using mobile channels we share ownership and control usage together real time.  This scares me less and makes me more likely to lend.

Technology … software collects the data and manages the real time interactions. The growing insights of data science are going much further than previously, and are using more and different, more recent and relevant inputs.

Data, connectivity and technology change the game.

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PAYGO Financing – Good, but not that Good

I benefit from the intense interest in Pay As You Go financing of solar equipment. Clients have paid me to explain, implement, assist, perform due diligences. I am also a huge fan of how this payment strategy is combining with mobile technology and data science to extend and scale credit financing of small solar equipment.

All the above is true. It is also true that I find myself talking about the same 8 companies – 8 small companies – to an ever widening pool of investors. I see the intense interest driving up valuations, and freeing up additional loan funding. Here is where my enthusiasm becomes more qualified. I have two fundamental concerns.

The first is a bit dry but feeds into the second. I have met less than 5 investors who seemed to deploy their full range of investment expertise and tools for their PAYGO targets. The most common weakness comes at the beginning and is a failure to understand how the companies can make, and perhaps more importantly can lose money. The situation is complicated by target companies which are distribution oriented in mindset but which are actually looking for backing for a very large potential financial services investment opportunity. All parties seem to focus on the sales growth and expansion and give much less attention to the portfolio of rentals, leases or loans, the quality of the credit assessment and the hard data on what is actually collected versus what is charged and recorded as a sale. The manifestation of this weakness is seen in inadequate valuation models, income profiles that are front loaded,  limited due diligence and an unwillingness to test the downsides.

Over enthusiastic investors chasing a limited pool of solar PAYGO debutantes leads to a bubble, which is my second concern. The bursting of bubbles is never fun. I will hate to see this one pop and feel us all take three steps back in our collective efforts to scale.

Solar energy may be a sector where a thousands flowers will germinate, but the vast vast majority will not bloom.   Finding and servicing millions of customers [potential market 100mm households just in Africa] is expensive, and complex.  Perhaps one or two of these start ups will make it through to the end game of off-grid utility sized enterprises in their own right.  Maybe too, another couple will be bought up by the sleeping giants of consumer electronics, or existing utility companies, or most likely, alert conglomerates.  And maybe these scenarios are worth a punt of someone else’s money.   My preference for the sector is to settle down for the long haul and find investors who will not be so quickly disappointed.

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What is PAYGO?

What is PAYGO?

Pay As You Go. Pay as you use. Bascially phone credit adapted for equipment. You pay and the equipment works for as as your credit lasts.

Why so interesting?

It allows suppliers and/or their banking partners to sell equipment on credit, which makes the equipment easier to afford for customers with daily rather than monthly cash budgets. While peopole in developed markers do not need more credit, those in growing economies do.  Their personal and small business cash budgets are tight. PAYGO means they can get access to equipment such as solar, computers, small transport without saving up a deposit first, offering collateral that they don’t have, or showing an established credit history in a system where they cannot get a foothold.

How to do it?

Well, its complicated and expensive. Basically if you are a distributor or manufacturer you need to learn financial services. If you’re a bank, you need to learn technology and distribution. Take a look at this and give me a call to explain

paygo

This image was first prepared by the author as part of an presentation for UNCDF CleanStart

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