#10YearsOfSolarImpact: Upya, enabling last-mile distributors to rapidly scale up with a flexible CRM solution

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A conversation with Gaetan Philippart, Head of Business Development at Upya Technologies

Gaetan Philippart

Upya is a London-based SaaS company with operations across sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. They have developed an innovative and low-cost CRM software designed to help distributors manage, streamline and scale their operations and manage their client relationships while keeping IT costs low.

It offers powerful in-app communication features and is highly flexible; handling cash or mobile money payments, PAYGo and debt management, upselling and automated client messaging. Their focus is on fast-growing businesses needing to further digitise, optimise and scale their sales operations. Ultimately, Upya’s mission is to support its partners manage and build impactful businesses.

How and when was the company created?

More than four years ago, we saw an opportunity within the East African Solar Home System (SHS) market. We talked to entrepreneurs and business owners and they shared how their businesses needed to continuously evolve and innovate, and that overall the last mile had a lot of uncertainties. And so for us the opportunity was clear: we needed to build from the beginning a really flexible platform that could adapt to the changing nature of Last-Mile Distribution. We needed to help small companies move away from Excel Sheets and bigger ones outsource an important part of their IT to properly manage their sales operations.

Some of our customers in fact wondered: do I buy or build?  Our goal is to provide both, you buy what is already there and together we build what is remaining, mainly working through your processes. To do that, we need to build very collaborative relationships with our customers, engaging with them constantly, remaining flexible, supporting them in their growth, and growing along with them.

Image: Upya

Which markets do you work in?

We operate in more than 20 countries in Africa and South Asia. We have a better understanding of who the current players are in Africa but in South Asia we have a cookstove partner for instance that is present in multiple markets.

Our customer base is mostly made up of last-mile distributors of pico lanterns, SHS and mini-grids, but not only. In fact we help distributors of any type of  asset:

  • Keep track of their stock, both upstream and downstream.
  • Create and manage their pricing terms, whether instalments, top-up etc.
  • Agents can use our field app to make a sale, online or offline. They can handle payments with mobile money and we also provide a cash reconciliation process.
  • They can track customers, onboard them while evaluating risk, and analyze their behaviour. There are dashboards to easily process all that data.
  • If they need carbon credit proof, which is something that is increasingly the case, Upya also enables them to achieve it.
  • Additional features are also available like tasks and tickets or commissions modules.

What do you think has been your impact within the energy access space?

We have a good reputation for helping companies grow. We work with entrepreneurs, build relationships with them, and understand their challenges and processes to help them find the right solutions. Their success is tied to our success, so we feel very closely tied to the energy access gains that are made thanks to our customers.

What are the difficulties you face in your operations? What about the distributors you work with? Do you know what their main challenges are?

We have struggled a bit more in the Asian market. We have noticed that some of our potential customers think they can develop a custom-made solution since the price of doing so is perceived to be very low. We think differently. So for now, we are reactive in that market but we want to become more proactive. We have strong positions in Eastern and Southern Africa, and in West Africa, we see Nigeria as having huge potential.

We work with all sizes of companies but we like to find promising startups with existing partnerships and financing that are ready to scale up. Size creates the need for CRM. If you are very small, you can manage with Excel. We can really help them go from 20 to 1000 customers in a very short span of time. For the bigger players, the need is different. We help them streamline their operations, which sometimes are very complex and need further optimisation. It takes a lot of calls and work, but the reward is considerable as it allows them to have more impact, faster.

Image: Upya. Precise dashboards for Last Mile Distributors to view their sales operations’ performance.

How long have you been a member of GOGLA? 

We joined GOGLA a few years ago. We have found the webinars super helpful, as well as the data offered, which is hard to find anywhere else. For example, the Sales & Impact Data report every six months is a treasure of information for us. I myself have not had a chance yet to join live events that GOGLA organizes, but I am definitely looking forward to that! My team has participated in a few and the feedback has been great.

How do you think GOGLA has supported you and the sector?

We don’t have a very good knowledge of the policy work that GOGLA does, but we think formalizing an industry so that each company has some support structure and is not on its own is crucial. Also,  creating awareness around the funding available is a huge plus to allow distributors to start, or scale, or continue to grow and have an impact.

Additionally, providing third-party objectiveness and parameters is very helpful to assess the activity of each company, for themselves and for other stakeholders.

What does the future look like for your company?

We will always be on the lookout for the next promising business and see how we can help it grow or scale. We also would like to better understand the Asian market and define what role we could play there. Finally, we are very interested in PAYGo Smartphones, how it affects the current distribution model in the space, and how we can drive that conversation.

Overall though, the future looks bright. We know our weakness is content marketing but our strong suit is our word of mouth. We have many customers coming on board, which is very exciting and an opportunity for us to continue to learn and improve as we hear about their models and needs. If our customers are not successful, we cannot be successful, so there’s no confusion around shared priorities.

Our long-term vision is to digitize the informal economy, and for us, having an impact in the community, and in underserved businesses is a must.

Image: Upya. A company can view at all times the GPS location of end-customers.

What would you like to see happen in the sector?

We would like to see African entrepreneurs become market leaders.

We would like to see more speed through standardisation. Mobile money for example is not yet standard across Africa. Instead of partial solutions, we would like to see game-changers being streamlined across the board, on the level of interchangeable open tokens for instance.

We are also aware of the need for more financing to speed everything up, especially for earlier-stage companies.

And I will also share what we don’t want to see: a competitive landscape that brings a price war around products being delivered where the people who need energy access are stuck with bad quality products that don’t last long and produce e-waste. Clearly, some of these challenges require policy solutions, to ensure a minimum quality standard for example. And circularity can be a business opportunity. It shouldn’t be a chore. The bottom line is that we cannot be solving one problem while creating another.

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