4 things the off-grid solar industry has taught me

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After six super enriching and rewarding years at GOGLA, I am moving on to join the World Bank’s Lighting Global team. Before heading out, the GOGLA team has asked me to share some reflections about the journey so far. So much has happened, and the space has evolved so quickly that I felt it was an impossible task to fully capture it all. But there are a number of key lessons I was taught by this sector which have shaped my view on the world. Maybe you can relate?

1. Friendly competition is an endless pool of inspiration.

The sector wants nothing short of a solar off-grid revolution: electrify every household and bring economic and social opportunities to every person. Ultimately, companies mainly compete over finding the best way to do this in the fastest way possible. Without a blueprint and no absolute experts, we are all hungry to learn as we are figuring things out on the go.   As a result, the sector attracts people that want to learn, want to be inspired by others, and share the same goal. Working in such a space is incredibly energizing. GOGLA events always felt like family gatherings of like-minded people to me. Naturally, competition over customers will increase as markets mature. But new technology developments will also unleash a myriad of new partnership opportunities. The fact that we are all working towards the same goal makes me confident this space will always remain one where we seek to inspire one another.

Image: Jeff M. Walcott

2. The solar off-grid revolution is contagious.

This industry has a lot of drive; on the flip side, it means we sometimes lack patience. We want everyone to join forces with the industry now: governments, local banks, big commercial investors. I learned after only a few weeks at GOGLA that this sector is fascinating to a degree that once you are in it or close to it, you are simply blown away. Once you are aware of it, turning your back on it or ignoring it seems impossible. The space has attracted numerous new players in the last years, including development partners, DFIs, various investors, and large corporates at a high speed. Increasingly governments join in as well. It feels like it is only a question of time until some more stubborn players such as local banks and commercial investors are infected with the off-grid solar fever as well. If you keep up the good work, support from these more skeptical players seems almost inevitable.

3. Keeping it real, pays off.

A common prejudice about start-ups is they often take the ‘fake it till you make it’ approach. Over the last years, I only found that very few off-grid solar companies have such an attitude. And as the industry’s association, GOGLA has always been transparent about market successes and weaknesses. This also includes management of expectations in a period when the industry was producing thousands of great news stories. The industry is unique, but it is not made up of superheroes. Growing pains are normal. Working in developing markets is incredibly hard. Yes, the latest company restructures and news around insolvency has sent some jitters through the space. But by keeping it real, the industry has gained the trust of investors and development partners over the years and not lost it. Being honest and transparent pays off. We should continue to be open about successes and challenges – also during a shakeout period.

4. Reaching the last mile is a team effort.

I must admit that when starting with GOGLA, I underestimated how difficult it would be to reach the last mile and serve all households. Technological and business innovation have helped push the boundaries of the market again and again. It has expanded in a way in which many did not expect. But there are simply areas where it is extremely difficult for companies to operate in a commercially viable way: if customers are too remote, don’t have the ability to pay, or maybe most challenging, live in regions that lack safety, it becomes incredibly hard for any business. Still, the private sector has a role to play here. We need to find a way to make products accessible in every corner of the world. New partnerships with governments and development partners to develop market enhancing and smart subsidies are needed to get this done. I am very happy to work on this exact topic in my next role with the World Bank, where I will do my best to work closely with public and private stakeholders to push the solar off-grid revolution into even the most difficult to reach areas of Africa and South Asia.

I am very much looking forward to interacting with you all within my new role and am honored to continue to be a part of this revolution. So, let’s stay in touch! My new email is johanna.energyaccess@gmail.com – please feel free to reach out.

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