The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is ranked 184 out of 190 on the World Bank's ease of doing business index and 175 on ease of getting electricity. By comparison, Kenya, a favorite of the donor community when it comes to energy access, ranks 92 and 106 respectively. The World Bank recently credited Kenya $150 million to provide solar to under-served communities.
Meanwhile, countries like DRC and others perceived as higher risk, continue to see little if any support from donors and development banks when it comes to energy access, despite their frequent calls to "leave no one behind" in the race to deliver universal electricity access to 1 billion people by 2030.
But ease of doing business isn't the only indicator for entering a market, and while most of the low access countries are still largely ignored by institutional funders, a handful of enterprising private sector companies refuse to wait, and are blazing trails into new countries.
BBOXX, one such company and a leader in the pay-as-you-go ("paygo") model for solar leasing, recently entered the DRC, Pakistan (144 on the World Bank index) and Togo (154). In a recent conversation with Power for All, BBOXX co-founder and CEO Mansoor Hamayun explained his company's rationale for doing so.
"The nature of distributed energy makes us less reliant on who's in government," Hamayun said. "We are looking for three things: customers without electricity, access to mobile money and a good telecom signal."
"We've found that consumers in more difficult places are more willing to shift over to mobile money. There is often a lack of banking infrastructure, so that conversion becomes quite easy. Government rules are also quite relaxed and we are often providing the first experience of customer service of any kind to consumers, which is really exciting and gives us huge opportunities.”
The lack of electricity infrastructure (the DRC grid, when and where available, is often only able to provide 2-3 hours of power a day, with most consumers relying on diesel) also provides an opportunity for private companies to expand the paygo approach into bigger systems. For example, BBOXX is installing solar home systems (SHS) as small as 50W and mini-grids up to 10kW in DRC. The larger systems are grid-compatible if ever reached. Currency risk is also not an issue, since the US dollar is the currency used in DRC.
"We want to solve poverty, not just access, and to solve the problem, we need SHS, mini-grids and a digitalized grid system," Hamayun says, explaining the all-of-the-above approach. BBOXX is not only targeting rural communities either, but any consumers without reliable, quality access to power, including urban and peri-urban.
And despite challenges in Pakistan, the country has a functioning net-metering policy, which Hamayun calls the "magical answer" to rethinking decentralized solutions, because it enables companies to treat their systems as investments, not costs.
Pakistan's net-metering policy allows BBOXX to export excess power back into the grid. Rooftop permits allow 10kW and owners typically use only 1kW, so BBOXX can rent the roof, install a system, and share revenue from surplus power with the customer, while absorbing the feed-in tariff. The local utilities also welcome additional storage created by the rooftop systems.
"This flips the coin completely," Hamayun says, adding that BBOXX is already experimenting with the approach in Pakistan.
African countries have yet to put in place clear rules around storage and net-metering, which Hamayun identified as a barrier to further scale. "The grid and distributed energy are not far apart, it's just a question of metering," he says.