The failure of many African governments to provide electricity from national grids has led to a boom in off-grid providers, especially those that provide solar home systems on a pay-as-you-go basis.
Across Kenya and Uganda, M-KOPA has sold over 1 million solar-home systems and recently hired an executive to ramp up operations in Nigeria. PEG Africa provides a similar service in Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire, Senegal, and Mali. Zola Electric, which announced that it has raised $90 million this week, operates in five countries including Nigeria, Tanzania, and Rwanda.
But to be sustainable, these companies must efficiently collect payments from consumers who are either low-income or residents in rural households. In Nigeria, arguably Africa’s largest market for alternative energy due to the 89 million people without electricity, one way to help companies achieve this efficiency is to take advantage of the infrastructure already enabling financial inclusion.
Using agent networks to sell solar home systems
Agent banking has extended financial services to Nigeria’s rural areas, thanks to portable point-of-sale machines that perform many banking functions. Based on the success of the model, Infibranches, a fintech company founded in 2019, started adapting agent networks to help providers of solar home systems reach more customers.
“We work with each of the service providers to achieve market fit by growing with them and establishing agents in locations they want to expand into,” Olusola Owoyemi, the company’s CEO, tells Quartz. In addition to regular cash-in cash-out transactions, these agents handle sales and payments collection on behalf of the service providers, and have served over a million customers, according to the company.
It’s best to target users who do not use generators either because of high upfront, fuel or maintenance costs. The company’s pilot program was to deploy agents to serve 23 solar home systems and mini-grid companies. To consolidate on the lessons of the pilot, Infibranches developed an API that providers can connect to, removing the need for multiple agreements or integrations with banks, and other payments providers, Owoyemi said.
Infibranches is currently focused on the Niger Delta area and wants to acquire more agents to increase the volume of products offered to final consumers. The ambition has received a $2 million investment from All On, an investment firm funded by Shell. Wiebe Boer, CEO of All On, said Infibranches “merges fintech and renewables in a way we haven’t seen in Nigeria before and will enable tens of thousands of new electricity connections.”
Will other fintech companies get on board?
The hope for thousands of new connections in Nigeria is based on the fact that only 25% of the rural population has access to electricity, lower than the sub-Saharan Africa average of 28%. It suggests an untapped market for mini-grid power companies, which consequently means potential for Infibranches to extend its technology.
We have a unique kind of relationship with the service providers within the energy sector in line with our commitment to taking energy and financial access to the last mile.
Nigerian fintech apps like Kuda, Carbon, and Fairmoney enable some form of utility bill payment already but will OPay, and TeamApt (the two largest agent banking companies in Nigeria) be intrigued to get into the renewable energy game?
Owoyemi says fintech expertise alone is not enough, citing a need for understanding issues within the renewable energy sector. “Our technology might look similar on the surface to the other players. However, we have a unique kind of relationship with the service providers within the energy sector in line with our commitment to taking energy and financial access to the last mile.”
Seeking out relationships is necessary for making a brand mainstream so that in itself will not be new to any fintech company interested in the challenge. Indeed, promoting low-cost solar energy use in rural areas could be one of the tangible objectives that gives financial inclusion real-world purpose, beyond a nebulous push to give more people bank accounts that they may not need.