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A Conversation with Solaris Offgrid’s Co-Founders

PaygOps Co-Founders interview


“If we were to disappear 10 years from now, what would the world have lost?” 


That is the question that Siten Mandalia, Thibault Lesueur and Benjamin David posed themselves when they embarked on the inspiring mission that, over the years, would transform into Solaris Offgrid; and a testament to their dedication to creating technology that can improve the livelihoods of the world’s most underserved. As the company reaches the 10-year mark, we look back at its history, aiming to grasp what they have achieved so far and what they aim to reach to keep fulfilling the mission of delivering life-changing technology to the Next Billion.


In its early days (2014), the organisation was a "last-mile operator designing integrated solutions for a greater access to solar energy". Helped by a staff of around 100 people, they manufactured and distributed a modular, scalable solar charge controller to serve the growing needs of thousands of households in rural areas of Tanzania. But they understood that many families were going to extreme lengths to afford the solar solution, so they eventually integrated a Pay-as-you-go (Paygo) dimension into their product and began prototyping a software platform designed for distribution partners to leverage CRM features tailored to the specifics of the still-evolving business model.


“When we started, we were still exploring and learning about where we could make the most impact across the value chain, and while we attempted to excel across it all, we later honed in on our strengths, which were in bringing efficiency in operations through B2B technology solutions, says Siten, co-founder and CEO.


Working “on the field, for the field” alongside last-mile distributors and interacting with end users, the entrepreneurs quickly realised the strong nexus between solar energy, water, agriculture and other essential sectors, witnessing firsthand that more than 80% of the people they provided clean energy with, for example, would rely on subsistence farming to repay their solar home system plans, while also looking for affordable clean cooking solutions, and so on.



Internalising this reality, Thibault, co-founder and CCO, explains that “we decided to expand our focus and, thus, adopted a more comprehensive approach towards supporting companies at the last mile beyond solar energy, this way also considering needs around clean cooking, water access, agriculture, e-mobility, etc, with equal dedication, given that what all these industries would have in common is to impact the very same individual striving for a greater livelihood.” 


From intending to help the people around the world who lack access to energy (~1.2bn in 2014 / ~700m as of 2022), they traced themselves an even more ambitious path: unlocking access to essential services for the 1.7 billion unbanked through innovative financing solutions. 


“What has always stayed consistent, and always will, is our focus on increasing access to essential products and services to the underserved, and significantly impact the lives of those given access and help reduce poverty”, states Benjamin, co-founder and CTO.


Over the course of a decade, Solaris Offgrid has assembled and evolved the comprehensive ecosystem that the co-founders once envisioned, serving the industry today with PaygOps, our flagship last-mile management software; OpenPAYGO Suite, the ever-growing stack of free and open-source tools to enable Paygo; and Bridgin, the groundbreaking financial aggregation solution meant to help close the financing gap in Sub-Saharan Africa. In doing so, Solaris Offgrid is already reaching 4.8 million people with improved technology across essential sectors, working closely with more than 100 last-mile operators and over 40 manufacturing brands in 39 countries.


Did you ever imagine that by year 10 the company would be where it is now? What advice would you give your 2014 selves?


Benjamin: Regardless of the specifics of how we got here, the overall impact of what we have left on the world as a company is very close to what we imagined back then, as we are indeed helping millions of people to access financial services toward satisfying essential needs, as we initially envisioned. The main advice I would give my 2014 self is to stay focused on the mission and on the most impactful work that we can do, spending less time on side tasks that can be distracting from the final goal. 


Siten: Although we are indeed very close to what we initially envisioned, which is impacting millions of people, it still feels unbelievable that we now serve organisations that were among our inspirations when we started. I would advise our 2014 selves to not try to build everything ourselves, work with partners and focus on our strengths. Then to test and iterate the product quickly towards solutions.


Thibault: All we’ve done is just the means to an end: generate greater social impact. Thus, I would advise our 2014 selves to adopt a greater outlook sooner given how much social impact can also be attained through other essential services than exclusively through solar energy, while contributing to be even more relevant on energy-related issues through benchmarking a greater number of interconnected sectors at once.



Biggest Achievements & Challenges


There have been many pivotal moments throughout the history of the company, but a couple of them hold special significance for the co-founders, given how much these instances helped shape the company and provide clients and partners with a relevant value proposition. 


“When we launched Solaris Offgrid in 2014 and hired our first colleagues to support households and farmers in rural Tanzania, all those years working at the last mile made us aware of the challenges around digitalisation and financing, which remain the main barriers when providing essential services to the most underserved in other parts of the world”, explains Thibault.


In 2019, Solaris Offgrid developed OpenPAYGO™ Token (funded by Enaccess), the free and open-source token generation system, pioneering interoperability among software platforms that incorporate Paygo functionalities. Benjamin remembers that “opening up the sector with true hardware-software interoperability and, therefore, removing most of the pain points many last-mile distributors used to experience when trying to work with third-party digital tools to scale up their impact, was a very exciting moment”. OpenPAYGO™ Token is now widely adopted by manufacturers in the industry, helping them reduce costs and bring innovations faster to the Bottom of the Pyramid (BoP). 


And then, of course, there are key milestones. “Reaching the first million (people impacted) was definitely one of our proudest achievements, as it took us a long time to get to, but was a clear statement that our solution was scalable and valuable for stakeholders. Now we’re impacting almost 5 million people, which is a massive milestone made possible by the amazing mission-driven team we are today. The biggest challenge now is keeping the pace of growth that we've been used to these past years without compromising on any of the underlying positive impact outcomes”, Siten adds.




PaygOps is now playing an important role in supporting notable agritech distributors with powerful features tailored to the sector. Two years after starting serving this sector, what’s been the outcome/impact?


Thibault: Each and every industry is exposed to specific challenges calling for specific designs. Working with agri practitioners helped us improve PaygOps towards unique credit scoring approaches, surface mapping challenges (identifying size and localisation of specific crops) for better and more precise Know Your Customer (KYC) practices, or development of our upcoming offtaking functionalities. And of course, when done in numbers, scaling challenges arise and with it digital/IT opportunities for PaygOps to prove its value.


What can we expect in terms of entering “new” markets, such as Microfinance, Clean Cooking, Transportation, etc? 


Thibault:  While the ultimate clients of such markets share common traits, there are naturally strong differences when dealing with financial products (provided by MFIs), vehicle leases, stove repayments alongside retail stove pellets transactions or fertilisers’ last-mile logistics. The strength of PaygOps is our demonstrated expertise in developing last-mile digital solutions toward greater access to essential services to the BoP, but it is also to listen, learn and code toward ensuring the required flexibility and editability of PaygOps features to ensure the true scalable potential of a last-mile distributor within different segments such as Agriculture, Microfinance or Clean Cooking, for instance. All of this is supported by our dedicated Business Support Services, which, for instance, enables companies to further customise PaygOps and integrate it with hundreds of third-party tools in order to automate critical processes across the value chain (we invite you to read this case study to learn more).


By late 2021, you presented 3 fintech initiatives to resolve the bottleneck in last-mile financing across Sub-Saharan Africa. How are these initiatives progressing? 


Siten: There has been significant progress made under each initiative, and we aim at more! Not only did we demonstrate the scalability of our receivables purchase platform, Bridgin, but now we can provide standardised Paygo data for investors to allow for easier analysis and comparison of portfolios. And we've enabled a mechanism of credit data to be collected through PaygOps. A key learning has been that while it makes sense to focus on our area of expertise, B2B technology, we do therefore rely on investor partners working in a nascent space which takes time to progress on. 


What can we expect from PaygOps in 2024?

 

Thibault: This will undoubtedly be an exciting year for PaygOps. The platform will be broken down into micro services, such as on a per-feature basis (i.e. only using last-mile inventory features, or only the token exchange capability for electronic products) to be better incorporated into applications’ network or proprietary solutions that may require only one or two fractions of PaygOps but not the complete solution. And, at the same time, we will have special preconfigured PaygOps instances for Agriculture, Clean Cooking, or Microfinance services, etc, which eventually makes it easier to serve a greater diversity of industries in the most convenient and comprehensive way.


What can we expect from Bridgin?


Siten: This year, we will be in a position to demonstrate real value facilitating financing, providing  the Bridgin platform that will ease communication between distributors and investors, reduce due diligence costs and allow benchmarking. Finally, we will be providing back up servicing related services that can unlock millions of USD of capital for the sector. To progress with off balance sheet receivables financing, we've understood the key bottleneck to be the lack of back-up servicing, and we've been developing solutions to this as an additional initiative (learn more here).


What can we expect from OpenPAYGO™ Suite?


Benjamin: We’re currently progressing on OpenPAYGO™ Pass, the new tool we’re developing alongside EnAccess to simplify the Paygo activation process in areas of low connectivity. A working version of the mobile app is already available on Github and the hardware should be ready by February 2024 for the final release. Moving forward, we will continue to build on the OpenPAYGO™ Suite, looking for ways to further optimise the retrieval and transmission of Paygo usage data across different routes, without necessarily relying on an internet connection, while ensuring interoperability with the other technologies in the ecosystem, to further help businesses reduce costs and adopt Paygo easily.  


So, If Solaris Offgrid were to disappear 10 years from now, what would the world have lost? 


Siten: Over the next 10 years, Solaris Offgrid has the ability to positively impact hundreds of millions through technology that has already proven to reduce cost, time and increase the effectiveness of the organisations we work with. If our company were to disappear, the world would be losing the chance for such organisations to accelerate their impact and reach the hardest to reach (communities) faster.



🟠 If you want to learn more about PaygOps flexible features go to our dedicated page, visit our blog, or reach out to us so you can get a demo.


🟠 If you are an investor, a distributor, or a development partner wanting to discover more about our receivables purchase platform, Bridgin, click here.


🟠 Download for free the OpenPAYGO Suite tools and stay up to date with our latest open-source developments here.


 

About PaygOps: Solaris Offgrid’s flagship fintech software, PaygOps, enables credit to be provided to the bottom of the pyramid for essential products like solar home systems, agri-inputs, water pumps. The end customers pay incrementally via mobile money under a PAYGO model. PaygOps provides the software infrastructure to manage the contracts, payments and related communication for the local retailers of such products. Our affordable modular and interoperable solution connects energy and payment methods (Pay-as-you-go, mobile money) to a suite of enterprise applications that allows the smooth management of lease financing and field operations, while providing key financial data and metrics to investors.



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