[Startup Interview] Wilhelmina Diop, Marketing Director, HelloSolar, Ethiopia
Wilhelmina Diop is investing her skills in Renewable Energy and Sustainable Development into providing rural communities in Ethiopia with affordable access to power, through the startup company, HelloSolar.
Could you introduce the company?
HelloSolar is the first operational distributor of Pay-as-you-Go solar home systems (SHS) in Ethiopia. We provide our clients with affordable, reliable and sustainable solar energy solutions, payable in small instalments, via mobile money. We propose a range of products with strict quality checks, from a simple solar lantern with charging capacity to more complex SHS systems with components such as televisions and fans. We also provide full circle customer support and warranty services. As a mission-driven organization, HelloSolar believes in energy as an enabler. Accelerating access to solar energy solutions, as well as mobile money services, will support access to digital connectivity, financial services and other social services for the Ethiopian off-grid population.
Where does HelloSolar operate?
The HelloSolar Headquarters are located in Addis Ababa but most our clients are dispersed in the rural areas of the Amhara and Somali regions. We also have some clients in Afar as well as Gambella, more recently. In the Somali region, HelloSolar works in cooperation with the local Somali Microfinance Institution (SMFI), in 5 different communities. The regional head office of HelloSolar is located in Jijiga, the regional capital. In the Amhara region, the regional head office is located in Dessie and HelloSolar is active in 4 communities.
We cater mainly to rural populations with no access to the grid. However, our client base is diverse given the wide range of communities we operate in. In the Somali region, our client base is mainly SMFI vetted individuals and HelloCash mobile money users. In the Amhara region, our client base is mainly farmers vetted through the local administrative authorities. We also have clients in communities around small towns where the grid is unreliable.
When was it founded, and by who?
HelloSolar is a very young company which started in 2018 as a pilot project initiated by WOS Founders (main shareholders of BelCash –HelloCash mobile money service provider), Shell foundation, USAID and DFID. The company started operations in 2019.
HelloCash is also the mobile money solution used by our customers and agents. One can thus understand the use of HelloSolar as our brand name, although the two companies are different legal entities.
How is the company funded?
We're financially backed by private investors (under the umbrella of PowerSolar, our investment vehicle into the Ethiopian market) and with grants of organizations such as Shell Foundation, USAID and DFID.
As a startup in Ethiopia, how does HelloSolar bring change to the Energy sector and confidence to its clients?
What makes HelloSolar special is first its customer centricity. As a young company we believe that the fastest way for us to expand is to keep a constant line of communication with the customers in order to understand their needs and expectations. We have a 100% female call centre available in 4 languages and each customer has an assigned agent. Our payment plans are easily and individually adjustable in case a customer falls short on their purchase power. Our marketing strategy also mainly revolves around customer and market education on efficient usage of solar technologies and mobile money services. HelloSolar is also a company run by a group of knowledgeable, dynamic and driven individuals who are familiar with the realities of Ethiopia and Africa in general. Our tight bond with HelloCash also allows us to leverage their agent body in order to extend our distribution network.
What has been the result of the introduction of your services to the market so far?
The need for affordable solar solutions is present and evident. With a population of 100 million people of which about 80% are in located in rural area, the market is sizeable and ready to accept these technologies. Little promotion was needed to maintain a steady stream of customers. Although in the areas where we operate, a great deal of prospective customers are not familiar with mobile money or solar technology, which is the reason why we focus on market education. Our current customers are regularly surveyed; the last survey reported 99% of our clients found that the product met their expectations. Our clients particularly appreciated the instalments payment model and the phone charging capability of the system. 75% of our clients plan on updating to larger systems and strongly suggested for us to start distributing solar systems intended for small businesses aside from SHSs.
What are the growth plans of HelloSolar?
Given the newness of the project, HelloSolar intends on focusing on Ethiopia for the next year. The idea is to use the wide and variable Ethiopian market to learn as much as possible on running a Pay-as-you-Go solar company. Operational and expanding Pay-as-you-Go solar companies have not demonstrated the most efficient business model yet and we are thus in a learning phase for this sector. We just came out of our pilot phase and demonstrated the potential for success of our model. Now HelloSolar intends on expanding to other regions of Ethiopia, namely Oromia; the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples region (SNNP), and Afar. By the end of 2020, HelloSolar aims at testing the market in other rural areas of countries in the Horn of Africa.
What does the company need to make these plans a reality?
First, our business model requires tremendous upfront funding given the SHSs we provide are paid on an instalment base over 1 - 2 years. Two other critical factors can be identified, namely policy changes and a dynamic agent body. Besides funding, the willingness of the government to allow such businesses to flourish will have a tremendous impact on the efficiency of our services. Given the multi-layered character of a Pay-as-you-Go solar company (payment collection, solar products distribution), a certain openness of the governmental agencies is needed for the smooth execution of such a model. We are lucky to see fast changes in Ethiopia where the public administration is increasingly cooperative and efficient in our sector. Last and most importantly, the agent body representing HelloSolar on the field must remain motivated, well informed and keep in mind the vision of the company, to be able to deliver the best customer experience. This, in my eyes, is the recipe for success.
Having started operations this year, what is the direction of the company for the rest of 2019?
HelloSolar intends on diversifying its array of proposed products and services. Through our innovation hub, we test new types of systems on the market, based on the current customer feedback. We are currently testing larger systems, intended for small businesses. HelloSolar is currently integrating clean cookstoves to the range of product proposed; the stoves are locally manufactured with local materials. We aim at distributing in 5 different regions by the end of the year, thus including the Oromia region. We are also currently developing partnerships with organisations such as JICA and TechnoServe. HelloSolar is also opening up an international payment platform where the international community can easily order and pay for HelloSolar services for their loved ones in Ethiopia, or sponsor SHSs for charity. Last but not least, we are in the process of opening our own assembly plant in Ethiopia which will render our distribution channels more efficient.
What is the latest news from Hello Solar?
We just came out of our pilot phase and successfully demonstrated the viability of the Pay-as-you-Go model in Ethiopia. We have also distributed our first systems in Gambella and we are happy to see a very positive response to our services. Finally, we received the queen Maxima of Holland in mid-May, in her role as the UN Secretary-General’s Special Advocate for Inclusive Finance for Development (UNSGSA).
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