The Buksh Foundation is a young, up-and-coming microfinance institution based in Lahore, Pakistan. In 2010, the organization piloted a clean energy loan program to help business clients better cope with Pakistan’s escalating electricity crisis. In this episode, CEO Fiza Farhan discusses the MFI’s vision of expanding energy access, and the diverse activities – including product design – that it engages in to realize it.
More from: microfinance
Financing Small Scale Off-Grid Clean Energy: Opportunities and Challenges for Arc’s REMMP Partners in India
Arc’s REMMP India Partners meet for a full day of strategy building and knowledge sharing in Delhi
Financing Small Scale Off-Grid Clean Energy: Opportunities and Challenges for Arc’s Partners, a workshop in Delhi, India organized by Arc Finance in conjunction with USAID, brought together microfinance institutions (MFIs), energy enterprises, a crowdfunding platform, and an MFI apex funder for a day-long strategy session.
How can MFIs best work with energy companies to bring renewable energy (and finance for it) to remote communities? How can these organizations make sense of the growing market of renewable energy products available? How can the sector access the long-term, low-cost debt required to reach scale in a working capital-intensive industry? And how can Arc Finance continue to help its partner organizations and other institutional friends to move from idea to business model to pilot to scale? These were among the questions discussed in a workshop round-table format with twenty CEOs and managers from Arc’s REMMP partner organizations in India (representing almost a dozen organizations across several states in India) and the Arc Finance team.
Funding challenges and opportunities were arguably the key issue of the day, with Arc partners FWWB and Milaap.org leading the discussion about the challenges of accessing low-cost and longer-term debt finance. Over the past several months, Arc Finance has been undertaking stakeholder research on debt finance needs by MFIs specifically for energy lending. The findings show strong demand and interest for an energy specific debt facility for MFIs, and this was reinforced by Arc’s partners at the Delhi Meeting. All present agreed that the market is ready for innovative new financing initiatives to scale the sector.
Results-driven business model experimentation was also a particular theme of the day. The partners discussed their experiences and lessons-learned from experimenting with different business models. The willingness to experiment and adapt when things aren’t working is a characteristic of successful organizations in any sector; energy finance is no different, as Utkarsh, WSDS, Mahashakti Foundation and Grameen Koota demonstrated when sharing their experiences.
The partners then took a deeper look at different sales models, which are central to any organization’s energy finance business model. Should an organization retain mobile agents such as Village Level Entrepreneurs (VLEs) to carry and demonstrate products to potential customers? If so, should the VLE’s offer informal credit to customers who cannot afford to buy in cash? How does the institution get the products into the hands of agents – through micro-consignment, for example? With whom lies the responsibility for timely after sales service in the case of a defective product?
Several of Arc’s partners in India and other countries are exploring these options, identifying and adapting the right model for energy lending. DCBS (a small MFI in West Bengal) and Simpa Networks (a developer of proprietary metering technology for solar home systems which now uses a direct sales model) have both shown innovations in sales models – particular through agents. And while anecdotes are not evidence, sometimes one deserves a moment’s spotlight: the son of a DCBS client who received a loan for a solar lantern recently placed 44th out of more than a million candidates nationwide in tertiary entrance exams, something he attributes in large part to being able to study in the evenings thanks to his solar lamp.
How to transition from “push” products (supply-led) to “pull” products (demand-driven) was a dominant theme as well. The primary market barrier for energy products is lack of trust – particularly when government initiatives in the past have introduced poor quality products, hindering their reputation and making energy programs all the more difficult down the track. But as so many stakeholders know, energy clients very often become repeat energy clients – who increasingly “pull” new products as their trust and energy needs and appetites grow.
The final session of the day was interactive and more open. The participants were asked to articulate their visions and dreams for the small-scale renewable energy finance sector in the years to come. Beyond sales targets, what do they want the future to look like? Arc’s wide range of partner organizations had various aspirations, from product expansion to unlocking new sources of financing. But one common thread was the recognition that this sector is not just about providing lighting to off-grid communities. Rather, it’s about understanding and supporting the so-called “energy ladder,” or “escalator.” Partners are committed to providing broad solutions to help clients climb this ladder while increasing household economic productivity along the way.
The willingness of Arc’s partners to share information so freely is clear evidence that they see themselves all heading in the same direction and that ending “energy poverty” is a shared goal. This partners’ meeting built upon an Arc-workshop held in Manila last October in conjunction with the Microcredit Summit, and there is strong enthusiasm for this group to morph into a de facto network. Arc Finance provides a range of services to stakeholders, from Technical Assistance (which includes product identification, marketing, human resources, business model and sales support) to loan guarantees, catalytic grant funding and training. But core to its mission is being a “conduit” of sorts, a hub to develop new partnerships in small-scale energy finance. To this end, this partners’ meeting in Delhi was an exciting platform that Arc Finance was proud to organize, and from which the Indian sector can continue to grow.
August 1, 2014, Delhi, India
This workshop, organized by Arc Finance in conjunction with USAID, brought together microfinance institutions (MFIs), energy enterprises, one crowdfunding platform, and apex organizations for a day-long strategy session. USAID’s Renewable Energy Microfinance and Microenterprise Program (REMMP), implemented and managed by Arc Finance, is designed to improve access to modern energy services in underserved communities. Arc Finance and USAID aim to demonstrate the commercial viability of consumer payment models (including microfinance, remittances and pay-as-you-go models); facilitating investment for clean energy financing; and improving the capacity of the private sector to finance clean energy.Read
The challenges around achieving these goals and strategic lessons learned by Arc’s India partner organizations made up the structure of “Financing Small Scale Off-Grid Clean Energy: Opportunities and Challenges” for Arc’s Partners. The workshop ended with a summary of important takeaways for REMMP partners to consider as they continue to scale their energy programs.
Yara Akkari of Arc Finance tells an expert audience how Indian crowdfunder and Arc partner Milaap.org is bringing new financial channels to small-scale renewable energy sector
Arc Finance’s Remittance Specialist and East Africa Manager Yara Akkari was in Paris on June 17th to speak on a crowdfunding panel at the CrowdTuesday event – a regular platform that brings together various stakeholders in the crowdfunding industry at the local and regional level. CrowdTuesday is run by the European Crowdfunding Network (ECN), and organized by Alex Raguet, ECN’s French Ambassador.Read
Presenting in a panel discussion entitled Crowdfunding as Financing Mechanisms for Clean Energy, Yara demonstrated to her high-level audience how tapping the “crowd” provides much-needed capital opportunities for MFIs that aim for social benefits – namely, clean water, clean energy, education and sanitation.
“Crowdfunding enables MFIs to tap into new sources of funding: it fills the gap for essential-service lending by using financial resources sourced from large numbers of lenders – a form of ‘unconventional lending,’” she said, and then put its role in the context of financial services to the poor as they stand. Microfinance Institutions (MFIs) – several of which Arc partners with – “can play an important role in the removing the barriers to affordability in adopting new sustainable energy products.”
However, she argued, “The Indian microfinance sector has been slow to embrace energy lending as a mainstream practice. While a number of factors contribute to this situation, lack of access to affordable capital from conventional sources of debt and investment is a significant one. Milaap’s crowdfunding platform was developed to close this gap.”
Milaap.org is one of Arc’s partners under the USAID-supported Renewable Energy Microfinance and Microenterprise Program (REMMP), the goal of which is to “increase access of underserved populations to clean energy products in order to improve livelihoods and quality of life among these target recipients while minimizing climate-damaging emissions.”
With the support of USAID, Arc Finance launched REMMP in 2012 to test a range of business models that are designed to increase financial access to clean energy for poor people around the world. REMMP partner organizations include FWWB-I (an “apex” microfinance organization); Bandhan (by some measures the world’s largest MFI); Basix-IGS (within which Arc is “greenfielding” an energy-lending enterprise); Simpa Networks, which is pioneering metering technology for solar home systems; SolarNow, which provides an innovative in-house credit facility for solar systems to rural farmers in Uganda; Sogexpress, a money transfer organization in Haiti that, with Arc’s support, is using remittance channels to enable the diaspora to remit clean energy technology; and Milaap – a crowdfunding platform with a focus on using MFIs as a means to help people get clean energy products for their homes and businesses.
Crowdfunders that partner with MFIs to lend to microentrepreneurs are not new. Kiva.org was the first to reach scale doing this, and has lent over US$500 million dollars since 2005. Milaap is newer and much smaller, but is differentiated in its specific focus on water, energy, and education. Put another way, and as Milaap’s founders have put it at various Arc Finance events, microfinance is “a means to an end, not an end in itself.” Lenders coming to the platform are not lending to small businesses; they’re lending to help people access clean water, energy or education, and the livelihood and income development that comes with each.
Milaap (“connecting people” in Hindi and Urdu) was initiated in June 2010 by three young MBA graduate entrepreneurs who wanted to change people’s concept of giving by making it a personal, transparent and sustainable process. The end-borrowers on this platform are the deserving, working poor of India – students, small businesses, families – for whom a small amount of capital will significantly change their lives for the better.
One hundred percent of a lender’s funds go to the end-borrower for energy, water, sanitation or education purposes. Milaap charges its field partners a 5 percent fee on the funds raised, which currently covers a fraction of Milaap’s costs while it works towards achieving financial self-sufficiency. The shortfall until it reaches scale and when the fee is enough to break even is covered by investment from individual and institutional investors and donors.
It’s been a rapid learning curve, said Yara. By mid-2014, Milaap has raised and channeled nearly over US$1.5 million into a diverse portfolio of nearly 10,000 loans, impacting the lives of 50,000 people, while maintaining a 100 percent repayment rate from field partners. Funds are raised from an increasingly global crowd of lenders and disbursed to borrowers across ten Indian states through a network of 15 different current field partners. The company’s energy portfolio continues to advance through its active partnerships with three Arc-partnered MFIs based, respectively, in the states of Orissa, West Bengal and Manipur. Due to the comparatively small size of loans for clean energy products such as solar portable lanterns and improved cook stoves, energy represents only ten percent of Milaap’s total portfolio – but is increasing.
After taking the audience through the Milaap.org website, the loan-disbursal and repayment cycle (see figure), selected client profiles, and the filters that lenders can apply to direct their loans to specific regions, sectors or purposes, Yara gave a short profile of DCBS – a small MFI in Eastern India which is a sub-partner of Arc Finance under REMMP, and a beneficiary of Milaap’s crowdfunders.
DCBS is a small, community-based MFI that operates in 200 village communities in West Bengal. It has an active client base of 8,000 women borrowers. In December 2012, DCBS began promoting a new solar lantern loan product to existing clients (through a line of credit provided by Milaap, funded by the crowd), which is now expanding to non-clients.
As of mid-2014, DCBS’ solar lending program has a 100 percent repayment rate, has seen rapid portfolio growth and high penetration in the target communities, a consistent validation of this type of energy-lending as sustainable and commercially attractive, and early but positive social impact results. Other MFIs supported by Milaap and Arc Finance are also providing finance for a range of products, from clean cookstoves to multi-light and multi-appliance solar home systems.
Not everything has worked perfectly, of course. As Yara told the audience, there is always an element of trial and error in piloting new and innovative channels in order to demonstrate the commercial viability of a model for scale. Learning lessons along the way is important, and inevitable. Not all MFI partners have had the same success. Due diligence conducted by the crowdfunding platform to determine the capability (and, crucially, the dedication) of the MFI to introduce energy lending, is paramount. Finding the right field MFI partner is a necessary criterion for success.
What’s more, just providing MFI clients with access to credit for energy products isn’t enough either. Providing marketing support, client education, after-sales service, quality and appropriate products that are demand-driven, efficient “last mile” distribution, and appropriate pricing and financing options are all crucial. It is the role of the crowdfunder to assess – and where appropriate, assist – with these variables for success. It is this type of specialized technical assistance that Arc Finance has been providing to DCBS and other Milaap partners under REMMP.
Finally, Arc’s experience has been that training and awareness-raising are crucial elements which should be included as part of the clean energy program. Whether funding comes from donors, funds or in small increments from a crowdfunding platform like Milaap, and whatever the business and distribution model the MFI uses, a highly-engaged and informed staff, capable of talking to clients about their energy usage, costs and needs, is indispensable.
Yara finished with Q&A from the audience (which was particularly interested in product selection and warrantee challenges in remote communities). Arc looks forward to being invited back to further ECN events as it works with crowdfunding platforms to fill the working capital “gap” in pioneering small-scale, clean-energy finance.
Niki Armacost discusses Financing Solutions for Clean Energy in Latin America at the Americas Society/Council of the America’s 7th Microfinance Panel in New York City, January 30, 2014. She is joined by panelists Gregory Watson, Head, Strategic Planning and Team Leader, Clean Energy, Multilateral Investment Fund, Inter-American Development Bank and Amy Wang, Investment Officer, Global Social Investment Funds, Deutsche Bank Trust Company Americas. Moderated by Christian Gómez, Jr., Director of Energy, Council of the Americas.
Arc/REMMP’s five-branch energy finance pilot program begins in Uttar Pradesh
As one of India’s most successful and dynamic microfinance institutions (MFIs), Utkarsh is one of Arc’s most exciting partner organizations under its USAID-funded Renewable Energy Microfinance and Microenterprise Program (REMMP). The partnership offers a fantastic opportunity to “piggyback” Utkarsh’s nascent energy lending program on top of its underlying vigorous growth. Following a multi-month process, Arc Finance’s pilot program with Utkarsh has just begun renewable energy finance operations in Uttar Pradesh.
WSDS and Arc Finance: Financing and Disbursing Renewable Energy Technology to Remote Communities in Manipur
The Weaker Section Development Society (WSDS) is one of seven microfinance institutions (MFIs) that Arc Finance currently assists under its USAID-funded Renewable Energy Microfinance and Microenterprise Program (REMMP). A small but fast-growing, community-based MFI, WSDS operates in the central and southern districts of India’s northeastern state of Manipur and has recently begun finance and disbursals of solar home system components to underserved communities.
This day-long, pre-event workshop, held in conjunction with the 2013 Microcredit Summit in Manila, was organized by Arc Finance and brought together high-level representatives from MFIs, energy enterprises, government entities and donors to engage MFIs on financing renewable energy. This video series was made possible with generous support from USAID.
INENSUS is a young, off-grid energy company based in Germany that develops solar/wind-hybrid microgrids for developing countries’ remote rural regions. The company’s “Micro-Power Economy” model, currently being employed in Senegal, centers on supporting both income-generating as well as household energy activities to truly catalyze local village economies.
Arc Finance recently caught up with Jakob Schmidt-Reindahl, managing director of INENSUS’ Senegal operations, to discuss the company’s clients, pre-payment approach, and role that microfinance plays in helping to realize the micro-energy economy.
Fenix International is a Silicon Valley based renewable energy company that designs and manufactures income generating energy solutions for mobile telecoms in emerging markets. The company has developed the ReadySet, a plug-and-play smart battery that charges by solar panels or bicycle dynamo to power mobile phones, lights, and many devices powered by USB or Car Lighter Adapters. The ReadySet is sold by MTN, Africa’s largest mobile phone company, through its network of retail outlets in Uganda. The end customers are micro entrepreneurs who use the ReadySet to make additional income from charging phones in off-grid rural areas.
In a conversation with Arc Finance, Brian Warchawsky (Chief Operating Officer) and Peter Glenn (Business Development and Sales Manager) explain how Fenix combines its core skills to ensure that its products work not only for the customer, but for the whole chain from manufacturing, to distribution and financing.
Since its founding in 1984, the Negros Women for Tomorrow Foundation (NWTF) has explored a range of ways to live up to its mission of helping poor Filipino women achieve self-sufficiency and self-reliance. NWTF offers an impressive array of products, including micro-loans to assist micro-entrepreneurs, insurance and student loans, and continues to look for innovative products and services to meet the needs of its clients and grow the organization.
Arc Finance talks with Raymond Serios, Director of Research at NWFT, about how the MFI embraced energy lending as a way to expand its mission and find new ways to grow and attract customers. In 2009, Arc Finance helped the organization launch its energy loan portfolio, and since that time the program has changed in a number of ways as NWTF has learned more about client demands, and as energy products have continued to diversify and evolve. In this extract from a wide-ranging interview, Raymond reveals how NWTF’s business strategy and operational approach to energy has transformed over time, moving from a narrow focus on consumer credit to a model in which members are trained and financed as energy product sales agents.
Making Energy Microfinance Work in the Philippines — a Conversation with Raymond Serios, Special Projects Manager at NWTF
The Negros Women for Tomorrow Foundation (NWTF) is a one of the Philippines’ oldest and largest microfinance institutions, serving nearly 140,000 clients across the nation’s central island region. Among institutional practitioners of energy microfinance NWTF is notable for its inventive, trial-and-error approach to problem-solving and program development, and its patient, long-term commitment to building a strong, high impact and commercially sustainable model. In this episode, Raymond Serios provides a nuts and bolts account of how the MFI draws on experimentation, client feedback and a close study of the evolving clean energy market to adapt and build its successful energy lending program.
CGAP. Read article.
An Inside Perspective on Change and Evolution In the Micro Solar Sector: A Conversation with Ned Tozun, d.light Design
Product R&D and design, high volume manufacturing, global distribution, sales and marketing – this is the range of one of the world’s best known micro solar companies, d.light. Since 2006, the company has been developing and distributing high-quality, solar portable lighting products to low-income, off-grid customers worldwide. Ned Tozun, d.light’s President and Co-Founder, recently took some time to speak with Arc Finance about the company’s growth, its approach to distribution and marketing, and the role he sees for microfinance in making improved energy affordable for d.light’s target customers.
Asia Society. Watch video.
Link TV: Television Without Borders. Watch video.
GVEP International. Read article.
Asia Society. Read article.