More from: rural electrification

SunFunder Announces Closing of US$2.5 Million Funding Round with Schneider Electric – Both Investors in Arc Partner Organizations

Solar finance startup SunFunder, an investor in Arc Finance partner SolarNow based in Uganda, has closed a US$2.5 million Series A funding round, a milestone for investment in off-grid, small-scale solar. Alongside support from Khosla Impact and Better Ventures, SunFunder secured funding from Schneider Electric, a major multinational player in energy products and key investor in Arc partner Simpa Networks, which manufacturers and distributes solar home systems with a proprietary metering system in Uttar Pradhesh, India.


Schneider’s involvement is a boon for SunFunder in particular and for small-scale energy finance in general. The role that both have played in working with Arc Finance partners makes this deal something Arc Finance is proud to highlight.

Based in San Francisco and Tanzania, SunFunder provides short-term working capital and project finance loans for solar home systems, microgrids and commercial solar projects in emerging markets. The company raises debt capital through the Solar Empowerment Fund, offering accredited investors a risk-reduced, fixed-income investment opportunity in diverse portfolios of high-impact solar loans across multiple countries and solar technologies. The company is creating a solar finance ecosystem that aims to catalyze billions in financing for solar beyond the grid.

Schneider’s partnership in this venture is a true watershed. An energy giant that has operations in 100 countries and annual sales of US$30 billion in 2013, Schneider has products ranging from circuit breakers to power plants, distributed solar products to AC and DC microgrids. Its involvement is a sign that small-scale solar is moving beyond a niche market and into a mainstream, global one. For Schneider, financing will unlock working capital in order to finance distribution of its wide range of products. Schneider is working on launching its new US$80 million energy access fund with bilateral agencies like the U.K.’s DFID and the EU’s EIB to help unlock capital.

SunFunder, which has provided US$425,000 to Ugandan Arc partner SolarNow (an Arc case study of which can be found HERE) plans to raise and deploy US$100 million in the next three years into solar projects around the world and to expand its capacity in local markets, starting with East Africa. The IEA estimates that the world requires US$44 billion of investment to expand electricity infrastructure to achieve universal energy access by 2030. Of that US$44 billion, it is estimated that US$26 billion will be put towards toward decentralized systems that have been largely powered by renewable energy, according to SunFunder.

SunFunder’s platform for attracting capital to the small-scale, off-grid sector includes the Solar Empowerment Fund (SEF) – a debt facility that issues Solar Notes to accredited and institutional investors, offering a rare opportunity to invest in a diversified, vetted, and high-impact portfolio of off-grid and grid-deficit solar projects with an attractive risk/return profile. In Sept 2013, SunFunder closed its first issuance of Solar Notes, raising US$250,000 from four investors.

In addition, SunFunder is continuing to fundraise from accredited and institutional investors and from its crowdfunding platform, in which non-accredited investors anywhere can invest as little as US$10 in any of the projects listed on (and is profiled in an Arc Finance briefing note on Crowdfunding, available HERE).

Once a project is fully funded, SunFunder facilitates low-cost financing to the solar partner to fund its implementation. As projects get repaid, investors earn their investment back (without interest, due to current regulatory limitations), which they can invest again or withdraw. SunFunder’s solar partners pay a modest interest rate on the financing that they receive, which is passed back to SunFunder’s investors as Impact Points, which can be reinvested into other projects. See Arc’s Briefing Note on Crowdfunding for a more detailed explanation of how this works.

Ryan Levinson, CEO of SunFunder, shares Arc’s view that access to reliable finance is the main barrier preventing solar energy providers from reaching scale and leapfrogging the grid in target markets. “In the last two years, SunFunder has established a solid track record and proven that the market is economically viable. This investment round will allow us to expand our capacity in local markets and substantially grow our loan portfolio,” he says. For more on Ryan’s thoughts, see Arc’s YouTube channel for a panel discussion video at Arc’s Innovations in Finance conference.

So far, SunFunder has financed more than US$1.7 million for solar projects, with 15 solar companies in six countries, and maintains a zero percent default rate, helping over 140,000 off-grid people in developing countries access affordable solar energy.

At Arc Finance, we’re proud to see SunFunder and Schneider, funders of two key Arc partner organizations, pass this key milestone. As this important and young sector attracts mainstream financing, it demonstrates to new investors that investing in renewable energy for off-grid customers is a sustainable commercial venture – and here to stay.

Solar Microgrids in Odisha: Arc Partner Mahashakti Foundation Electrifying Off-Grid Villages

Mahashakti Foundation (MSF) is one of Arc Finance’s partner organizations under the Renewable Energy Microfinance and Microenterprise Program (REMMP) funded by USAID. An NGO-MFI based in the Indian state of Odisha, MSF has, with Arc’s support, provided loans for efficient cookstoves and solar portable lighting under REMMP. In recent months, MSF has taken on a more ambitious program: connecting rural, off-grid villages to solar microgrids. Durmusi and Totaguda are two examples of how a partnership between the financial institution, investors, developers and the villages can connect households to reliable, clean and affordable lighting – providing significant and positive economic, social and environmental impact to these communities.


Durmusi village is situated in the Gopinathpur Gram Panchayat of Thuamul Rampur block of the Kalahandi district in Odisha. A largely tribal block, Thuamul Rampur is the poorest block in the district and lacks even the basic infrastructure of roads, water, communication and electricity. Illiteracy rates are high – 95% for men and 97% for women. Socio-economic and gender disparity rates are also among the highest in the country. Durmusi consists of 47 households, with 230 people. Most are small-scale farmers, people scavenging in the forest for produce to sell, and some daily wage workers. MSF is one of the few financial institutions or NGOs working in what is one of the least developed parts of India.

After promising results with sales on credit of efficient cookstoves and small-scale portable solar lighting, MSF with Arc’s support conducted a needs assessment of the area, concluding there was scope for installation of a solar microgrid. TERI New Delhi and Utkal Alumina Kashipnded supported the installation, and the microgrid is now operating in the center of Durmusi, with solar modular units allowing generation capacity to scale up easily to meet demand.

Demand has been considerable. Out of 47 households, 40 are connected through fixed wiring with two LED lights per house. Operation and maintenance costs are only INR 30 (USD $0.50) per month per household. Power is generated during the day, charging four battery banks, and consumed during the night. The whole system is controlled by a main switch, installed in one household – that of a designated Village Level Entrepreneur (VLE). The two LED lights were selected to provide superior lighting quality to kerosene – the previously dominant lighting source. A Users’ Committee has been formed, involving all active households, and a President and Secretary appointed to ensure smooth management of the grid.

When the grid was installed, the villagers requested that one grid node be used for a street light in the center of the village, which is the social focal point of Durmusi. This allowed villagers to meet in the evenings, and will enable them to celebrate local festivals all year round. As Sri Bagi Majhi, one of the village leaders, says: “The light brings our village together now.”

Totaguda is close to the block headquarter Kolanara, in Odisha’s Rayagada district, and includes 33 households with around 150 people. The Government of Odisha has launched a program called Biju Grama Jyoti, with the objective of supplying grid electricity to each household. However, Totaguda’s remoteness means there is no grid connection at all. Like the villagers in Durmusi, most residents depend upon income from agro-forestry, or have small plots of land, and rely on rainwater for irrigation. Infrastructure is virtually non-existent. There is no school, health center, nursing or veterinary facilities in the village. Totaguda villagers are entirely dependent on the villages of Khamasing and Kolnora for any medical, educational or other support. The only infrastructure or services of any kind is, again, MSF.

Totaguda was therefore a clear choice for a microgrid pilot project, because of the immense impact that regular, clean and inexpensive electricity would have on its residents. It was during a village borrowers’ meeting that one of MSF’s solar sales officers identified the issue of grid inaccessibility in the region, and raised the issue of switching Totaguda to a microgrid. Interest and enthusiasm only continued to increase after educational sessions informed the residents of the benefits and responsibilities involved.

After a needs assessment study by MSF, TERI New Delhi supported MSF with a CSR fund of from SBI in Mumbai. Out of 33 households, 32 are now connected to the microgrid, which is similar in design and capacity to the slightly larger one in Durmusi. As in Durmusi, there is a Villagers’ Committee, with a President and Secretary. A joint savings bank account has been opened in Mahashakti Primary cooperative in Rayagada in the name of the President and Secretary. The usage fees, (again, INR 30/month per household) are tied to previous monthly expenditure on kerosene.

Besides the intangible community benefits of having lighting at night, several villagers have expressed plans to use the after-dark lighting for income-generating activities, extending their potential working hours, as well as encouraging children who are in school to do homework after dark.

Roji Madangi, 29, is a typical Totagudan. As darkness falls, she scampers to wind up her daily evening chores. Like most other women in her village, she heads to her kitchen to prepare dinner long before dinnertime, because preparation and cleaning under the light of kerosene is almost impossible. Roji’s husband is a farmer and the sole breadwinner for the family, earning about INR 3,500 (US$56) per month, which isn’t enough to provide even two meals per day for everyone in the family. This is a typical story, but one which has dramatically changed since the installation of the microgrid. The microgrid lights the village for more than seven hours per night, meaning villagers can prepare food and eat after dark, spend less on kerosene, and work longer productive hours. At night, the women are now able to earn income for the household by stitching sal leaves together to form Kholi, a plate made out of leaves. Roji herself now earns more than INR 2,000 (US$33) per month – adding half again to her husband’s monthly household earnings.

“Before, we could not even imagine this freedom in our families,” she tells the Arc team. “Our rice production was barely enough to support us, yet now I feel more empowered because I contribute to the household by not only making food for us, but by earning too.” Roji adds, “I make 100 to 150 Kholi each day, which we sell at one rupee each, and we get enough money from our hard work to afford both plenty of food and to save.”

A village ward member, Sri Naria Mandangi, says that she has been encouraging her neighbors to start new income-generating activities and make use of the additional productive hours at night. With access to modern electricity, each household in this small settlement will have an inspirational story to share. At Arc Finance, we’re proud to see the results that our partner organization MSF is achieving, and look forward to sharing more of these stories in the months and years to come.

Innovative Consumer Finance Mechanisms for Small Scale Off-Grid Energy

Efforts to provide energy access on a commercial basis to rural populations in developing countries face a range of challenges, including access to finance. Off-grid customers from lower income communities currently pay a high price for purchasing kerosene for basic lighting services and switching to renewable energy based systems would not only save them fuel-costs but also improve their overall quality of life. However, the high upfront cost of the renewable energy based systems (handheld devices and stand-alone systems) restricts them from making this switch. This is identified as a major barrier by all stakeholders committed to the delivery of energy access solutions in a commercially viable manner and at scale. Over the past decade, microfinance institutions, supported by the international development community, have played an important role in providing direct consumer finance for purchase of handheld devices and single home solutions. In addition to microfinance, a number of other innovative end-user finance schemes have emerged in recent years. Building on the findings from USAID’s Renewable Energy Microfinance and Microenterprise Program (REMMP), and specifically the experience of Arc Finance, this 3 weeks long e-discussion featured and discussed a number of mechanisms for downstream end-user finance and their integration into innovative energy access business models including pay-as-you go technologies, crowd funding, microfinance, remittances, and asset finance. See summaries of the discussions and recordings of the webinar ►