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.