SolarNow is an energy enterprise in Uganda, and an Arc Finance partner under the USAID-funded Renewable Energy Microfinance & Microenterprise Program (REMMP). Established as a social enterprise in May 2011, SolarNow grew out of the Rural Energy Foundation, a Dutch NGO providing distribution and training support for the use of Solar Home Systems (SHS) with market experience across Africa. SolarNow uses asset finance to provide electricity to off-grid rural communities through modular, expandable SHSs, and distributes an increasing range of energy-efficient appliances through a network of franchises around the country.
If Product is King, Distribution is God
The challenges of distributing to so-called “last mile” customers in remote communities, particularly in Africa and Asia, are well understood, and various business models seek to address them. SolarNow’s distribution model includes independent franchises that facilitate sales and system installation. SolarNow oversees and supports these franchises through dedicated head office teams to ensure consistent quality across the network. Head office teams supervise sales, marketing, service and credit, provide ongoing support and training, and review and approve credit assessments.
The Merits and Drawbacks of a Franchise Model
A franchise model has distinct pros and cons. Advantages include speedy replication due to standardization; adaptability to local circumstances; quality assurance; reduced risk of branch dilution; likely alignment of incentives between franchisor and franchisee; and cost-effective setup and economies of scale. Disadvantages include a significant up-front investment; challenges in finding suitable entrepreneurs in low-income markets; difficulties encountered in monitoring franchisee activities in remote areas and low-income markets; and – for social-driven organizations – a potential risk of mission drift.
SolarNow’s model addresses these challenges and opportunities by training franchises to consistently install to standard, building strong customer relationships with high quality service support, and driving referral-led sales opportunities. Franchisees are selected for their local contacts and technical skills, as referrals from satisfied, local customers are a key sales driver in a market damaged by a history of poor quality and fraud. In addition, franchisees conduct initial credit assessments, which, if approved, are referred to the head office in Kampala.
Currently, SolarNow has 43 branded branches and authorized franchisees across Uganda with 64 forecast for the end of 2014, and will open its first branch in Tanzania in January 2015. Branches are distributed across the country and target higher-density rural communities.
Selecting the Right Person
As in any agent model, the skills and qualities of the franchisees are indispensable to the business. SolarNow’s sales and marketing team therefore recruits franchisees carefully, and targets the communities in which SolarNow’s current and potential branches are located. SolarNow thereby ensures candidates with knowledge of local networks, language and culture – all of which are important in building strong customer relationships. A premium is placed on particular criteria such as a franchisee’s communication skills, ability to invest time in building a long-term business, interest in working with rural communities, experience in developing customer relationships, commitment to client satisfaction and proven ability to run a business and lead a team.
Training and Professional Development
The creation of a franchise entails an assessment process that includes franchisee interviews with various team heads within the head office, followed by six weeks of training, both in the office and the field. This includes education on sales and marketing, service and logistics, credit processes and IT systems, followed by onsite training with existing franchisees to walk through everything they need to do in the field. Recruits are initially deployed as part of the central marketing team before being assigned a franchisee role.
The recruits who demonstrate the best potential for success are typically entrepreneurs with at least five years work experience. Most candidates have a Bachelor’s Degree and either a technical, microfinance or sales background, for example having worked for or with a bank, MFI, or another solar business, or as an account manager for a retail business.
Ongoing professional development allows new recruits to learn from others and keep up-to-date on products, marketing strategies, targets, customer service and special offers. Most franchisees attend at least four supplementary training sessions a year. Training needs are monitored by the sales and marketing, credit and finance or IT teams, and are led by head office team members. Ongoing coaching is also provided in the form of regular branch visits by the head office teams. Quarterly franchisee group meetings, which include all franchisees from across the country together with head office staff, include workshops and presentations from “star” franchisees sharing best practices.
Incentives for Franchisees
Any organization that uses agents or franchisees (as opposed to salaried employees) for sales has to think carefully about incentives and commission structures. If incentives are too low, there is insufficient motivation for sales and customer service; too high, and overly-aggressive sales/credit practices can be a risk – particularly in MFIs where loan officers can only make a decent living from commission on loans – and there is no dedicated credit team to make the final evaluation.
SolarNow’s asset finance-based affordability model puts an independent credit assessment team at the center of the organization, but takes advantage of the franchisee’s on-the-ground position and relationship with a potential client to provide initial income and asset information – along with the more subjective evaluation of whether the customer is going to be a “credit-worthy” one. Combining this centralized credit process with a commission structure for franchisees encourages franchisees’ natural entrepreneurship (for which they’re selected in the first place) and fosters healthy sales competition while mitigating bad credit decisions.
In SolarNow’s case, franchisees are compensated a commission of about ten percent on each sale. Reward schemes are periodically reviewed, as management feels it is important to adapt to changing circumstances and get regular feedback from franchisees. Current reward schemes include use of a branded truck, new marketing and premises assets, and increasing allowances for each sales target threshold achieved. Franchisees also maintain a security account with the company, accrued as a percentage of their earned commission, which provides collateral for fixed assets provided to them and any losses due to service or credit issues.
Naturally, incentives are based on carefully designed and achievable performance targets, including not just sales but portfolio management (proportion of on-time payments or delinquencies) and quality of installations and customer support.
Profile: A Star Franchisee
During the last quarter, SolarNow’s top performing franchisee was David Kiramiriki, from Kamuli branch. With 76 sales in three months, he won the first branded truck, and the management has recognized his “honest and reliable approach” and “strong commitment to customer satisfaction; a constant focus on understanding his customer’s needs and putting himself in their shoes to develop trust and strong relationships, maintaining consistently high quality in installation and service.” His success is such that he spends proportionately less time on general marketing, as his current clients have transpired to be his strongest promoters – doing some of his job for him, and illustrating the advantage that good customer relationships can have on a franchise’s and an organization’s bottom line.
A Day in the Life
Running a SolarNow franchise is a demanding job, which requires personnel with drive, imagination and stamina. The franchisees drive both the sales process and after-sales services to their customers – building strong customer relationships and positive brand awareness in their local communities. Each franchise has a catchment zone of potentially 40,000 off-grid households within a 50km radius. They also have responsibility for chasing delinquent payments, assisting with repossessions when relevant, as well as uploading (and monitoring) data to SolarNow’s Arc Finance-funded OpenERP Management Information System. A typical franchisee is up early and out in the field with their new and potential customers, performing site inspections and working with clients on their applications. Afternoons are spent working on installations, completing paperwork and uploading data to the system for head office review. Franchisees also typically spend around a quarter of their work time liaising with clients and the head office to deal with delinquent payments and credit issues.
A Franchisee’s Role in the Credit Process
Franchisees are the face of the business to the customer and are key to SolarNow’s success. They explain the contract and repayment process, gather information for initial credit assessments and follow up in cases of delinquency. They’re responsible for monitoring customer repayment performance and ensuring customers understand their obligations. But in cases of serious delinquencies or potential repossession, franchisees are supported on site by the head office credit team. Where necessary and appropriate, the security fund reserve for each franchisee provides coverage for 50% of credit losses.
When Franchisees Fail…
SolarNow’s franchisees have minimum performance targets to meet. Not all do so. Those who fail to follow procedures or fail to meet targets are let go. Some take the skills and experience they have acquired at SolarNow elsewhere – an ineradicable risk in any industry. Franchisee turnover (“churn”) is typically around 25 percent per year and mainly due to failure to meet performance targets.
Learning Lessons for the Future
Nobody achieves perfection the first time, and this is particularly true in remote rural areas of Africa, trying to introduce new products to a new and undeveloped market, while providing asset finance at the same time. It’s a complex and challenging task. For SolarNow, building the network of franchises has been a learning experience. It has meant discovering what customers are looking for, what doesn’t work and what motivates entrepreneurs. It has required a focus on being demand-driven.
SolarNow’s management team concedes there are things it might have done differently in retrospect. Initial targets to scale may have been optimistic, and didn’t allow for adaptation or tweaking of the basic model with a core group of branches before rapid expansion. Maintaining simplicity and standardization of the model took a while to achieve, and the importance of constant communication with franchisees and customers – including regular follow-up – has dramatically improved. Modification of its rewards and incentive schemes has meant a focus on short-term economic benefits while using a structure that fosters peer group motivation. And engaging franchisees in better understanding the performance of the business and having a say in significant organizational change decisions has improved performance and morale alike.
Finally, the credit process is the most difficult part of an enterprise providing products beyond the cash-only reach of customers. Getting the right balance of franchisee involvement in the credit process improves accountability and ownership without impairing the ability to grow strong customer relationships. Developing a process that builds trust and fosters collaboration with the franchisee network, finding the right people and training them with a long-term vision, incentivizing them to perform well, all while balancing the roles and responsibilities of the credit process is a complex challenge indeed. With its continued expansion and burgeoning reputation, SolarNow is showing that it is a challenge that can be met.