ABIDJAN (Reuters) – Standing by a towering equatorial forest, Jean-Noel Kouame’s new breeze-block house may be beyond the reach of Ivory Coast’s power grid, but it’s perfectly located for solar power entrepreneurs. Buoyed by success in East Africa, off-grid solar power startups are pouring into West Africa, offering pay-as-you-go kits in a race to claim tens of millions of customers who lack reliable access to electricity.
At least 11 companies, including leading East African players such as Greenlight Planet, d.light, Off-Grid Electric (OGE), M-KOPE Solar, Fenix International, and BBOXX, have moved into the region. Most within the last two years. With a potential market worth billions of dollars, major European energy companies such as French utilities EDF and Engie are taking notice too.
“It’s important to be there now because the race has already started,” said Marianne Laigneau. She is the senior executive vice president of EDF’s international division.
Challenges of smaller companies
The main challenge facing smaller companies now is how to raise enough capital. This is to supply the expensive solar kits in return for small upfront payments from customers. Mobilizing funding for firms and also providing home solar systems is also part of the U.S. government’s Power Africa initiative. Major power generation projects have been slow to get off the ground so Power Africa. They partnered with startups such as OGE, M-KOPE, and d.light, among others, to accelerate off-grid access.
In Abidjan, Kouame doesn’t know when, or if, the national grid will reach the outer edge of the urban sprawl. But thanks to his new solar power panel kit he has indoor lighting, an electric fan, and a television. But it’s the light bulb hanging outside his front door that he values the most.
“At night we were scared to go outside,” the 31-year-old taxi driver said. As his pregnant wife watches a dubbed Brazilian soap opera. “Where there is light there is safety.”