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Altech is shining solar lanterns on Congo — With innovative an affordability model, it's not alone

worker in construction hat shows customer the device
Image Credit: Altech

In 2013, Washikala Malango founded Altech Group, in Baraka, a city in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. There, Malango had the ambitious goal of eradicating energy poverty in the DRC by 2030, and so he and a childhood friend-turned-cofounder, Iongwa Mashangao, started a business selling solar-powered lanterns: pay-as-you-go solar power lamps that could be used across homes, schools, businesses, and hospitals.

They started at these locations, as teachers, doctors, and nurses all have reliable paychecks in the Congo, and a small deduction from their salaries meant light to treat patients and teach students.

However, Congo is one of the most impoverished countries in the world, with many people living on less than $2.15 per day, and 90% lacking access to electricity. coupled with the fact that cell phones were rising in accessibility in Africa at the time, allowing people to pay for necessary amounts of energy through mobile methods, Malango had the idea to allow people to pay using mobile platforms.

"I know firsthand what it is like to live without light and power. When I was a kid we lived in a poor rural house and my parents often had no money for kerosene," Malango says via the company's website. "These experiences are the source of my motivation to help improve daily life in Congo."

As children, Malango and Mashangao were forced to flee their home of Baraka due to the Congolese civil war, and grew up together in a Tanzania refugee camp, but came back after furthering their educations with a bright goal.

Now, Altech is a leader in pay-as-you-go solar. As Bloomberg Green reports, the company more operating in 23 of Congo’s 26 provinces, with 3,500 agents making a total of more than 10,000 sales a month.

It was able to grow six-fold in two years between 2020 and 2022, following its introduction of larger solar systems, allowing customers to power a range of appliances from televisions to refrigerators off the grid. It now also distributes Jikokoa Xtra Clean Cookstove, a safer, cleaner, and more affordable alternative to clay stoves, tackling another energy issue in the DRC.

“Since our humble beginning in 2013 in our off-grid city of Baraka in South-Kivu province in the Eastern part of the DRC, we have faced the severe challenge of obtaining working capital financing in our efforts to connect off-grid households in the rural, peri-urban, and urban areas of our country,” Malango said via Disrupt Africa following the company’s April $18 million financing round.

The support from investors, Malango said, “is one of the main pillars for Altech to provide affordable clean energy to thousands of Congolese off-grid households to modern, clean, reliable, and affordable solar solutions while creating thousands of green jobs for Congolese youth.”

The fund was backed by the Shell Foundation and the Dutch development bank FMO, and as Bloomberg reports, Altech is in talks with three potential backers to secure an additional $75 million, navigating the often challenging environment entrepreneurs face when securing investment from outsiders in Africa.

Still, the success of the mobile pay-as-you-go solar lantern model in the DRC speaks for itself. The company has sold 350,000 solar energy products, positively impacting the lives of 1.7 million Congolese, the Disrupt Africa reports.

Compared to kerosene lamps, which according to United Nations University relied on by 600 million people across the continent despite the dangers of fire, toxic black smoke, and eye damage, solar lamps are not only safer, but cheaper because they don’t rely on perpetual purchases of fuel, nor do they need an electricity grid connection. Once customers pay off the lanterns to Altech, the devices are free for the rest of their lifespan.

Altech isn’t the only one bringing solar lamps and other innovative clean energy models to Africa.

Last year, the Sun King, one of the biggest solar companies in Africa and Asia, raised $260 million in series D funding to deliver off-grid energy technologies to people across the two continents. Importantly, it sought to expand its pay-as-you-go model, expanding the accessibility and affordability of its flagship lanterns, as well as introducing larger setups.

Now, it’s done just that and in May raised another $130 million with the investment bank Citi to broaden access to finance for off-grid solar in Kenya. With approximately three out of every ten Kenyans living without access to electricity, with 5-10% of many individuals' incomes devoted to kerosene, the initiative will not only provide customers with more reliable energy but save them money in the long run.

person pays for sunking device with phone
Image Credit: SunKing

According to its website, the financing model enables no upfront cost and allows customers to pay for the solar with as little as $0.15 per day. According to Sun King, their customers have saved $5.6 billion in kerosene, generators, and grid cost.

Like Altech, the weekly payments can be made via mobile devices, and after paying the installments, “from that point on, you’ll have free and efficient power for years to come,” the company says.

“These trailblazing financial mechanisms can convert the global challenges of energy access, social development and climate action into compelling investment opportunities,” Sun King’s Co-Founder, Anish Thakkar, said in a statement. According to Citi’s global head of social finance, Jorge Rubio Nava, via Bloomberg, Citi is “looking at replicating” such deals “in other emerging markets,”

“Segments of the population that were difficult to reach and unviable commercially in the past, now — because of technology — are feasible to serve at scale,” he said.

Charities like SolarAid are also seeking to combat poverty and climate change at once using the solar lantern model, with networks across Kenya, Malawi, Tanzania, Zambia, and Uganda. Since launching in 2006, the charity has installed solar systems in over 400 rural schools, health clinics, and community centers, while training entrepreneurs in Africa to design, assemble and sell small solar lights and chargers.

Now, their work has impacted​​ 12 million people, and their broader goal is simple but ambitious: to ensure every home, school, and clinic in need in Africa, is able to access solar power and lighting by 2030. “No one should be left in the dark,” their website reads in bold.

Another startup, QuadLoop, a Lagos, Nigeria-based electronics manufacturing company, is taking the idea of solar lamps a step further and turning e-waste into the solar-powered lanterns.

Image Credit: QuadLoop

In addition to offering hardware devices and gas monitoring systems, QuadLoop’s solar lanterns are made from recycled lithium batteries from dumped old laptops. It collects electronic waste from companies, tests it for durability, and uses it to build solutions.

Ultimately, the company aims to source 70% of its materials from electronic waste. Its recently launched idunnu solar lantern does just that.

According to the startup, for every Quadloop lantern produced, 2.5 kilograms of e-waste is prevented from going into the landfill, and by using one instead of a kerosene lamp, 0.5 kilograms of carbon dioxide ceases to be emitted.

Africa has the most solar power potential in the world, but with the most energy poverty, the potential of small-scale solar is a means to close that gap. As Nava put it in a statement, “The solution, in terms of social impact, is important, because they not only are providing reliable energy to households, but they are enabling, for example, a girl to study at night, or a farmer to preserve their food or a family to charge their phones.”

“They have already reached 15 million households in low-income African countries. That is a massive number,” he said. But the goal is to expand to 10 million more. As Sun King, Altech, QuadLoop, SolarAid, and other ventures join forces, their pioneering goals show that solar panels can be the light at the end of the tunnel.

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