Serving and Supporting Off-grid Customers During COVID-19
By providing innovative customer service and support, off-grid solar companies are helping people across sub-Saharan Africa to deal with the impacts of COVID-19.
By Ewan Bloomfield, Power Africa Off-Grid Project
Despite the challenges presented by COVID-19, several off-grid solar energy companies in sub-Saharan Africa are rising to the challenge to support their customers.
Below, we highlight some of the innovative and thoughtful ways that off-grid companies, supported by Power Africa, are helping customers to alleviate the pandemic’s impact on their livelihoods.
Providing health information and customer incentives
Bboxx, a Power Africa partner, is a leading next-generation utility, providing decentralized energy solutions across sub-Saharan Africa. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Bboxx is taking measures to ensure the safety of its employees, advocating for governments to recognize off-grid energy as an essential service, and supporting its customers and the community at large.
Bboxx realized early on that the pandemic would have a major impact on its customers’ ability to keep their lights on due to the financial effects of lockdowns. From the start of the pandemic, the company prioritized innovative solutions to support its customers.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Bboxx’s call center is debunking myths about the virus by sharing COVID-19 information from international health advisory bodies and the Government of the DRC.
In Goma, the company installed solar lighting systems in several hospitals and donated hand washing stations to local government offices.
Bboxx is also implementing several initiatives to help their customers maintain access to electricity, including:
● Incentivizing upfront payment via a “crisis energy” scheme, whereby customers who pay for a month in advance get free energy for two extra weeks.
● Reducing the minimum payment required to activate solar home systems (SHS) — customers now only need to pay for one day of service to get connected, instead of the usual one week.
● Providing short-term free electricity for some of their hardest hit customers.
Sales of Bboxx’s SHS units have been more resilient than anticipated, which highlights the high demand for solar energy — an essential need — during a health crisis that greatly limits people’s mobility. Several Bboxx customers upgraded to solar television systems during the pandemic as lockdowns required them to spend more time at home.
Bboxx’s customers appreciate the support.
“The bonus [energy] Bboxx is offering has helped my family during this period of crisis,” said Irankunda Monge Chance from Goma. “My children are keeping busy by following educational programs on the TV while I can access useful information.”
Sifa Saidi Cherifa, also from Goma, added, “I have encouraged my neighbors to sign-up for a Bboxx system to get the street lit up and have a better lifestyle during the period of lockdown”.
Redavia Solar Power, an industry leader in clean energy currently operating in Ghana and Kenya, started offering its creditworthy customers six free months to use its commercial and industrial solar systems, which range in size from 40 kW and up. At the end of the six months, customers have the option to start paying for the system under a lease-to-own plan, which typically ranges from five to 12 years, or to return the system.
Redavia is marketing this flexible arrangement as a “resilience lease” plan. Redavia decided to provide this service when it recognized the pandemic would likely put significant strain on local businesses.
Redavia believes that cost reduction can help companies come out of the crisis stronger and more resilient, and offers a helping hand to customers to establish a long-term client relationship.
“We want to help companies save cash so they can survive and generate growth as successfully as possible in the future,” said Redavia CEO Erwin Spolders.
Redavia’s customers include Mankoadze Fisheries in the Greater Accra region of Ghana. Mankoadze’s owner, Godfried Anafi, connected with Redavia through a colleague who had heard about Redavia’s COVID-19 resilience lease plan. Anafi took Redavia up on its offer to install an 85 kWp solar plant to power his cold store facility that can chill up to 3,000 metric tons of fish. Anafi reports that Redavia’s system is providing his company with critical cost savings during a difficult time, and he is recommending Redavia to others, such as health facilities in the area.
Another Redavia customer is the Royal Senchi Hotel and Resort, located in Eastern Ghana. The hotel had already been closed for three months due to lockdown measures when the hotel’s directors heard about Redavia’s offer. During this time, the hotel had no guests and no revenue. Today, Redavia is installing a 342 kW solar system to power the entire hotel during the daytime, with no set-up fees, a very helpful arrangement given the hotel’s reduced cash flow.
Extending loans and payment periods
In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, M-KOPA, a leading off-grid solar company in East Africa and a Power Africa partner, started conducting informal surveys of its customers to understand the issues households are facing.
Since many of M-KOPA’s customers are part of the informal sector, the pandemic hit hard, with most customers seeing an immediate and severe reduction of income, leading to great concerns for their livelihoods.
M-KOPA assessed options to support its customers facing economic hardship and has started implementing a range of activities, including:
● Providing customers in Kenya and Uganda with a top-up of service if they are unable to pay for any reason. Customers are provided with a code to request a top-up loan of up to 15 days of electricity credits via their mobile phones. For every two days of usage time, customers can take a one day loan, which is added to the end of their payback period. This service continues to be very popular with M-KOPA customers.
● Relaxing repayment measures for defaulting customers. Before the pandemic, customers missing their regular payment schedule had to pay seven credits to get back on track, but M-KOPA reduced the requirement to one credit to get re-connected.
● Suspending reporting to credit risk bureaus and ensuring that all customers who pay on time are positively listed.
● Providing customers with free delivery by “boda boda” (motorbike taxis) for all solar system upgrades. This service helps cut down foot traffic to M-KOPA’s stores, thereby reducing the risk of COVID-19 infection.
● Offering health and life insurance through a partnership with the insurance companies Turaco and Prudential. If an M-KOPA customer falls ill, the insurance will cover the cost of the hospital stay. The life insurance product can cover up to five members of a family.
M-KOPA also raised more than $250,000 through a combination of employee and company contributions for a COVID-19 relief fund to support its agents and staff. Uses of this fund include:
● Health insurance and life insurance for sales representatives and field technicians;
● Income relief to agents who are unable to sell due to lockdowns or quarantine requirements; and
● A staff healthcare fund to support employees who require advanced medical treatment not covered by health insurance.
M-KOPA continues to provide customer-focused services during a period of prolonged public health restrictions. As a result, the company has seen steady demand for its products.
In the words of an M-KOPA customer, “I live 10 kilometers from the market and all market days were banned. In the marketplace, I would upload my phone with M-Pesa (mobile money) and buy five days’ worth of [solar] credit and this became difficult. I was relieved to find out that I can borrow credit and pay later, and this enabled me to continue to have lighting and charge my phone.”
Power Africa supports Bboxx, Redavia, M-KOPA, and more than 250 off-grid solar companies that offer electricity solutions for customers living beyond the grid in sub-Saharan Africa. Power Africa provides tailored market intelligence, support to raise and access capital, and strategic advice on marketing and sales to reach more homes and businesses with first-time energy access.
We are inspired by the many ways off-grid solar companies continue to adjust their business models and put the customer first during an unprecedented health and economic crisis.