COVID-19 reinforces importance of off-grid energy as essential service
Nairobi, Kenya, 20th May 2020.There are more than 70 AECF REACT investee companies, all offering low-cost renewable energy from solar home systems, mini grids and clean cooking solutions to accelerate access to clean energy for millions of people living without access to clean energy in Africa.
In April one of them, WidEnergy Africa Ltd recorded its highest sales increase to date. The results came just one month after Zambia was forced to go into semi-lockdown because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
For the company, aiming to expand affordable energy access through a pay-as-you-go (PAYG) model and an AECF investee through the Renewable Energy and Adaptation to Climate Technologies (REACT) Household Solar portfolio, the news about their achievement was “mind-blowing”.
“Now we’ve had to find innovative ways to stay afloat while ensuring that our customers are taken care of and that we keep the staff that we have on board,” said CEO and founder Liliane Munezero Ndabaneze.
The entrepreneur began selling small solar lights from the boot of her car in September 2016. An AECF grant allowed WidEnergy to expand their business model from a cash-based system to PAYG, and open service centres across Zambia. In less than two years, they’ve reached more than 3,500 households and close to 18,000 people in the country’s eastern and central provinces, the majority of them farmers. WidEnengy employ 30 fulltime staff and more than 220 sales agents working on a commission basis from six centres.
Amid the partial lockdown announced on March 20, the government of Zambia classified solar energy as an essential service, which has allowed WidEnergy to keep their call centres open and operational. The company quickly devised and implemented a prevention, wellness and business continuity plan which involved staff split between working from home and the centres, in a bid to ensure smooth business and maintain the best possible customer service during what is a peak time of the year for farmers.
“We want to ensure in this crisis that customers are able to charge their phones and radios and that they’re able to have light,” said Ms. Ndabaneze.
Through their phone network, WidEnergy have also disseminated important public health messages on COVID-19 from Zambia’s ministry of health and others.
Their service centres have meanwhile been equipped with handwash, and sales agents are currently wearing masks.
“We are planning to include a reusable mask in our kits for customers,” said Ms. Ndabaneze.
She said that some of the call centre staff, a “young and vibrant” team of females aged between 20 and 25, were single,young mothers, and single motherswho were now working and looking after their children.
“It’s been a challenge for everyone, so we have to adjust,” said Ms. Ndabaneze.
Some talks with potential investors, projects, training and recruitment have been postponed.
“But if it weren’t for our sales increase, things could have been way worse,” said Ms. Ndabaneze.
AECF delivers support to WidEnergy and others in the form of grants, repayable grants and technical assistance.
Caroline Toroitich, REACT Sector Team Lead, said that besides enabling energy access for millions of poor and marginalised communities, the investees also create jobs in rural areas.
Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 7 ensures access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all.
“COVID-19 has reinforced the importance of off-grid energy as an essential service, it should therefore be included and considered in the stimulus packages that governments are developing if the gains made towards SDG 7 are to be maintained,” said. Ms. Toroitich.