WiSolar is a greentech startup looking to play its part in helping to alleviate South Africa’s power crisis.
South Africa is not only going through a power crisis due to the national provider’s—Eskom—troubles. The country is also trying to transition from fossil fuels to renewables, making startups offering alternative energy solutions a necessity in the country.
Enter WiSolar. Launched in 2016, WiSolar is a greentech startup offering what can be described as a power-as-a-service solution. In properties where the startup has deployed solar equipment, customers are able to purchase power on demand using a mobile app.
Additionally, WiSolar also allows customers to purchase solar equipment for themselves, either through cash or financing options.
TechCabal had a chat with Tonye Irims, founder of WiSolar, to get a deeper understanding of the startup’s offering, the revenue model, its expansion ambitions and much more.
TechCabal: Please tell us more about WiSolar and the problem you are trying to solve through your product offering
Tonye Irims: We refer to ourselves as a green digital utility. We started as a regular solar electricity company selling solar equipment and eventually evolved into a greentech data utility. We deploy solar electricity in large-scale developments.
Through our solution, people don’t have to get into a house and buy solar systems as separate assets. Once you get into the house, you already have solar electricity baked in, and you just pay per kilowatt hour using the app. What we found in South Africa, especially now with the energy crisis, is people don’t have money to buy solar electricity as an extra asset to add on to their homes, because the cost of such equipment goes into the hundreds of thousands of rands.
So the way we figured out how to solve that problem is to actually partner with residential property developers to make sure that homes come with pre-installed solar equipment.
Through our power purchase agreement (PPA) which lasts for a 20 to 25-year period, clients pay 90 cents per kilowatt hour and don’t have to carry the cost of the solar equipment in their homes. We raise capital to buy the equipment which then belongs to us whilst customers buy the power via the mobile app.
TC: How much traction have you gained since launching?
TI: We are working on 2,400 homes right now with the prepaid solar rollout in Cape Town. In the next three years, we intend to be listed publicly on the South African stock exchange. As far as expansion is concerned, we currently have a presence in South Africa, Nigeria, and Zimbabwe, and we are looking to further expand to Australia in the future.
We are also thinking of franchising our model where we will have outlets owned by the franchisees under our brand.
TC: What are the challenges that WiSolar has faced so far in its operations?
TI: The main issue we are currently facing is getting the right partners as far as capital raise is concerned. It took us two years to develop our application and in that time, we had to get the right software partners, the right hardware partners, which required a substantial amount of funding.
Another factor which might be of concern but which has not really bothered us as much is crime. Obviously, our equipment is highly sophisticated and valuable hardware which might be of interest to bad actors. But we have invested in a lot of security around how we ship and warehouse the equipment so we have not had much of an issue there.
TC: Is the current state of power in South Africa an opportunity for WiSolar, looking at the fact that it is providing an alternative to the troubled national grid?
TI: Yes, we do look at it as an opportunity. But there’s another thing that’s happening where there is a transition from fossil fuel-based power to renewables. And it just so happens that in South Africa where we have an energy deficit, you know, not only are they trying to transition from fossil to renewables, but they are also trying to fill the energy deficit. So to us, those are two opportunities where we can be able to come in and address the pain points.
TC: How much would you say the product has evolved from the time it launched up to now?
TI: When we started in South Africa, people weren’t really comfortable with solar electricity. They didn’t even know that it actually generated power and the only source of power they knew about was the national grid via Eskom. They didn’t know about the alternative sources of power.
But since then, there has been a shift. People now appreciate that there are actually other sources of power which are cleaner and more reliable than what they have always had. Another shift has been in the mentality of homebuyers. People now believe that if a home does not have alternative sources of power, it’s not as attractive.
So from those shifts in mentalities, we have seen that most homes want and have solar electricity baked into the properties. At a minimum, they have backup solar sources, the bottom line being they are no longer just reliant on the national grid.
TC: Beyond just the power as a service offering, what other iterations of the product does WiSolar have?
TI: As far as our products go, we have three options for customers. For single dwelling units, we have the cash option where customers can buy the equipment and own it. In 2020, we introduced a financing option where you can now own the asset, but finance it so you don’t need to put cash upfront, but pay monthly installments towards it.
The third option is prepaid solar where customers buy the power on-demand and don’t own the equipment. The deal is actually between us and property developers, where the system is now baked into the property.
TC: What impact do you think a product offering like WiSolar’s can play in alleviating South Africa’s power woes?
TI: Where we want to get to is climate zero. And we also want to enhance energy security in the country. The reason why that is, is because remember that we’re now going into a period where electric vehicles will eventually become the main source of mobility, so that will still require a lot more energy than what we currently use.
So we want to ensure that there is sufficient energy to go all around when that time comes.
*Interview has been edited for clarity and length