How d.light is growing its off-grid solar business: Design and distribution

There are hundreds of different kinds of off-grid lighting and solar products being made and sold into rural villages in India and Africa where hundreds of millions of people have no access to grid electricity. But very few companies have been able to sell these products at any significant scale.

Why? As d.light CEO Donn Tice told me in a recent interview in the company’s San Francisco office, “Building distribution [to those places] is really, really hard.” The regions often lack easy-to-navigate and established transportation and shipping systems to get the goods there, payment systems to make the transactions and legal systems to ensure sales. Hiring in many remote regions is especially difficult.

D.light Raises $5.5M for Solar-Powered LED LightsDespite the hurdles, d.light, now in its seventh year, has emerged as the largest maker of the emerging and important category of off-grid home solar devices. The company has grown dramatically in recent years and has sold six million devices to date, affecting the lives of about 29 million people. That’s led to a combined almost $1 billion in energy-related savings that would have gone to dirtier, unsafe energy sources like kerosene otherwise.

D.light now has 300 employees and plans to have 500 by this time next year. To fuel that growth, the company just closed on a Series C funding round of $11 million, bringing the total capital raised to date to $40 million. Device sales have more than doubled every year, Tice says.

The startup’s customers use the company’s solar lanterns and pay-as-you-go solar panel systems for lighting, cell phone charging and running appliances like fans, TVs and fridges. The products’ cost ranges from around $10 for basic models to up to $200 for pay-as-you-go home systems.

Tice says that, in addition to building out distribution, product diversity is one of the main reasons the company has done well. D.light plans to introduce new products shortly, which will help address even more customer needs. The company’s latest product, which it launched a year and a half ago, is its pay-as-you-go home solar system, which it sells with financing from startup M-KOPA. Tice says d. light has sold more of these pay-as-you-go systems than any of its competitors.

Design is another key d.light differentiator. In recent months d.light has invested significantly in its internal design team, and Tice says the group is highly focused on creating a user experience that rivals what users in developed countries have come to expect from products.

Despite the do-gooder aims of replacing dirty and unsafe kerosene and promoting carbon emissions–free solar power, d.light is a proper booming business. Tice says its fundraising was two times oversubscribed, though he declined to say whether the company was yet profitable.