Investors back startup that sells offgrid battery & solar panels

Batteries paired with solar panels aren’t just intriguing customers in the U.S., Europe and Japan looking to ditch their utilities. People are slowly adopting batteries and solar panels in offgrid markets, too, using their cell phones to make reoccurring micropayments and using solar energy to replace kerosene lanterns.

This week startup Fenix International — which is based in San Francisco and Kampala, Uganda, and was founded in 2009 — announced that it has raised a Series B round of $12.6 million to get its battery and solar panel product into the hands of more customers. Fenix emerged from stealth in late 2010 with a plan to sell its lead acid battery product, which comes with a solar panel and other energy adapters, to customers in rural Africa.

Vodafone branded ReadySet charging cell phones.

Vodafone branded ReadySet charging cell phones.

The company struck deals with African telcos like MTN in Uganda and Vodafone in Tanzania for distribution. And also¬† put its ReadySet battery device on Kickstarter. If you’re interested in how it works you can read Gigaom writer Kevin Tofel’s review of the ReadySet (I bought one, too).

One of the main hurdles to selling the battery product was that it cost between $150 to $199, which might not sound like a lot on Kickstarter, but for a customer in Uganda, it sure is. So more recently, in 2014, Fenix launched a mobile payment system in partnership with MTN that enables customers to pay for the battery and solar panels using cell phone payments over time.

ReadySet charging iPad mini

Kevin Tofel uses a ReadySet to charge his iPad mini.

Fenix International’s CEO Mike Lin tells me that the company has now sold more than 25,000 solar systems to date, with more than 15,000 of those connected to their ReadyPay platform. Lin says they’ve recently started adding over 100 new households on ReadyPay solar each day.

This newer pay-as-you-go-solar service puts Fenix more in competition with companies like M-KOPA, a startup created by the early developers of Vodafone’s mobile payment system M-PESA. M-KOPA has sold pay-as-you-go solar products to 100,000 customers and they’ve partnered with mobile carrier Safaricom. There’s also British startup Azuri Technologies, which has developed a cell phone solar payment system, and is also focused on rural Africa, and Simpa Networks and Mera Gao Power that are working in rural India.

Another startup called D.Light sells offgrid solar products (like solar lanterns) and as of last year the company had sold six million devices, affecting the lives of about 29 million people. D.Light works with M-KOPA to sell pay-as-you-go solar panel systems for homes.

Fenix International's ReadyPay solar system.

Fenix International’s ReadyPay solar system.

While the market for offgrid solar panels and battery systems is still small, it has a lot of promise and could grow dramatically in the future. The key to many of these markets is using mobile payments, partnering with local providers like telcos, and figuring out distribution.

Fenix has been working on this funding round since 2012, and investors include GDF Suez, Schneider Electric, Orange France Telecom, investors Tom Dinwoodie and Warner Philips, as well as others.

Bill Gates wants to tackle mobile banking, but not with bitcoin

Bill and Melinda Gates’ to-do list will probably put yours to shame. This year, in the Gates Foundation annual letter, the duo outlined their long-term, 15-year roadmap for the challenges that they want to solve. Their four main goals:

  • Health: Reducing the number of children who die before the age of five and the number of women who die in childbirth while eradicating diseases like polio.
  • Farming: Educating farmers and advancing farming techniques to curb malnutrition and reduce poverty levels.
  • Finance: Bringing mobile banking to developing countries to help people secure and make spending and sharing money easy.
  • Education: Using smartphones and tablets to bring online education to the poor while empowering women and teachers.

Ambitious is an understatement for the list, but it doesn’t mean it’s unachievable. Whether its drinking purified poop water to draw attention to sanitation problems or helping India eradicate polio, the Gateses have always had a way of putting the spotlight on a few of the world’s problem and bringing government, media and philanthropical attention to it.

This year, though, Bill and Melinda are shifting from backing micro-finance organizations that empower small entrepreneurs to bringing banking to all — from the farmer who keeps his value in livestock to the family that keeps their money stuffed under a mattress. And it won’t be done by installing a Wells Fargo in every corner of Africa.

As they wrote:

[blockquote person=”” attribution=””]”The key to this will be mobile phones. Already, in the developing countries with the right regulatory framework, people are storing money digitally on their phones and using their phones to make purchases, as if they were debit cards. By 2030, 2 billion people who don’t have a bank account today will be storing money and making payment with their phones. And by then, mobile money providers will be offering the full range of financial services, from interest-bearing savings accounts to credit to insurance.”[/blockquote]

And while bitcoin believers have long been touting the power the digital currency could have in transforming remittances and payments in developing countries, that’s not the solution Bill Gates has in mind — although it is a starting place. “We need things that draw on the revolution of Bitcoin, but Bitcoin alone is not good enough,” Bill Gates told Backchannel.

Specifically, he cited bitcoin’s inability to reverse or recall transactions — you can only send bitcoin back to someone if you complete another transaction — and the lack of attribution, which many proponents view as a plus. Gates also seemed wary of bitcoin’s price fluctuations, which 2015 has already shown can plunge bitcoin down 20 percent one day to only have it spike the next.

That brings Gates to mobile phones as the key for bringing banking to frontier markets across the globe. His foundation already invested to expand M-Pesa, the Kenya-based mobile money success story, and bKash, a Bangladesh-based up-and-comer. But those two investments are just the tip of the iceberg for what needs to happen to bring banking, and most importantly, monetary security, to the rest of the world.

Here’s how Bill Gates summarizes his mobile banking goal:

That doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy to get everyone who owns a phone to be banking on it.

Gates acknowledged that regulators can pose a problem, and that his long-term view of bringing banking to developed countries relies on the ubiquity of the cell phone. And even if mobile phones spread, there’s still a challenge of getting one in the hands of everyone, regardless of gender. In Uganda, for instance, 73 percent of males own a phone compared to 52 percent of females in 2013, according to Financial Inclusion Insights. (That also reflects who owns the bank accounts as well, where only 18 percent of Ugandan males have a bank account compared to 6.8 percent of females.)

And then there’s the whole problem of if it’s not bitcoin, then what is the solution? Gates didn’t pinpoint a company or a technology to take this forward — M-Pesa and bKash are just the start. But he has hinted at what he expects the future to look like before. Check out his speech at the SIBOS financial conference in October 2014 and at the 33-minute mark, Gates debuts a video example of how he sees mobile payments working a few years down the road: