Jay Patel is the Vice-President of Village Energy, our field partner in Uganda which is focusing on last mile distribution and empowerment.
Solaris Offgrid: Could you please tell us what led you to co-start the initiative Village Energy?
Jay Patel: We started in 2010 with the goal of bringing energy access to rural communities by employing Ugandan youth to locally manufacture and distribute solar systems, eventually selling and installing over 4,000 systems. Through our work in rural areas, we saw for ourselves how the lack of after-sales servicing options was creating a lack of trust of solar in rural areas, and that the entire last-mile distribution challenge was a large, unsolved opportunity. This has led to our current “community solar expert” model, focused on developing the human capital and physical infrastructure needed for a sustainable rural solar economy.
Solaris Offgrid: What are you guys trying to achieve with Village Energy?
Jay Patel: For any successful business you need three components: a product, a financing mechanism, and a distribution/servicing operation. While most companies in the space started with the first two, with the latter being handled out of necessity, we are starting off the opposite: by focusing on solving distribution and servicing, and then working backwards to the right products and financing. Our short term goal is to increase access, affordability and trust in solar energy by setting up a last-mile distribution and servicing network. To do so, we set up a retail network of shops in rural areas, staffed by young men and women who we train to be sales agents, shop managers, and technicians. Our long-term goal is to enable a rural solar economy that can create jobs and boost incomes for millions of people.
Solaris Offgrid: To what extent Solaris Offgrid helps you deliver an impact?
Jay Patel: Figuring out how to boost rural businesses and enable entrepreneurship through access to solar energy is a big focus of ours, and for that the Solaris system is perfect for that. Its modularity, design, and Village Energy branding has made it extremely popular among both our customers as well as our own network of people who are selling it.
Solaris Offgrid: Would you have any anecdote to share with us about what is it to be an entrepreneur in the access to energy sector in Africa?
Jay Patel: Earlier, when Village Energy was a distribution business we were installing a solar system in rural parts of eastern Uganda when a group of people came around to observe. Half this group were rebuking the owner of house for investing in solar when down the road another person had only got a few months use from his solar solution. It had broken and was never fixed and it never worked again. Interestingly, the other half were owners of broken solar solutions pleading with our technicians to go check on their solar systems to figure out what went wrong with them. These experiences taught us that the absence of a distribution infrastructure and trained technicians in rural Africa challenge doing business in this sector. To be an entrepreneur in the energy sector in Africa requires, not just an appreciation of the technologies, but of the immense challenge of distribution and trust in rural communities.