More than a billion people worldwide still lack access to electricity. In Africa, that’s 635 million, or 57% of the population. Centralized energy systems there are often too slow and inadequate to reach the unserved and underserved, who remain locked in energy poverty.

But technologies such as micro-grids, mobile finance, and smart monitors have now opened up new opportunities: off-grid systems allow people to leapfrog grid electricity and become prosumers – producers, and consumers – of renewable energy themselves.

With a passion for the role of technology in addressing the challenges of emerging economies and its potential to bypass the traditional industrial revolution route to development, Simon Bransfield-Garth founded Azuri Technologies in 2012, a business that combines mobile technology with off-grid solar to bring affordable, renewable energy to Sub-Saharan Africa.

In 2012, Simon took home our first Sustainia Award from former US Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger at the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen. Since then, Azuri has grown from one success to another, winning both the Edison Award for Social Impact and the UNFCCC Momentum for Change Award. Bringing solar to rural Africa, including regions affected by Ebola, the company has been recognized in Global Cleantech 100 and joined the ranks of the Financial Times Fastest Growing Companies in Europe. I recently caught up with Simon to learn about Azuri’s latest development.

Amy Au: Could you tell us what Azuri Technologies does?

Simon Bransfield-Garth: “Some 600 million people in Africa lack access to mains electric power and are forced to use kerosene for lighting (a technology the Ancient Egyptians would have understood!) and to travel miles to charge their smartphones. For those living in off-grid areas, getting an electricity connection is a major problem, as the cost of extending the grid is financially out of reach for millions.

Azuri integrates mobile technology with solar energy to turn a development challenge into a business solution, allowing households to purchase clean solar power on a pay-as-you-go basis. For a simple lighting system, the cost of the solar is lower than the cost of the kerosene it replaces, so it is “net free” to the consumer.

Since we received the Sustainia Award in 2012, we have grown significantly, in terms of reach and solar appliances we offer. Last year, we launched AzuriTV, the first complete Solar home system that includes a 24” TV with 60 satellite channels – still on a pay-as-you-go basis and at a price that is only twice that of a basic lighting system. As such, we are bringing high-quality digital services to consumers who, until a few years ago, were still using oil lamps to light their homes.”

A.A.: Conventional solar home systems often shut off early on cloudy days as they run out of power. How does Azuri ensure a consistent supply of energy?

S.B.G.: “In 2016 we released HomeSmart™, a self-learning, artificial intelligence feature of Azuri’s Solar Home Systems. It uses learning technology to monitor both climatic conditions and historical customer usage patterns to ensure a full night of light, even following cloudy days.

This is the first time that such machine-learning approaches have been used in small domestic solar home systems and marks the next step in intelligent automation.

For off-grid customers, solar energy is often the only access to electrical power for lighting, phone charging, radio, TV and other essential devices. Without the grid, customers rely solely on the stored power to provide services at night and if that power is insufficient, they are often forced back to solutions such as candles and kerosene lamps.

HomeSmart™ solves this problem in two ways: Firstly, the system actively monitors customer usage to determine a typical expected performance. Then, by accurately monitoring the climatic conditions, the system automatically adjusts the light brightness to meet the user’s expected lighting duration. This active optimisation of light brightness, battery charging and load conditions ensures the system delivers the best possible match to the customer’s typical daily requirement with the available power.”

A.A.: How did you make it financially viable and scalable?

S.B.G.: “Azuri provides an off-grid household with its own micro-power station. Our “PayGo” solar system is also designed to be affordable, as customers pay via mobile money and can spread the payments over time.

Unlike conventional power from the grid, solar power is inherently scalable – each household can be added one at a time, without the need for any underlying infrastructure. This makes rolling out PayGo solar power rapid. In Africa, more households have been connected to solar than connected to the grid in the last three years.

PayGo solar is a fully commercial venture, without the need for any grants or government subsidies. Because it replaces expensive kerosene, it is one of the few renewable power offerings that makes money for the customer from day one.”

A.A.: What are the obstacles you had to resolve and how did you do that?

S.B.G.: “With 1.2 billion people worldwide without access to mains electricity, the biggest obstacle to overcome is meeting demand. Most off-grid customers are in inaccessible regions, often lacking good quality roads or even postal addresses. There is no established distribution in these areas and so a new distribution infrastructure has to be created to reach and support the consumers. Azuri has worked with local partners and companies to get access to off-grid communities, and now our network spans twelve countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

As the business scales, the requirement for financing increases. Azuri has been at the forefront of “receivables financing”, which allows the capital cost of solar products to be covered by debt finance from commercial lenders. We just announced a $20M receivables financing facility in 2018, and we expect this source of capital will continue to grow in the coming years.”

A.A.: What has its social impact been so far?

S.B.G.: “Since winning the Sustainia Award in 2012, Azuri has delivered larger solar home systems to twelve countries in Africa, with a focus on five core countries. To date, there have been sales of 150,000 systems able to change the lives of around 750,000 people. Our latest systems include lighting, mobile phone charging, a rechargeable radio and torch, TV and satellite content.

Off-grid solar has an incredible social impact on households. For example, access to solar-powered media has many educational and social benefits. In our recent customer survey, 98% of AzuriTV customers said they felt more aware of local and international affairs, and that their children were more confident discussing current topics in school. TV also improves language capacity with some 92% said watching content in their preferred language improved their communication skills and similar effects were reflected in their children’s performance at school.”

A.A.: What is your next goal for Azuri?

S.B.G.: “Power is only useful if it enables end user benefits. In developed countries, it is simple enough to buy a TV or access broadband but such services are not as readily available in developing countries. So our focus is on delivering the benefit of power as well as the power itself. This includes access to media and educational content (e.g over phones, tablets, and TVs), access to broadband Internet, and a series of services that rely on connectivity such as online banking and agricultural supply chains.

In short, Azuri is seeking to bring many of the services that would be routinely available in cities to off-grid consumers, helping to level the playing field across the urban/rural divide and providing the infrastructure to allow people to dramatically improve their standard of living.”

This interview is part of the series “Meet the New Digital Leaders.”