Winner Spotlight: How EcoEnergy Finance Aims to Bring Solar Power to Pakistan
Jeremy Higgs studied web development while he was attending college. Now, though, he’s halfway around the world building a clean-energy distribution network that could help bring electricity to 70 million people in Pakistan.
Higgs’s startup, EcoEnergy Finance, aims to use technology to facilitate the spread of sustainable electricity, and it’s currently bringing power to about 10,000 off-grid people in rural Pakistan. In addition, Higgs’s pitch for EcoEnergy Finance won the ChallengeX competition in Islamabad, Pakistan, last Fall, earning him a slot as a Challenge Festival competitor.
Ahead of the Challenge Festival competition, we chatted with Higgs about his background, how he went from Australia to Pakistan, and how technology plays a major role in EcoEnergy Finance’s strategy.
Tell me about Eco Energy Finance. First off, what do you do?
The problem we solve is to make clean energy accessible and affordable to 70 million people in Pakistan who just don’t have access to the electricity grid. That’s a very, very tough problem, because we need to build ways for the products to be available in the area. We also service the products, like lanterns or other systems, when they require maintenance, and provide education.
The final part is the financing, because our users are cash-strapped and they don’t have a lot of income coming in, so they’re used to consuming products like kerosene and torch batteries. We provide financing so they can get access to these products that will improve the quality of their lives, as well as increase revenue for their businesses.
We actually don’t manufacture or design products. We work with existing suppliers that provide relevant products for the communities in which we’re working. We’re not tied to solar specifically, but when we look at what’s on the market for solar products, the market is mature in that space. It makes sense, and it’s much easier to deploy a small solar system than a wind turbine for household-scale work.
And you’re a non-profit company?
We are for-profit in Pakistan and nonprofit in the U.S. That was registered initially and got us started, but once we launched, we saw more and more that, for us to reach the scale we want, we wouldn’t be able to rely on grants and donations. We needed to be commercially viable as a business that has a social mission but a business approach.
How do you connect with your target customers? It’s got to be quite different from marketing a tech startup on the web.
It’s one or two steps removed from straight digital marketing. We do some social media marketing, but that would only reach the smartphone-equipped customers. Instead, we resort to older methods. We’re very hands on, and we do market stalls, work with retailers in towns, with agents in off-grid communities. Those are below-the-line activities, but we’ve also tested above-the-line activities. To build demand for these products is time consuming. It takes a little bit of effort, but once that word of mouth spreads, it makes it a lot easier.
Do you consider EcoEnergy Finance to be a tech startup? What role does technology play?
We’re trying to blend in technology in a couple of ways, with call centers and an SMS short code. We’ll blend a market stall with something like that, because people often still have access to phones even though they don’t have access to electricity. If we can try and track engagement and how many people contact us after a market event, we have an idea of how effective it was.
Obviously technology plays a role in what we do. We do pay-as-you-go financing, and all of our newest line of products are mobile-enabled in some way. We do credit transfer using smartphones or GSM SIMs, which allow us to provide great customer service or ensure payments. We utilize tech to make our work more efficient. All of our staff have smartphones, so even though they’re 100s of kilometers from sales managers, they can relay information very quickly, and we use that for decision making.
What we’ve been building is a real distribution network for clean energy. We envision entrepreneurs in tens of thousands of villages who are providing these products into their community, who can do really cool things like credit scoring of a rural, unbanked customer using their smartphone. You can bring someone into financial services, mobile money, internet access—and of course electricity—all through this distribution network.
I have a background in IT, and I did software development in university as my degree and as various jobs. Then I decided in my last year that I didn’t want to do software development for the rest of my life; the problem-solving aspect was interesting, but I wanted to do something more—something different.
I took up a short-term position in Pakistan in AIESEC, and it was a two-month position here. I had met a Canadian guy who had worked in Pakistan, and that link kind of decreased the risk and unfamiliarity of it. When I got here, I found a lot of opportunity and saw that it was very different from what I expected. I ended up working in EcoEnergy Finance from there. There have been various decision points in the past couple of years to stay and do a new opportunity or go back to Australia—and it’s just kept on snowballing every since.
So what opportunity did you see that led you to start the company?
I had a friend who had done some research on this and had run a pilot program, but she was going back to her university. I said to her, “I’m really interested in this and it could be a fun problem to solve, so do you mind if I take this over?” Once I got out to that village, I really saw the kind of lifestyle people lead and how everything is stacked against them—no access to electricity, not a lot of money, and no access to credit. The government was not really doing much to reach people without electricity.
Once I started doing research, it was pretty clear that, one, nothing was going to change and, two, 70 million were people in that very same position. Given that they technology was there, it was merely a logistics, distribution, and financing problem. So we set off to determine what model would allow us to solve that problem.
What are some of the challenges of entrepreneurship in Pakistan?
Startups in Pakistan tend to be in tech—it’s easier to get off the ground and they don’t need as much startup capital. But they’re not solving the most interesting problems. There’s plenty going on with health, mobile money, financial services that are far more pressing problems, so I would love for more and more people to operate in these areas. I would love to see them solve problems that the vast majority of the country or the world face. But then you don’t have the opportunity to be acquired by a larger firm or get as much VC funding, so obviously it’s a tougher road. More investment money in this space would de-risk startups solving these sorts of problems.
What’s the ultimate goal for you with EcoEnergy Finance? What impact would it have if your company suddenly gained traction and 70 million people adopted it?
If we provided our products to 70 million people, we’d all be very happy. If we’re able to provide to those 70 million, we’d look at other countries. Plenty of countries in the region don’t have access to energy, let alone clean, renewable energy. East Africa gets a lot of attention in this space, but countries in Asia face the same problem. So we’d expand, innovate, and replicate what we’re doing in Pakistan in other countries so we can be more profitable and solve problems in some other area.
So when it comes to reaching that goal, what’s next for you? What are the next steps?
We’re trying to raise our first round of investment at the moment, so that we can go from our initial stage and move to something that is profitable. Hopefully we’ll just be expanding into new districts and provinces in Pakistan; our goal for the next three years is 100,000 customers.