pv magazine: Tell us about Zola Electric.
Bill Lenihan: Zola Electric was founded with the mission to solve the energy inequality problem, across the globe, of 2.2 billion people and hundreds of millions of businesses that lack access to affordable and reliable energy.
The company was founded in Tanzania by three mission-driven founders: Erica Mackey, Xavier Helgesen, and Joshua Pierce, who wanted to solve the off-grid African energy access problem.
The energy need is relatively modest but at the time, there was no consistent energy source. Much of the energy was kerosene, which only powered lights and diesel generation, which is expensive and bad for the environment and community.
The main pain points were reliability, storage, and energy management. To solve reliability, you need batteries, and to manage the energy, you need intelligent systems that can adequately manage energy flows.
We installed intelligent batteries in farmers’ homes outside of Arusha and we were pleased with the results. It provided 100 to 200 times the amount of light in a renewable fashion, through the provisioning of solar, and substantially impacted the community. Currently, we are serving more than 1.5 million people and businesses across 10 countries in Africa.
[Customers] lack a turnkey modular smart system that provides reliable and affordable energy, and that is what we do. That’s the approach we are taking. With our Flex and Infinity family, the products are fully integrated and control every energy flow and load to ensure everything is efficient … Our systems can scale and provide more energy, and [they are] smart. The world doesn’t need more back-up systems. It needs primary power, and that’s where we come in.
pv magazine: Congratulations on securing the funds. What’s the overall feeling about the great news?
BL: We feel great! To raise this level of capital in a market ravaged by the pandemic, economic downturns, and underlying volatility in these markets, it shows the quality of the business, and surviving that shows the resiliency in the business model, and that was acknowledged by the investors.
pv magazine: How did you get the funds, and what is the structure of the finance?
BL: The total raise was $90 million, split evenly between equity and debt. Approximately $45 million equity and $45 million debt. The equity bit is from TotalEnergies Ventures, DBL Partners, Helios Investment Partners, Vulcan Capital, Pete Rive, and Lyndon. They are founders of [the] Tesla-owned Solar City and Electron Capital Partners.
It is an incredible group of investors and, importantly, [is] more than capital. Capital is great; we need it. To solve these problems requires capital. The investors bring strategic and competitive commercial benefits to the company. It’s a group that is passionate about driving energy equality across the globe.
The $45 million debt part is a combination of FMO, the Dutch development group; SunFunder and others.
Again, the debt financiers are a group of mission-driven investors. They see the vision on how to solve this problem in emerging markets in Africa in particular, and they are willing to put in the capital to help support us.
pv magazine: How will you use and manage the funds?
BL: We are going to use the funds in two major elements. Product development and expansion. As a technology company, we need to invest in our existing technology and build the next technology generation. We need engineers across the globe to help us build great products.
The second element is expansion and commercialization. We need strong partners on the ground to partner with us, find people who need the system, install the systems, service the systems. There is a lot of commercialization that is required here that is still very young in these markets.
We need to support that development by building a team that can connect to businesses on the ground, trying to solve these problems by training them, enabling them, supporting them so they can build and solve problems on the ground.
pv magazine: How many people and businesses have you reached and how many more will you reach, with these new funds?
BL: We have reached 1.5 million people, today. That number is growing more and more rapidly every month. We don’t set connection goals. Our mission is the 2.2 billion people across the planet that lack energy access. Our goal is to play a meaningful role in solving that.
We expect, next year, to help solve this for the next million people. Ultimately, the goal is for this technology to solve a meaningful number for those 2.2 billion people that for 100 years have not been able to acquire reliable energy like the rest of the world can. We expect the numbers to be big and that is our mission. Our mission is big.
pv magazine: Have you created jobs and hired locals in countries you are operating in?
BL: The economic employment impact is pretty profound. When people are given reliable, affordable clean energy, the impact on education, healthcare, job creation is huge. I like to think about it at the community level. At the community level, what is the impact?
Our 1.5 million customers have started thousands of businesses. They can work longer throughout the night. So, the economic impact of the product is profound.
The economic impact on this industry is also profound. We have, in East Africa, 500 employees. These are people who are knocking on doors, working in call centers, installing and servicing these systems. They are building the grid of the future.
They are the utility of the future and I firmly believe that distributed energy will be the utility of the future for Africa. Therefore, it needs all the infrastructure, which is people, to enable this network. This industry will create jobs, not in the thousands, but millions in the next decade.
pv magazine: Do you plan to expand to new countries?
BL: Before the pandemic started, we were in five countries, and now we are in 10. We have doubled the number of countries that we operate in [in] a difficult market. We expect the number to continue to grow within our core sub-Saharan Africa segment, it’s already expanded to Northern Africa and outside Africa, in South East Asia and Latin America. I hope that vaccination rates grow, Africa learns to operate with Covid, and the market becomes more stable.
The capital is going into expansion. Expansion of our commercialization efforts to bring people into this company that will go and connect to people on the ground that are trying to solve these problems; introduce our technology, introduce our business model to these groups, and operate in their countries.
pv magazine: Talk to us about Infinity and how a customer can access your products.
BL: All the customers need to find out, is if we have partners on the ground in their market. If there [are], the integrator will understand the energy requirements, pain points, and solutions for the consumer. They will then install our Infinity system, a fully integrated solution, into their home or business.
We connect the system to any energy source, [whether] solar, grid, or generator-optimized. We connect it to their power requirements, whatever loads they want to power. Then Infinity, in an intelligent way, manages all that for them, and they can see how it’s performing through our Vision platform, a reporting platform.
Vision will learn how to optimize the system. Whatever the customer needs, Vision will perform the need for them, such as reliability, reducing the cost of energy, and reporting on how it’s doing; whether it is broken or needs maintenance.
pv magazine: What is next for Zola Electric?
BL: We have some exciting technology coming soon. New technology is coming out that is application-driven. We will expand to new regions, new types of customer, [new] geographies, and new continents different from sub-Saharan Africa and Northern Africa. We need to continue to expand our energy ladder. Expansion is our goal. If we are going to solve this for 2.2 billion people, we better expand!
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