Can Social Enterprise Power Africa?

Two out of every three people in sub-Saharan Africa don’t have access to reliable power. Infrastructure costs put a traditional power grid out of reach for remote communities, but cheap solar home systems can transform people’s lives. Nate Heller ’09 explains the innovations that allow his social impact company to bring solar power to West Africa.

The headline “Africa Rising” graced the covers of both Time and the Economist during a 15-year period of strong growth that began in 2000; both magazines saw a continent on the verge of breaking out.

Stumbles in recent years have dropped sub-Saharan Africa’s economic growth rate to just 1.4% in 2016. Factors limiting growth include falling commodity prices and the political quagmire in South Africa.

But Tony Elumelu, a Nigerian banker and philanthropist, describes the lack of electrical power as the “single biggest obstacle” to Africa’s development.

USAID estimates that two thirds of the people in sub-Saharan Africa lack access to reliable power.

Writing in the New Yorker, Bill McKibben said, “Until recently, most people assumed that the continent would electrify in the same manner as the rest of the globe”—through centralized electrical plants and grids. But recently the growth of solar micro-grids that serve entire communities and home-based systems has led some to wonder whether Africa can bypass centralized power entirely and make distributed, renewable energy the conventional source of power for the continent. There are already more off-the-grid solar homes in Africa than the U.S., McKibben notes, but population growth means “the absolute number of Africans without power remains steady.”

Nate Heller ’09 is a co-founder of PEGAfrica, a pay-as-you-go financing firm that aims to bring solar home systems and related products to 500,000 households in West Africa by 2020. Yale Insights talked to Heller about the innovations that the social enterprise has introduced.