Solar energy: A strategic investment for local firms

The programme is designed to make clean, reliable solar energy accessible to a wider range of Zimbabweans. It allows anyone to apply and if approved access our solar systems, removing the initial financial hurdle, which has prevented many from buying a system of their choice. At Solarpro we're empowering individuals and businesses to experience the benefits of solar without a large upfront investment.

LOCAL solar solutions provider Solarpro Zimbabwe recently launched its innovative rent-to-buy programme, making clean and sustainable energy more accessible than ever for households and businesses. Our business editor Mthandazo Nyoni (MN) sat down with the company’s chief executive officer Nyasha Chasakara (NC, pictured) to get more insights into this programme. The conversation also touched on challenges and opportunities found in the renewable energy industry. Find below excerpts of the interview.

MN: Tell us about your rent-to-buy programme which you launched recently?

NC: The core concept is simple: We recognize that the upfront cost of installing solar panels can be a barrier for many. We also know that choosing the right solar system can be a daunting task, because there are so many components and brands. Our rent-to-buy programme eliminates those barriers to getting the right solar system that meets our clients’ needs. We do this by offering customers the option to acquire a solar system through affordable monthly payments, similar to renting. Instead of just paying for electricity, they gradually own their own solar power source.

The programme is designed to make clean, reliable solar energy accessible to a wider range of Zimbabweans.  It allows anyone to apply and if approved access our solar systems, removing the initial financial hurdle, which has prevented many from buying a system of their choice.  At Solarpro we're empowering individuals and businesses to experience the benefits of solar without a large upfront investment.

MN: How does it work?

NC: Customers choose a suitable solar system from our range. We offer a variety of options to cater to different energy needs and budgets. Instead of paying the full cost upfront, they make a deposit ranging from 30 to 50% and start making affordable monthly payments over a fixed term of between 3 to 12 months. This allows them to enjoy the savings and independence of solar power right away, while spreading the cost comfortably.

Once the payment term is complete, the system is theirs to own outright. They benefit from continued energy savings, reduced reliance on the grid, and a smaller environmental footprint for years to come. This programme is more than just financing; it's about democratising access to solar energy and empowering Zimbabweans to take charge of their energy future.

This programme is particularly impactful for households facing rising electricity costs, businesses seeking cost-efficiency, and individuals with limited upfront capital. We believe this programme represents a significant step forward in Zimbabwe's renewable energy journey, and we're proud to be leading the charge.

MN: How would you describe solar energy uptake in Zimbabwe?

NC: The solar industry is in a growth phase driven mainly by the desire to become energy independent. Many people are starting to embrace solar as a viable and reliable source of cheap energy. In the early days, which is some 20 years ago, solar was primarily seen as a niche technology for remote areas or high-end consumers. It was very expensive and not something many people could afford. More importantly there was limited awareness and high costs and lack of financing options hindered wider adoption. To a large extent, accessing funding in Zimbabwe remains an issue.  These days we are seeing a shift; prospective customers are reaching out and requesting quotations, often very much aware of what will work for them. So there is growing awareness and understanding of solar's benefits, coupled with rising electricity costs and climate concerns, and has driven interest. On the technology front there are more efficient and affordable solar panels, coupled with falling battery storage costs which has made the technology more attractive.

MN: Zimbabwe is in the middle of a currency crisis, with the local unit losing value by about 40% since the beginning of the year. Again, the use of multi-currency is set to end by 2030. Don’t you think the currency issue will affect this programme?

NC: This problem is not unique to our programme alone. Unfortunately, it limits our ability to offer longer tenors on our packages. We are currently offering 3 to 12 months rental packages to manage this risk. Fortunately, the crisis is affecting the whole economy and everyone knows and understands the risks to be managed. We continue to work with suppliers to avail products to our customers. It's not easy but we are managing. We remain focussed on making solar energy accessible and affordable for all Zimbabweans.

MN: What measures have you put in place to guard against this threat?

NC: We are committed to transparent communication with our customers and stakeholders. We regularly monitor the economic situation and adapt our programme accordingly to ensure its sustainability and affordability. While the currency crisis presents challenges, we remain confident in the long-term value and positive impact of our rent-to-buy programme. We are committed to finding innovative solutions and working with our communities to make solar energy a reality for all Zimbabweans. We understand the concerns surrounding the currency crisis and its potential impact on our rent-to-buy programme.  We offer short and flexible payment options which allow the customer and our company to manage currency risk exposure. Thankfully, the multi-currency period has been extended and so our customers are free to enjoy access to our products and they do so within the confines of our rental agreement.

MN: What major challenges are bedevilling the solar energy sector in Zimbabwe?

NC: While Zimbabwe boasts abundant sunshine and growing interest in solar energy, the sector still faces several challenges that hinder its wider adoption and full potential. The elephant in the room is currency stability which affects the availability of long term funding. Solar systems can be expensive, and access to financing, especially for low-income individuals and businesses, remains limited in Zimbabwe. While home users appreciate what solar can do, commercial users are still very sceptical about what solar can do. Many Zimbabweans remain unaware of the financial benefits and long-term savings potential of solar energy. Some doubt the effectiveness of solar but with solar panel prices dropping and batteries becoming more accessible this is changing.

The Net Metering programme which allows users to bank excess power to the grid and draws it down at night or during deficit periods when the sign is not shining is struggling. Not many people have the right equipment or the money to buy the expensive equipment needed to be part of the programme. The quality of the national grid also limits the benefits of this programme. It's a chicken and egg situation. A more stable grid means more solar power into the grid. We believe that more can be done to make this program more accessible.

There is also limited capacity in terms of skills to develop projects in the country. The lack of trained technicians can hinder proper system installation and maintenance. The country continues to rely on imported equipment that can increase costs and create supply chain challenges. Despite these challenges, the solar energy sector in Zimbabwe is making significant strides.

MN: What opportunities does this industry present to youth and women?

NC: The solar energy sector in Zimbabwe presents exciting opportunities for both youth and women, contributing to their empowerment and economic participation. Most solar companies are being run by youth and we are quite lucky to have a few women led solar companies in the country. More are being formed every day and this needs to be encouraged and supported. There are a number of ways we can encourage more participation by youth and women. Young people can develop skills in solar installation, maintenance, and repair, becoming technicians or starting their own businesses with the support of Government or private training institutions. At Solarpro we take students interns who end up working for us on a full time basis once they complete their studies. By harnessing the potential of youth and women, the solar energy sector can become a powerful driver of inclusive economic growth and social development in Zimbabwe.

MN: Is it easy to penetrate this industry?

NC: Competition is stiff and entering the industry is easy. Staying in the industry is another thing. Starting and running a solar company requires a lot of resources, especially hiring qualified technicians and building good supplier relationships. Business is built on trust and word of mouth. If you don't keep your word and honour warranties it's very easy to lose customers and gain a bad reputation. There are many categories in the industry, some do installations, and some distribute equipment. There are lower barriers to entry in selling and installing off-grid or small-scale solar systems. But there are many dangers involved in this as many people install systems that are not well designed. These end up failing within days, weeks or months, leading many to doubt the efficacy of solar. Over the years as one gets experience they learn from their mistakes but sometimes it's too late as they can’t regain customer confidence.

MN: Do you think solar energy is a strategic investment for companies in Zimbabwe?

NC: I believe solar energy presents a highly strategic investment opportunity for companies in Zimbabwe, for several compelling reasons, especially the fact that once you go solar you cut your energy bills immediately and this contributes to the bottom line. With rising grid electricity costs and unreliable supply, solar can significantly reduce a company's energy bills, leading to long-term cost savings and improved financial stability. Power cuts means many companies are operating below their optimal levels and introducing solar systems can boost operational efficiency by providing a reliable and predictable power source, minimising disruptions and production losses.

Installing solar panels also reduces reliance on the grid, mitigating concerns around power outages and blackouts, ensuring uninterrupted operations and business continuity. Solarpro has partnered with suppliers that allow for seamless upgrades.

MN: Where do you see your company in the next five years from now?

NC: Solarpro Zimbabwe envisions itself as a leading force in accelerating the adoption of solar energy across Zimbabwe, contributing significantly to a cleaner and more energy-secure future for the nation. We aim to significantly increase our customer base, serving households, businesses, and institutions across diverse segments from urban centres to remote communities. As we gain more access to financial resources we plan to expand our geographical footprint, establishing regional branches to provide localised service and reach more customers nationwide. We don't see ourselves as a solar installation company but a fintech company that is committed to developing innovative financing solutions, like our rent-to-buy program, making solar ownership accessible to a wider range of Zimbabweans.

Beyond just growing our business, we envision Solarpro Zimbabwe as a positive force shaping the future of energy in Zimbabwe. We are passionate about making a difference, and we believe that solar energy holds the key to a brighter and more sustainable future for our nation. We are committed to scaling up our impact by installing larger solar systems and contributing to grid-connected projects, supporting Zimbabwe's energy security and reducing reliance on fossil fuels.

MN: What is your word of advice to those who wish to venture into the renewable energy business?

NC: Start small and with what you have. Have passion for what you do, be willing to learn and collaborate with others. That's how I started Solarpro. That's the advice I can give to anyone thinking of going into this sector. Having the desire to learn helps, and having navigated this landscape myself, I understand the challenges and opportunities you might face.  Begin with projects you can manage effectively. Gaining experience and building trust in your local community will be invaluable for future growth.  While technical knowledge of solar systems is crucial, don't neglect business acumen. Develop strong financial management, marketing, and sales skills. Partner with experts to fill any gaps. The solar industry is constantly evolving.

Stay updated on new technologies, regulations, and financing models through training, attending industry events, and collaborating with peers.

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