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Off-Grid Solar Power Startups Are Pouring Into West Africa

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A solar panel is pictured on the roof of Jean-Noel Kouame’s house, on the outer limits of the main city Abidjan’s vast urban sprawl, Ivory Coast December 18, 2017. Picture taken December 18, 2017. REUTERS/Thierry Gouegnon

ABIDJAN (Reuters) – Standing by a towering equatorial forest, Jean-Noel Kouame’s new breeze-block house may be beyond the reach of Ivory Coast’s power grid, but it’s perfectly located for solar power entrepreneurs.

Buoyed by success in East Africa, off-grid solar power startups are pouring into West Africa, offering pay-as-you-go kits in a race to claim tens of millions of customers who lack reliable access to electricity.

At least 11 companies, including leading East African players such as Greenlight Planet, d.light, Off-Grid Electric (OGE), M-KOPE Solar, Fenix International and BBOXX, have moved into the region, most within the last two years.

With a potential market worth billions of dollars, major European energy companies such as French utilities EDF and Engie are taking notice too.

“It’s important to be there now, because the race has already started,” said Marianne Laigneau, senior executive vice president of EDF’s international division.

The main challenge facing smaller companies now is how to raise enough capital to supply the expensive solar kits in return for small upfront payments from customers.

Mobilising funding for firms providing home solar systems is also part of the U.S. government’s Power Africa initiative. Major power generation projects have been slow to get off the ground so Power Africa has partnered with startups such as OGE, M-KOPE and d.light, among others, to accelerate off-grid access.

In Abidjan, Kouame doesn’t know when, or if, the national grid will reach the outer edge of the urban sprawl, but thanks to his new solar panel kit he has indoor lighting, an electric fan and a television.

But it’s the light bulb hanging outside his front door that he values the most.

“At night we were scared to go outside,” the 31-year-old taxi driver says as his pregnant wife watches a dubbed Brazilian soap opera. “Where there is light there is safety.”

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