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Interview: Andy Keith, Solar Panda Corporation

Andy Keith is the CEO and founder of Solar Panda Corporation, a company that provides home solar systems to rural African communities without access to electricity.

Solar Panda's unique pay-as-you-go model allows millions of families in rural Africa to buy clean energy at an affordable price. Residents pay a small fee regularly over the course of 15-24 months, after which they are able to become owners of the equipment, as well as finance upgrades.

Name: Andy Keith

Business: Solar Panda Corporation

Title: CEO and founder

Education: Bsc. in Civil Engineering, Queen's University

Age: 34

Location: Toronto, ON

Tell us about yourself, your career and business.

I'm a serial entrepreneur in renewable energy. I founded and sold my first two companies, which developed utility-scale solar energy in my 20s. (I am now 34.) After I sold those companies I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do next! Then, I learned that 1 billion people worldwide don’t have access to electricity. This is because the energy grid doesn’t reach them and it probably never will. I knew then I had found my next business idea.

Solar Panda is in solar energy, but at the opposite end of the spectrum from utility-scale solar. We sell very small home-solar systems to people living off-grid in rural Africa. We launched in early 2018 and now have 100,000 customers in Kenya. These customers have replaced harmful kerosene with bright LED lights. They also get a rechargeable radio and a way to charge their mobile phones. Today, Solar Panda has 160 employees, 600 commission sales agents and 25 stores. Our customers tell us that access to clean, affordable, reliable electricity is transforming their lives.

What inspired you to work in this industry? What made you decide to take the leap?

Solar Panda combines a number of my passions and interests. The planet clearly needs to embrace sustainable energy if we are going to survive and thrive in the long term. I already knew from my first two companies that solar was going to be the way of the future. I also spent a semester volunteering in rural Africa when I was in university and I could see the potential in this enormous continent. Now, if only investors could get their head around investing there! All of these factors made an off-grid home solar business in Africa a natural fit for me.

What advice to you have for others who want to enter this industry?

First and foremost, I would say don’t be afraid of investing in Africa. If you look at macroeconomic and demographic trends, it’s a great place to be in the coming decades, particularly if you can manage to diversify across several countries. As fewer companies are investing there, the competition low and allows for explosive growth in well-run companies.

I believe that off-grid solar will be the way hundreds of millions of people in many parts of the world, including Africa, will get their electricity in the future. It is transformative for the population and an enormous business opportunity.

What are the core values of your business?

All of our customers, employees and sales agents know that our business is built on integrity, respect and gender equality. We live these values in a myriad of ways every day, including employing many women in the senior ranks of Solar Panda. These values underpin our success to date.

Tell us about the financing journey of your company and any major success, difficulties or failures.

To date, Solar Panda has been funded by its founder and now generates an ongoing revenue stream from 100,000+ customers. Solar Panda’s customers pay a small deposit for their home solar system ($20) and then 50 cents per day for a year. After one year, the customer owns the system, and Solar Panda then markets the next product, a TV upgrade kit for example, to that customer base.

Each sale we make to a customer essentially includes a loan. However, these loans differ from bank loans in one key way – Solar Panda has the ability to turn off the customer’s solar system for non-payment. This results in a secure way of ensuring a high rate of loan repayment for customers. Solar Panda has its sights set on expanding to more countries and is now actively raising $5 million to $10 million in equity.

What was your first job and what did you take away from the experience?

I graduated from Queen’s University engineering program in 2008, and my first job was with a company developing wind energy in Ontario. I knew for a long time that I wanted to do something in the renewable energy sector, either wind or solar, so this was a dream job for me. Unfortunately, 9 months into my job, the 2008 recession hit bottom, and in January 2009, my position was “downsized”.

However, like most bad-news stories, there is often a silver lining. My silver lining was that in those 9 months, I learned as much as I could about building a renewable energy business (perhaps thankfully, I didn’t know what I didn’t know, or I might not have taken the plunge). Coincidentally, the Feed-in Tariff (FIT) program in Ontario was just getting started. I started my first renewable energy company with my small savings and focused on solar rather than wind energy. The rest, as they say, is history.

How do you ensure your business stays ahead of the technology curve in such a fast-moving industry?

All of Solar Panda’s products are designed in-house. The decision to integrate vertically rather than outsource has meant that Solar Panda is able to be more responsive to market requirements than the competition. Solar Panda also runs its operations on a proprietary ERP (enterprise resource planning system) designed and built in-house. This means the company can be very nimble when software changes are needed to support evolving business demands.

What’s some advice you would you give to your younger self?

Advice #1. I sold my first business for $200,000 in 2010 when I was 24. Then, I reinvested the entire amount, $200,000, into my second business. Great! The only problem was I didn’t realize I would owe tax on that amount (wouldn’t the government want to encourage reinvestment?). Oops.

Advice #2. Don’t be afraid to go for it when you are young. You have less to lose. Like I told my parents at the time, “worst case, I’ll get another job”. Luckily it did work out, and 11 years later I’m on my third company (Solar Panda), and it employs one of my parents’ long-time friends!

Where do you see your company in 5 years?

Off-grid electricity will increasingly be the dominant option for future electrification. Just like land lines never saw the light of day in many parts of the world where it was eclipsed by cellular technology, the electrical grid will never be rolled out in many areas because off-grid options are now far cheaper to reach the millions waiting for electricity. I see Solar Panda in multiple countries with 1 million customers and counting.

Fun Fact: Andy is also the founder of Fresh Air Energy Inc., and worked with RE Royalties to help finance 40MW Operational Solar Parks in Southern Ontario last year!

Connect with Andy Keith at Solar Panda Corporation

Check out our previous blog post that details how Solar Panda incorporates SDG 7 by providing clean energy at affordable rates to residents of Kenya!

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