Q&A: How TRINE is crowdfunding African solar projects

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Swedish crowdfunding platform TRINE, launched in February 2015, connects people with projects in Africa, enabling individuals to invest in solar energy, and giving them the opportunity to earn a return on investment of up to six per cent.

So far, TRINE solar panel projects have helped to reduce over 50,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide, and have provided more than 170,000 people with electricity.

Disrupt Africa caught up with founder and chief executive officer (CEO) Sam Manaberi to discuss the TRINE story so far, what impact it is having in Africa, and the company’s plans for the future.

What has uptake of TRINE been like?

Since we registered TRINE Finance Ltd and gained full regulatory cover within the UK, we have seen a significant increase in traction. When we launched the platform in February 2016 we started to work with Energy4Impact and UK Aid, essentially providing different kinds of investment protection for the crowd investors.

Earlier this year, we were selected as one of the regional winners for Shell Springboard Awards, as well as being awarded best ‘Finance Innovation’ at Solar Power Portal Awards. We work with some big solar companies from the UK, like Azuri Technologies, which now has a close partnership with one of our Kenyan solar partners, Raj Ushanga House (to whom we’ve given several loans). In terms of the crowd investors, we see that almost all participants in the UK come through organic growth, and we look forward to establishing ourselves and our investment options further in the UK, going into 2018.

From the very beginning, we’ve received a lot of traction and attention for the product we offer and the impact we’ve achieved so far. We were recently awarded ‘Best Social Impact Startup 2017’ at Nordic Startup Awards, and WWF has named TRINE as a Climate Solver. It’s also fantastic to see great entrepreneurs like Niklas Adalberth (founder of Klarna) and Lena Apler (founder of Collector Bank) gaining interest in TRINE and joining our advisory board. But most importantly, we now have over 3,800 crowd investors from across Europe, with the majority coming from Sweden as of now, and we see clear indications that the crowd will keep growing as we become more known, and the awareness around ethical investing increases.

Where are you operating now?

Our team is located in Gothenburg, Sweden, and Nairobi, Kenya. The company was founded in Gothenburg in February 2015 and has since expanded to 16 full-time employees. So far we have provided loans to 15 solar companies in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Senegal and Zambia.

We also closed a Series A round in summer 2017 of around EUR6 million, led by Gullspång Invest. The round also included names like Andrew Reicher, chairman of Berkeley Energy Africa and Lars Thunell, former CEO of the International Finance Corporation.

Can you give us some examples of successful projects you have funded?

Our track record so far is 20 fully funded projects. In terms of repayments this is our current status. The impact achieved so far is:

– over 194,000 people will get access to clean energy

– about 58,000 tons carbon dioxide emissions will be reduced

– EUR2,5 million has been invested in solar

We’ve seen how these loans can be life-changing, not only for communities but for each individual with the savings they make by switching to solar. The money saved on energy costs are used for education, food, starting small shops, and for general improvements to everyday life. One of our solar partners in Kenya, Raj Ushanga House, is currently selling around 2,000 solar home systems each month, providing roughly 10,000 people monthly with clean energy, and changing rural Kenya.

We’ve also worked hard on making sure the crowd has not lost any money; we currently have zero losses and that is due to our hard work with risk mitigation. In the cases (two so far) where the solar partner has been unable to repay the loan we have used third-party guarantees to protect the crowd from losing their money.

Do you feel your idea has been validated so far?

The real proof-point for us will be when we can continuously see that loans get financed quickly, solar companies are repaying, and the local communities can change their living standards due to access to clean energy. But we do feel that we’ve come a long way. We have fully funded all the loans we’ve put on the platform and solar companies have started to repay on their loans.

Besides this, we’ve had such fantastic backing from organisations like UK Aid, WWF and Energy4Impact, who have truly believed what we are doing, and formed partnerships with us early on. To get approval from such trusted organisations is extremely important and encouraging, and it shows that we our concept can have universal appeal.

As a company, we are happy to collaborate with everyone that shares our vision and can help us get closer to a world where everyone have access to clean energy. We also see indications that the energy and finance industry has showed increased interest just these last couple of years, and more people are believing in financing renewable energy and turning finance green, even to the extent that a lot of new initiatives and ventures are getting started, which we think is fantastic.

How keen are people to fund solar projects?

We have seen a strong interest in finding an alternative to traditional finance (savings accounts, funds, stock market investments) where people look for a way to ensure their money is not only generating a return, but also impacts positively on the world. There’s also a lot of people who feel that it’s difficult to know how their money is invested or what implications their investments have on the society.

That’s where TRINE comes in and offers an alternative, giving the investors the opportunity to follow their investment every step of the way, as well as the impact it can have. The main challenge for us is that we’re still a small company, so people might not be aware that this option exists, and then there’s of course a need for building awareness around this kind of new way to crowd-invest your money, and create profit with purpose.

How are you marketing?

We believe in the power of the crowd, and a lot of our investors are ambassadors as well, not only for TRINE but also for the idea of investing sustainably. They strongly believe in doing good while also enabling successful entrepreneurs to grow their business. Therefore, we work a lot on building trust, engagement and transparency with our existing investors, which leads to them recommending TRINE to friends.

Another huge part of our strategy is to use different growth-hacking methods, essentially taking steps away from traditional marketing. By being strongly data-driven we can perform rapid experiments across various marketing channels, and integrate that with our product development, to grow our user base.

A cornerstone in which we think about marketing is that we don’t sell just a commodity, we are a financial service with the aim to make real impact, which means that trust, transparency and engagement is the most important things we have to do and communicate with the rest of the world. We’re continuously thinking about how we can improve all those areas, because in the end it’s not us who will sell an investment to someone, rather the people wanting to make sure their money is doing good in the world.

What are your future plans and targets?

Our vision is of a world where all people have access to clean and affordable energy. We hope to change the way investments, savings and finances are done, because we do believe that if the default mode is to channel money into sustainable projects, there won’t be a conflict between purpose and profit. If you’re product is to do good, then there will be impact, it will be long-term, and it will be sustainable.

By 2021 our goal is to have provided over 66 million people with solar energy, but our work won’t be end there. We will continue until everyone has access to electricity and can climb the energy ladder. Our first step on this journey is to channel over EUR100 million in finance through our platform over the next two years.

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Passionate about the vibrant tech startups scene in Africa, Tom can usually be found sniffing out the continent's most exciting new companies and entrepreneurs, funding rounds and any other developments within the growing ecosystem.

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