Photograph from PEG Ghana
Read Caption

PEG’s solar systems give off-grid customers access to better quality light, mobile phone charging, and appliances like radios.  

Photograph from PEG Ghana
Lit Up

How to Get Silicon Valley to Care About Energy Poverty

Hugh Whalan of PEG Ghana talks about the rollercoaster of running startups in a new power frontier.

National Geographic's energy innovators aren't waiting for governments to tackle the fact that 1.3 billion people live without power. They're lighting the way themselves, and not always for the reasons you'd think. In our Lit Up series, they share lessons and inspiration that go far beyond solar panels and light bulbs. Their quotes have been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Hugh Whalan became interested in Ghana two startups ago, in 2009, when he co-founded a site that helped people crowdfund solar systems for poor households in Africa. While searching for partners, he found a cluster of interest from microfinance institutions in the small West African country.  

Six months later, he visited for the first time.

It's very, very clear when you go out to one of these remote households—and by household, I'm talking about a hut with a thatched roof with mud walls and four to five people who live there—that energy is the foundation upon which we all base a lot of our lives. The phone you use, the tea or coffee you make for yourself in the morning, your computer, TV, everything is about energy.

Cell phones have become really important in Africa, but you can't even charge your cell phone if you don't have access to electricity. Our customer would walk miles to get their phones charged twice a week. They would pay to get their phone charged. They would pay for kerosene, batteries, candles. It's just so incredibly inconvenient to not have access to reliable clean power.

View Images

Hugh Whalan

His customers come to his company, PEG Ghana, for pay-as-you-go solar systems that provide three lights, a mobile phone charger, and a radio. The cost runs 40 to 50 cents per day. The systems are controlled remotely so technicians don’t need to be dispatched, which saves time and money.

We get real-time data on every single one of our systems in the field, no matter how remote they are. That allows us to do really cool things. We know how charged your battery is. We know how much voltage is coming into the battery from your solar panel. That means we can diagnose and solve most of your problems over the phone through our 24-hour call center.

Most of our issues are the equivalent of, "My computer's not working," and the guy on the other side of the line goes, "Have you turned it on?"

Ghana's energy situation has gotten much worse since I've been there. At the moment it's 24 hours power off, 12 hours power on.

That's mildly good for business that these energy crises are happening [because it boosts interest in our services]. It's terrible for the economy, though, which in the long run hurts us, frankly. We've been doing this for three and a half years. We had a lot less money when I started doing it, but I sleep on [Accra-based COO Nate Heller's] couch when we're in Ghana, and he doesn't have a generator. So I feel the pain of our customers very regularly.

Pull Quote
Hopefully, eventually we can convince some of those Silicon Valley people who are working on mindless apps to come and do something meaningful.

PEG Ghana has grown from 12 employees in December to 65 now.

It's a push product. People have heard of solar, they may not know what it is. You really have to walk people through their energy expenditure to help them understand that this is going to be a slam dunk for them. A big lesson that I learned probably too late, like two or three years in, is that our customers don't really know what they spend on energy. They spend day to day. If you added that day-to-day expenditure up and said, "I'm going to give you unlimited energy and this is what it's going to cost," they'd laugh at you and say that's a rip off—even though it's exactly what they spend right now.

It was only when we started doing pay-as-you-go and breaking it into daily payments that we realized the power of communicating in exactly the same way that they spend right now. That makes us comparable to how they think and what they currently buy. So you're talking in their language.

Generally what I say that's a little bit controversial is that the world's problems are really big, and you can make a difference on a small scale, or you can make a really meaningful difference that has the potential to change the world just a little bit. You need a business model to really grow anything into a size that's going to move the needle and business models typically come with a for-profit setup. Idealism is fine, but idealism doesn't change the world.

In 2013, Whalan's previous Ghana-based startup, which had been selling solar home systems through microfinance banks, was acquired by New York-based Persistent Energy Capital. Now PEG Ghana's goal is to reach half a million households in Ghana, Benin, Burkina Faso, and Ivory Coast by 2020.

It's very fulfilling, but it's also crazily exciting to be in this industry that I feel is going to be really big, and to be on the bleeding edge of innovation that is getting financing and clean energy to people who are totally ignored by the vast majority of companies in this world. They should be treated as customers, and they're not.

Hopefully, eventually we can convince some of those Silicon Valley people who are working on mindless apps to come and do something meaningful because we can pay them enough to come and work for us, because not everyone wants to spend three years not earning anything.

It's a little bit addictive. I don't know if I could go to like a more standard job. I'd probably have to take up extreme sports or something like that.

The story is part of a special series that explores energy issues. For more, visit The Great Energy Challenge.

On Twitter: Follow Christina Nunez and get more environment and energy coverage at NatGeoEnergy.