Environment How Solar Power is Unlocking Opportunity in Kenya

by Samantha Paige Rosen | November 28, 2022

Bonface M. Sunguti works 12-hour shifts on his compound in Kenya growing vegetables and fruit to support his family.

His wife also operates a vegetable stand in their village of approximately 1,000 families and, with the assistance of a solar lantern, she keeps her stand open late into the night. Access to that lantern, and reliable solar power, have made all the difference for the Sunguti family.

Three years ago, friends introduced Sunguti to Sun King, a provider of solar power for homes off the electric grid. “I was introduced to solar as an easier, more affordable, and manageable option,” says Sunguti. “Immediately I decided to go for it.”

In addition to the solar lantern, the family purchased a rooftop solar home system which powers multiple rooms so their children can study past sundown. Sunguti describes his family’s life before investing in solar as hectic, because without a reliable power source they couldn’t charge their phones or use household appliances.

Since installing Sun King’s solar home system, the Sungutis now have light in their home for up to 12 hours and a reliable source of power. “We have been able to go through life in an easy way using the Sun King system,” says Sunguti. “It has been a wonderful experience.”

A woman at her vegetable stall

On an environmental and social mission

Sub-Saharan Africa accounts for 75 percent of the world’s population without access to renewable energy and electricity, and off-grid power solutions are in high demand.

Founded in 2007, Sun King has already helped power the lives of over 90 million people with the goal of helping to serve the entire planet’s 1.8 billion people living without reliable access to energy, largely across Africa and Asia. The company has been able to quickly scale and, most importantly, keep the home solar systems affordable for families like the Sungutis, due to support from banks such as Citi. 

“Our mission is about moving the world to clean sources of power, but also about delivering electricity for the first time for most of our customers, and all the ways that life improves for them when that happens,” says Anish Thakkar who founded Sun King with T. Patrick Walsh.

Unlike kerosene lanterns or diesel gas generators, solar power doesn’t burn fossil fuels, emit carbon or cause pollution. “Unless we find better pathways for families to be able to access cleaner sources of power, the next billion people are going to get power by burning fossil fuels,” says Thakkar.

And by making it possible for people to diversify the work they do, to pursue studies and reliably power modern appliances, Sun King offers an improved quality of life as well as a clean power source.

Sun King co-founder Anish Thakkar

Sun King cofounder Anish Thakkar - Photo courtesy of Anish Thakkar

Providing solar power and more

Today, one in five people in Kenya use Sun King. In addition to making reliable energy possible via a range of solar lanterns and expandable home power systems, Sun King creates jobs in the communities where it operates. 

Their field team, called energy officers, is comprised of 15,000 Sun King users in eight countries across Sub-Saharan Africa. They sell and provide installation and maintenance to other Sun King customers, many of whom are neighbors, while developing cutting edge job skills in the green economy. 

Sun King offers an affordable, pay-as-you-go model. After a small down payment, customers make weekly payments. If a user is unable to pay on any given week, there is no late fee. On average, one year of weekly payments results in owning the product and accessing solar energy for free from that point on. 

“A key to solving this problem is building the financing infrastructure from the ground up in a way that works for a billion people that live off the grid,” says Thakkar. “This is how a lot of big problems for underserved consumers have to be solved.” This financing model is critical to the success of off-grid populations, the majority of whom don’t have a bank account or formal credit history.

Children study by solar-powered lantern

Support from Citi to create a scalable business

Sun King’s financing model was made possible in part due to funding from Citi, which has a $1 trillion commitment to sustainable finance by 2030. $500 billion of this commitment is dedicated toward activities in social finance, which includes investments in education; affordable housing and basic infrastructure; healthcare; economic inclusion; and food security. As part of its social finance focus, Citi also aims to invest in opportunities for 15 million low-income households, including 10 million women, globally by 2025.

“Citi has been a pivotal relationship for us. They came in and collaborated with Sun King just as the three pieces — technology, distribution, financing — came into place,” says Thakkar. “It's allowed us to expand the availability of pay-as-you-go financed solar home systems to a really dramatic scale.”  

Bonface M. Sunguti installs a solar panel on the roof of his home

Thakkar points out that a key part of the collaboration with Citi is that in addition to providing funding, they also value Sun King’s mission. “The solution, in terms of social impact, is important, because they not only are providing reliable energy to households, but they are enabling, for example, a girl to study at night, or a farmer to preserve their food or a family to charge their phones,” says Jorge Rubio Nava, Global Head of Social Finance at Citi.

“They have already reached 15 million households in low-income African countries. That is a massive number,” says Rubio Nava. Sun King plans to expand services with the goal of reaching an additional 10 million rural and off-grid homes.

Sun King’s efforts, supported by Citi, have already made a noticeable impact in Sunguti’s community. Sunguti knows many people who use Sun King’s products, including relatives and friends. “There is a lot of sun on the African continent,” he observes. “In areas where there’s no electricity, there isn’t a better option than the solar option.”

The solar option also helps to power Sunguti’s dreams for his children. “I want them to study hard so that they can be good grownups and pursue their goals in life,” he says. As for his own goals, Sunguti is working to increase his farming operations and expand into chicken farming, aspirations made more achievable now that he and his family have access to a safe and reliable source of energy.

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They have already reached 15 million households in low-income African countries. That is a massive number.
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Samantha Paige Rosen

is a writer and teacher. Her essays and short stories have appeared in Catapult, Electric Literature, The Washington Post, Ms. Magazine and Post Road.