Think - AT LONDON BUSINESS SCHOOL

Igniting Africa with a solar-power revolution

Yariv Cohen, winner of LBS’s accomplished Entrepreneur Award, on how he is transforming Sub Saharan Africa’s energy sector

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When Yariv Cohen MBA2005 co-founded Ignite Power in 2014, it was with a singular mission: to bring nations to 100% clean energy access, starting with Rwanda and enabling remote communities to produce their own electricity. It was a massive challenge, but Ignite’s solution was stunningly simple and efficient. Its off-grid systems were designed for domestic use, powered by Africa’s most accessible resource: sunlight.

For just $4 a month (“the cheapest plan in Africa,” said Yariv), homes could sign up to a pay-as-you-go model – the first regular payment scheme many of them would have ever entered. After 24 months, they would own the equipment.

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“[The pandemic] showed how important it was for everyone to have power”

Launched with the Rwanda government support, Ignite’s solar-power revolution quickly gathered momentum. By 2019, it was thriving, serving 10,000 villages and connecting over 1.1 million Africans to electricity. Then the pandemic struck.

Coming through the pandemic

“Those first few weeks were a shock,” says Yariv today, from his base in the United Arab Emirates. “We had hundreds of thousands of clients to take care of across the continent, and what could we do? The first step was to be recognized as a utility provider and get an essential supplier status, so our teams can move around the country, service our clients and connect more homes to the much-needed solar power.

But, he recalls, the pandemic did something else in Africa: it showed how important it was for everyone to have power. As it became mandatory to work and study from home, governments and organisations started asking, ‘How are we going to manage this?’

“That led to a big boost in demand and a surge in sales,” says Yariv. “It increased our commercialisation and dealings on a personal level. And with each lockdown, our work became easier. We came out the other side of the pandemic much stronger than when we went in.”

Throughout those uncertain times, Ignite also supported medical teams, providing solar systems for clinics that allowed last-mile medical teams to do their jobs faster and with safer methods.

The 95-cents-a-month plan

Fast forward to 2022. Ignite now has close to two million clients, is operating in Mozambique, Sierra Leone and Kenya as well as Rwanda, and is in stealth mode with two other countries. It has also made good on Yariv’s earlier promise that “as soon as we can do this for $1 a month, we will”.

“We’re now down to 95 cents, from $4 a month,” he says. “By working with the World Bank, EnDev [Energising Development], Power Africa and BRD [The Development Bank of Rwanda], we could reduce the cost dramatically. Every cent we dropped the price, thousands and thousands more people joined. Every cent counts. Eventually, we’ll go even lower. We got the target we wanted, and broke it. Now let’s see if we can break it further.”

Going global

Yariv is a serial entrepreneur. Over two decades, as an impact investor and executive, he has built businesses and technologies targeted at the developing world. He was chairman for a global developer of emission reductions and clean energy projects. And, with values of over $1bn, he created one of the largest portfolios of climate change assets, working with blue-chip clients such as Google, BP, Mitsubishi and Shell, national governments and multinationals.

“LBS opened my eyes to the international side and made me a lot more global”

Then, midway through his career in 2003, he pressed pause. He enrolled at the London Business School where he gained an MBA, with distinction. He uses the tools he acquired there every day.

“There were so many takeaways from LBS,” he says. “From the curriculum, from the organisation, from the friends I made who coached and mentored me, and from the support group for my business. It opened my eyes to the international side and made me a lot more global, giving me the confidence to go to a new country in the middle of Africa and set up a business. I couldn’t have done that before.”

The gamble paid off. This year, Yariv became a later-stage ventures category winner of LBS’s Accomplished Entrepreneur Awards, an accolade that recognises alumni who have revolutionised their industry and will inspire the next generation. What does the award mean to him?

“The best part is that maybe more students and alumni will choose to work on climate change and in emerging markets in Africa; and it will become cool to work on finding those solutions. If I can nudge more people to do it, that’s great.”

Pay as you grow

Meanwhile, Ignite continues to shake up Africa’s energy sector with more initiatives, including a Pay-As-You-Grow irrigation system that enables farmers to tap into their land more efficiently.

“Our solar pumps let them double or quadruple their output,” says Yariv. “And the model means they only pay during harvest and according to growth in yield. Sixty-five percent of farmers say this has resulted in a 3 x increase in their crops, and 100% said our work has changed their lives for the better.”

There’s also Clean Cooking Solutions – a smoke-free alternative to the highly-polluting firewood or charcoal that families cooked with before, and a PAYGO financing model for smartphones. “It’s the first time many of our clients have owned a smartphone,” says Yariv, “but they’re learning – and they’re learning fast. It’s opened up a lot more opportunities for them.”

Children, meanwhile, are benefiting from the extra hours of power their parents can afford as they can now study and read after dark; 84% of them are now getting better grades.

And there’s more. Eighty percent of Ignite’s clients say their income has increased, 92% feel safer inside and outside their homes (solar torches enable women to walk home safely after dark), and 16% have started a new business. The result is a higher quality of life and a more sustainable, inclusive future for all, which is what Ignite set out to deliver from the start.

To market, to market…

Yariv heads an executive team of five, working six days a week with some Saturdays off.

“Spare time doesn’t happen very often,” he says, “but when it does I play chess and tennis to clear my head. When the weather's nice I go water-skiing.” He talks about the fun bit of the business when his team “go to market”.

“The markets happen once a week, usually on Tuesdays,” he says. “It’s a big day. Everybody brings their vegetables and fruits to sell, and we come with our purple umbrella, our solar products, and we make sales from a kiosk or a table top. The client comes, buys the system, takes it home, then we send an installer to fit it. Later, we’ll visit his house to ensure everything is working properly. If there’s an issue, we go there and fix it.

“All the time, we’re learning how to improve the operation, to get better and better”

“I did the market sales when the company started,” he says. “The happiest people I’ve met are there – the vendors, the kids playing football, their teachers... They are all happier than the people in London, in Dubai, in Tel Aviv. People in villages may have a lot less than we do, but they smile so much more!”

A new mindset

Ignite continues to work alongside governments, executing national infrastructure projects. “There’s always red tape,” says Yariv, “but if you’re in the energy sector in the UK you have the same red tape.” 

Today, Ignite is serving 12,500 villages. It has 3,500 local employees operating across Sub Saharan Africa (40% of which are women, and the company strives to reach 50% by 2025). It also offers a local executive leadership academy, where staff are trained to move across the different countries of operation.

Future plans are confidential, but Ignite is developing more and more technologies to understand what the client wants and needs.

“All the time, we’re learning how to improve the operation, to get better and better,” says Yariv. “We use solar as a platform for change, to get a new mindset. What else can we add?

“When we go to the villages, and see the kids and the changes to their communities, we just want to do more and more. The big impact of what we do is in the fields. If we ever lose motivation, we just go and see some installations and get back to it.”

And his proudest moment so far?

“When we connected the millionth client – the first million is always the hardest. But we still have another 660 million people to go. We’re only at the beginning. We can’t stop until we finish.”

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