Transportation of poles to the site of the MESH.
As an Environmental Engineer by profession, Felix Boldt has always wanted to operate in a way that retains nature and the environment. After years of working for clean-tech companies in the wind and off-grid energy sectors, he and his former colleague Jakob Schily decided to establish a company that manufactures off-grid solar home solutions and DC Solar MESH grids for rural households and SMEs in Zambia and other markets in Sub-Saharan Africa.
I have been working on the African continent for over ten years in different countries, in different roles and I’ve seen how access to energy has an impact on life on the ground. I wanted to focus on what I do best, mainly developing products that serve the end-users best.
Founded in late 2017, Solarworx is a German manufacturer that provides innovative, reliable, affordable, and sustainable new generation clean energy solutions to local distribution partners in Africa. The solar home systems are fully modular, meaning they can be stacked like Lego bricks, and are easy to install.
The company also develops other related products like the MESH, which is a decentralized DC microgrid approach that has been piloted and tested with the local partner Little Sun with financing from EEP Africa. “Our R&D is based in Cameroon and Zambia, in particular in Cameroon the skillset is quite significant, we test our innovations basically right in front of our doorstep. When we started, we were on technology readiness level tier 2, now we are on level 9 for the MESH of 10 for our Solar Home System with VERASOL certification as a warrant for quality and compliance.”
Solarworx is operating 5,000 solar systems and MESH grids of different sizes across Africa and addressing 25,000 people’s lack of energy. According to IRENA, the installed renewable energy capacity in Africa was 55.2 GW in 2021. For a population of 1.3 billion (IRENA 2022), there is a huge potential for investors and businesses. Still, the clean energy sector goes underfunded.
My experience is that everything takes twice as much time as you plan for. It has to do with delays, corruption, and unprecedented hazards like covid which you can’t anticipate or have control over. This goes for financing and investments as well. You need to be prepared to run with lower revenues as expected for years until volumes kick in. The market can be very opportunity driven.
Knowing that there are many entrepreneurs struggling with the same challenges, Felix gives the following advice.
You need to be committed to what you do and work hard to get it. If something is not working (product/service) then you need to test something else. The potential is huge but be aware that you are operating in markets with very low buying power, your services need to be simple, resilient and highly cost-effective. Africa is leapfrogging from no energy to renewable energy in just one generation. Mini grids give great benefits in terms of improving the living standards, increasing education and security, and to a certain extent also productive use,” Felix continues.
Installation of the first MESH in the village with the project partner.
Since its establishment, Solarworx has worked hard to build a larger network across Sub-Saharan Africa. Building relationships can be challenging in an environment where nobody speaks English. “I learned Kiswahili when working in the field in Tanzania, installing solar panels on people’s roofs. One of my co-workers had already gained a good command of the language, so when I came on board, we started a competition and challenged each other on who can speak better. It has been highly useful when you are able to bond with people on a totally different level by speaking their own language.” Reaching out to partners has paid off since Solarworx has been able to expand its professional network significantly which led to a series A investment by Canadian Solar in 2020. In 2022 the company reached a positive EBIT.
Being an entrepreneur has its challenges but for Felix is it a lifestyle. “I love travelling, I like developing products, I like supporting people and nature, so it is a perfect mix for me. I could have stayed with the heavily profitable wind industry, but I feel the off-grid sector is so much more interesting and you can have a real impact on people’s lives.”
Felix was awarded the EEP Africa Rising Energy Leader during the Knowledge Week in March 2023. Personally, this recognition is evidence that his efforts are paying off.
We have been investing so much time and effort, both on the development side but also on the ground, so it feels good to get the recognition. We are seen and heard, so someone actually cares for what we do.