An interview with Antonio Dixon, Co-Founder and President of SolarFi
While based in New York, SolarFi is bringing solar-powered connectivity to places far beyond the Big Apple. SolarFi is currently in the U.S. and Ghana with plans to expand to other parts of Africa, South America, and the United States. SolarFi is truly a business out there to do good.
Can you briefly describe what SolarFi does?
SolarFi makes affordable portable solar charging stations that can be used for charging phones but also serve as educational kiosks. There are over 1.2 billion people in the world who don’t have access to electricity and even more who don’t have access to education. What SolarFi does is use cell phone charging to draw people in and as people are charging their phones, they can access free educational content.
What kind of educational content is offered?
It’s mostly focused on Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) and health. Monday is Medical Monday. Tuesday is tech day, so we’re teaching kids how to code as well as fundamental computer skills such as Microsoft Word and Powerpoint. Wednesday is agriculture. Thursday is language-learning day. And Friday is financial literacy. Some of the issues that are facing the developing world are water, energy, education, and the Internet. About 1.5 billion people don’t have access to the Internet, so what we’re doing is making it affordable.
Can you break down the company name, SolarFi?
SolarFi comes from “solar energy” and “Wifi”. In most places in Africa, you can’t have Internet unless you have solar.
How many charging stations do you have deployed currently and how does SolarFi monetize them?
We have three. They’re in Ghana and the United States. The one in the U.S. goes back and forth to Boston and New York. We monetize the stations by selling them or leasing them to individuals. Those people, or entrepreneurs, have customers who pay to charge their phones. They also sell beverages and have advertising. SolarFi not a nonprofit, but we partner with nonprofits and are soon launching a nonprofit arm.
Can you describe the origins of SolarFi?
SolarFi came about when I took time off to do an around-the-world trip. I was visiting Kenya, and I didn’t have access to light. That led me to start a solar lantern business, So with the lights and the lanterns, we partnered with Royal Dutch Shell, AIG, Save the Children, and Care International. We branded several companies’ solar lanterns. They gave them out for their social responsibility and marketing. We then found that most people didn’t just want light, though they were thankful for it. They wanted to charge their phones, too. We thought “why not create a business in a box where we can help people make money and provide affordable access?” People can afford 20-50 cents per day to charge their phones. We saw that people also lack basic access to education. In many developing countries, kids have to pay to go to elementary school, to middle school, and to high school. It came out of need. I always needed to charge my phone at events, but I wasn’t comfortable leaving my iPhone when I was there. So with SolarFi we have a locker system. Instead of giving people a fish or even just teaching them how to fish—SolarFi gives people a rod in addition to teaching them how to fish. Imagine if we taught someone how to research parts of the financial markets, but if that person has no computer, or internet, then the rod is useless.
Did you work in cleantech prior to co-founding SolarFi?
No, but when I was traveling, I asked myself, what am I going to do next? I started my career in telecom, and a lot of our engineers come from those companies I worked for. I also worked in high tech medical lasers to do non evasive surgeries. I had a lot of experience working with NGOs. I served on the Board of nonprofits such as the YMCA and Coaches vs. Cancer. So I felt that I could use my sales ability and my experience creating partnerships. With SolarFi, we’re creating lots of partnerships. In Sierra Leone, we’re partnering with the UN. The UN will subsidize the charging stations 70% for women, 50% for youth, and 85% for persons of disability. There are economic livelihood organizations—one is called BRAC. BRAC’s goal is to empower women. They have a program to train women to start businesses. So instead of just giving them money every month, their goal is to help these women create businesses. Essentially SolarFi is providing a franchise model, a business in a box. We’re teaching them how to run a business and how to be a resource for their community.
Can you talk about cleantech and renewables in Africa? We sometimes hear that renewables in Africa, particularly solar, is an untapped market. What are your thoughts on that?
I would definitely say the market is untapped. The first reason is because of the upfront cost. The second is the perception that solar is expensive. Solar has come down but still the upfront cost can be prohibitive. It’s no different than Americans getting mortgages on homes. Most people can afford the monthly payment, but that down payment is tough. If you can present a “pay as you go model,” that helps. We are working with NGOs and other organizations to make that upfront payment easier, and then our franchisees can make the monthly payments for the SolarFi hub. At the end of the day, they will own the charging station and they’re getting away from diesel generators. Diesel generators are especially problematic for pregnant women. They’re paying $100-200 a month for the generator, but SolarFi hubs can be under $100 depending on the model.
Can you talk about how solar has evolved in Africa?
There are many companies using “pay as you go” models for lanterns and solar systems. People may pay monthly or even weekly for their solar systems. Something that you may not realize is that some Africans think if you have access to electricity, you shouldn’t use solar. It’s a huge challenge to solar expansion in Africa. They think “now that I have electricity, I don’t need to worry about solar.” They see solar as the way to gain access to electricity only if you aren’t connected.
You have lived and worked in the USA, Brazil, Hong Kong, the UK, Germany, Ghana, Sierra Leone, and Kenya—do you have plans to expand SolarFi outside of Africa?
Yes, we have a lot of connections in Brazil. We’ve also been in talks with the states of New York and Massachusetts on getting SolarFi involved with some of their programs. If you think about all of the bodegas in New York, they’re not running on solar—they’re running on generators. New York City has a plan to go to 50% renewables by 2030, but we’re a long way away. It starts with solar in the home and with solar power. We brought on Mark O’Luck help us get into this space. He’s been a mentor of mine for over 15 years, and he’s the first minority to serve on the Board of Trustees at the New York Power Authority.
How did you choose New York for your headquarters? How big is the SolarFi team?
New York is the center of the world and the United Nations is here. We have a lot of discussions with the UN in New York. Mark O’Luck, one of our advisors, is also here. Our team is distributed across London, Albany, and Boston. We have 14 people working for us, and we’re consistently growing.
What do you think will surprise the global cleantech industry in the next 5-10 years?
I think the cost of solar will become even more affordable. It will become more of a mainstream product, and I think we will continue to use technology to improve the monetization of solar.
Do you have any advice for anybody looking to get into the industry in New York?
Find good people and find good partners. We’ve had to turn down some investors because they were not realistic on what Africans can afford, and we can’t exploit people in developing countries. When you’re starting a business, these are people you will be working with for the next 5-10 years.