A large share of the population in Central America still has to get along without utility-supplied electricity. While significant progress was made between 1990 and 2010, most notably in Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua, the region’s least electrified countries, millions of people are still unconnected to the power grid. In Guatemala, for example, over 300,000 households are dependent for their lighting on candles, kerosene lamps or diesel-powered generators.
But alongside those widespread makeshift arrangements, an innovative alternative has been gaining ground in the country’s most remote areas. Kingo, a battery box that takes just twenty minutes to install and connect to a solar panel, is an offthe- grid power solution, i.e., with no connection to the national power grid. This makes it fully independent of Guatemala’s centralized electricity infrastructure, which relies heavily on hydropower. “This is the quickest and cheapest way to boost access to electric power among country-dwellers,” explains Juan Fermín Rodríguez, the CEO and co-founder of Kingo Energy, a Guatemalan start-up that designs and markets the orange-coloured battery boxes bearing its name.
This is the quickest and cheapest way to boost access to electric power among country-dwellers.
I never dreamt that Kingo would come here. Ours is now one of fifteen families with access to electricity. Everyone wants electricity!”
For Juan Fermín Rodríguez, it all started in 2010 when he left Procter & Gamble to become the co-founder of a first, pay-as-you-go business called Quetsol. With backing from local microfinance institutions, the company set out to supply cheap electric power to Guatemala’s poorest households, many of them dependent on candlelight and diesel generators. This laudable initiative failed, however. The need to repay the initial loan, combined with customer insolvency and high unit costs for solar panels and batteries, made this an unsustainable business model.
But Juan Fermín is one of those responsive, agile entrepreneurs who can reinvent their business at the drop of a hat. He bounced back, and fast. With his partner Juan José Estrada – alias “J. J.” – he crafted a telecomstyle approach and came out with a solar power service offering that had his new company, Kingo Energy, bear the cost of installation.
Two key factors rendered their solution workable. For one thing, Kingo raised funds from several investors including FMO and Proparco. For another, solar installation costs have declined by 80% since 2008, making the technology cost-competitive with fossil fuels.