We’re wrapping up the Solar Women Summer Series, and Audrey Desiderato, the Co-Founder/ COO of SunFunder, is helping us end things on a sunny note!
SunFunder finances solar projects “beyond the grid” and offers investors opportunities to help fund offgrid solar projects, as well as providing companies in emerging markets with access to capitol.
Tell us your story… how did you get involved in the solar industry?
During my Master’s at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, I took a course on “Enterprise, Energy and Economic Development.” My professor Phil LaRocco had started an organization called “E+Co” in the mid 90s that invested in clean energy entrepreneurs in developing countries. I was inspired. Energy access touches all facets of development: economic, education, health and gender. In countries like Tanzania (where I currently live) 85% of the population does not have access to electricity. Solar energy provides the most economically feasible way to get access to high quality, clean light, phone charging, access to information, economic opportunities, etc. It was the impact that solar energy could have on low-income communities that drove me to work in the solar industry in Africa. I believed that I could particularly make a difference by addressing one of the biggest challenges for the sector to grow: access to finance.
You are Co-Founder of SunFunder. Tell us about your role there. What does your average day look like?
I met Ryan, one of my Co-Founders in Summer 2012 and joined as a full-time Co-Founder in November 2012. I moved to East Africa where we have chosen to first focus our efforts in January 2013 and landed in Tanzania where I had previously lived. My role is to grow our solar loan portfolio. When I first moved out here, I hit the ground running- meeting as many solar companies and stakeholders that I could. 2.5 years later I am proud to manage a team of 6 very talented individuals (4 Tanzanian, 1 Ugandan, 1 British) who are based out of our Arusha (northern Tanzania) office. I travel through the region about 30% of the time (we cover Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda) where I meet with potential and existing solar company borrowers to conduct market scoping, due diligence and monitoring, as well as other relevant investors and stakeholders in the space. When I am in Arusha I am leading my team to ensure we make low-risk debt investments while hitting our growth targets. Currently I am focusing on growing my team and recruiting 2 additional local team members to join our team, as well as creating a strategy to grow our pipeline over the next year and ensuring that our underwriting process and policies continuously improve as we learn more and more about the market.
What’s your favorite part of the job?
My team! Globally SunFunder has 15 employees from 10 different countries. We are diverse in nationalities and in backgrounds (from data scientists to finance nerds to designers), and the management team is 50% women.
SunFunder works to find capital “for solar energy in emerging markets” through the Solar Empowerment Fund. What is the Solar Empowerment Fund? What would the process look like for a market receiving this capital?
We offer a series of Solar Notes that give accredited investors an attractive interest return with a minimum investment size of $25,000. Typically, the Solar Note Series gives investors a diversified portfolio of 10-20 solar companies that will reduce reliance on kerosene and diesel and provide energy savings to low-income communities.
Growing our Solar Empowerment Fund means that we can scale our debt investments to solar companies in emerging markets. The process from a Borrower’s perspective can be found on our website. Our loan facilities range $100,000 to $2M with tenors of 6 months to 3 years.
What is one industry project that you’re really excited about? This can be one you’re personally overseeing, or one you’ve simply heard about.
To date SunFunder has focused on providing loans to solar companies in the off-grid residential space. However, I feel just as excited about the potential of larger scale projects. This year I had the opportunity to see East Africa’s first utility scale solar field, an 8.5MW plant in Rwanda developed by Gigawatt Global which increased Rwanda’s generation capacity by 6%.
Here’s a photo we took during our visit:
(Photo Credit: Sameer Halai)
Is SunFunder hiring? How might the HeatSpring audience become involved?
Yes! We are hiring 1 Financial Analyst in Tanzania (although they must be from the region) and 1 Finance Director in the U.S.
Job descriptions can be found here.
Any mentors or companies who have helped you grow professionally?
My grad school professors Phil LaRocco and Ellen Morris have been incredibly generous with their time, advice and energy. Phil for inspiring me to “go for it”, and Ellen for her enthusiasm and support in building a solid network.
I learn the most about the market from talking to our customers (solar companies operating in East Africa). It has been a particular pleasure working with, and growing with SolarNow Uganda (http://solarnow.eu/). We started our lending relationship on the small side 2 years ago and this has continued to develop over time. Together we are innovating to figure out optimal financial structures that are needed to scale solar in emerging markets. I admire their transparency and as an entrepreneur have learned much from their management team. It has been very rewarding seeing our relationship grow and seeing the impact that his for off-grid households in Uganda.
Favorite solar resources that you use to stay up-to-date with what’s happening in the industry?
We are a member of GOGLA, the Global Off Grid Lighting Association, and this has been a great source of information and networking for us.
Do you have a free tool or piece of writing that you would share with the HeatSpring community?
As a very distributed start-up team, we use Asana to manage projects and people. This has changed my life and I recommend it to all!
You are also always welcome to check out SunFunder’s blog.
What are your hobbies outside of work?
Nothing too grand- I love cooking for friends, watching my dogs play and reading fiction.
Any advice for women wanting to establish their own solar enterprise?
- Find business partners that completely trust and respect your intuition.
- Have fun and don’t feel guilty when you also dedicate time to yourself and not just to work.
Thank you, Audrey!
- Learn about solar loans, investing and other projects at SunFunder! Read their awesome blog, too!
- Apply for a position with SunFunder– they’re hiring a Finance Director and a Financial Analyst in the U.S. and in Africa
- Check out RenewableEnergyWorld.com (the exclusive media sponsor of this summer series!)
- Check out the National Women in Solar Initiative webcast series hosted by GRID Alternatives and SunEdison
- Free Course: Basic Solar PV Design, Code, Economics, Sales, and Site Visits
- Free Course: How to Use Solar Leases to Grow Your Solar Business
- Learn the financial modeling background and perspective often lacking in deal negotiations by taking our Solar Executive MBA Training
- Study with Ryan Mayfield, Solar PV Technical Editor at SolarPro, by taking Megawatt Design
- Full Course: Solar PV Installer Boot Camp Training and NABCEP Entry Level Exam Prep