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Andy Schroeter had a goal when he started the social enterprise Sunlabob in Laos more than a dozen years ago: to bring renewable energy and clean water to communities without connection to electricity grids.
Schroeter directly sold photovoltaic generators to homeowners and businesses. He soon realised the model was economically unsustainable in a country where the monthly wage is about $80.
Schroeter was keen to support the Millennium Development Goal of ensuring environmental sustainability, through solar electricity, as he believes delivering electricity is instrumental in so many other development agendas. At that time, Laos had a 30% electrification rate.
Schroeter subsequently embraced a “fee for service” structure in which customers paid for the electricity only, while franchised micro-entrepreneurs collected the fees, managed the equipment, and paid Sunlabob.
Yet while Sunlabob reaped international recognition for this approach, the company recognised that the franchisee model wasn’t monetarily sustainable either – the business environment in Laos was not yet developed enough.
With his background experience in international development, Schroeter began to pursue international competitive bids put out by the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and others, for providing power to towns and villages – both on and off grid.
Thus far the company has won 19 tenders to supply solar to 15 countries beyond Laos, including Cambodia, and continues direct sales to Laotian customers. Evan Scandling, Sunlabob’s head of communications, says the company has enabled access to electricity, and clean water via solar pumps and solar purification systems, for more than 500,000 rural residents.
Winning the competitive bids has given Sunlabob economic sustainability, yet the company wants a model that will spread renewable technologies more quickly to local communities.
Schroeter is now hoping to spread an “anchor client” approach, in which a local telecommunications or agricultural processing company will serve as the utility to remote rural communities. Sunlabob will provide the equipment and expertise, while the anchor company is the long-term partner.
Scandling says: “The business is driven by the proposition of replacing diesel-based energy with renewable-energy-based electricity.”Laos renewable energy solar electricity south-east Asia Sunlabob