A civil engineer by training, Stewart Craine started working on rural electrification projects when he spent 2 years volunteering in Nepal in the late nineties. He became increasingly interested in how access to energy can help transform lives and regularly volunteered his technical expertise with Light Up The World Foundation.
After spending four years working on large-scale wind turbine farms for a large power company in Tasmania, Stewart left the corporate world and co-founded Barefoot Power, a for-profit social enterprise that became a recognized market leader of off-grid solar lighting. He reached his goal of providing 1 million people with basic access to energy in 2011, but parted ways with the company. Barefoot Power Australia was liquidated in 2018 but some African subsidiaries survived the carnage and have relaunched the company.
He subsequently co-founded Village Infrastructure Angels with the aim of developing new uses of solar. This includes agro-processing mills that help farmers use daytime solar power for productive, income-generating activities. VIA moves beyond a cash-sale model and asks investors to finance one- to five-year loans for specific projects in places such as Vanuatu, Indonesia and Honduras.
Originally from Australia, Stewart now lives in Slovakia with his wife and two daughters, where he regularly gets to sample the local “rocket fuel” slivovica.
Village Infrastructure Angels is your latest venture. How would you summarize its aims?
We try to link villages to investment, but its aims are broader than simply providing clean energy. We prefer to specialize in micro-infrastructure, which you need in order to roll out solar in rural locations that aren’t on the grid. Infrastructure is already a well-known asset class but it’s all big stuff, airports and things like that. We wanted to show that micro-infrastructure can do for infrastructure what microfinance did for finance, but for that you need specialist skills. By this I mean technical engineering skills that most investors don’t have. Most people who are in impact investing are ex-bankers and they come from the financial side with little understanding about engineering.
Does this mean that you seek investors who have a specific background?
We are quite happy to work with anyone who is willing, but I have to make sure that they will believe in the team they are investing in, rather than replace that team with someone who they think will know better in the future. I will retain at least a 51% stake at all times and preferably have like-minded investors involved who do have a bit of technical knowledge. Quite a few angel investors are coming from the renewable space and they understand the basics. We are happy to have less technical investors as well, but they need to trust us to do the right thing.
Is this something you have learned from past experience?
An entrepreneur once said: “We’ll take debt from anybody, but equity needs to be someone you really want to be married to.” I didn’t do enough dating before I got married [to Barefoot Power investors] last time. VIA focuses a bit more on debt than equity. We don’t buy shares in other companies. We are very different to impact investors, who are mini venture capitalists, mostly. One of the other big challenges is that there are hardly any exits [in energy access]. When you buy shares you want to sell them later. I’ve hardly seen a sale of equity in the energy access space in 20 years. There have been a few, but they are extremely rare so I think taking the project-finance approach, where you invest in a project that is going to start and finish with a designated cash flow is a much smarter way to invest than investing in a company.
Your projects are partly financed with short-term loans, for example.
We are asking investors to put a bit of risk money out there, instead of looking for the least risky way of helping poor people, which frankly doesn’t get them much electricity. The longer we can make those loans, the more electricity they get sooner. We work very hard to make sure the capital is returned, even if there are some bumps along the road. But, still, many investors don’t want to invest and most of the capital we end up raising is more grant capital and not investment at all. It’s especially hard if our projects are not based in Africa.
What kind of projects have you got off the ground?
We’ve developed a range of pilot projects, mainly in Vanuatu, Indonesia and Honduras. Vanuatu, for instance, has a population of about 300,000 people, of which approximately 200,000 people, or 40,000 households, live in off-grid villages outside the main towns. The population is spread over many islands, making transport and communications difficult and expensive. Together with the support of various partners, VIA is helping the government achieve its mission of providing universal access to electricity and communications by 2020. This includes installing 125-500W solar for 20 to 50 households to share a solar-powered agro-processing mill, such as a rice huller, corn sheller, flour grinder, or coconut/cassava grater. Women can spend up to one hour every day processing these staple crops into food by hand, a job that solar-powered 24V mills can do in just five minutes. We also run the largest solar pay-as-you-go solar lighting project in the Pacific, with around 5000 customers. You can read more about our projects here.
Is your idea hard to sell to people?
Not really, solar has really taken off these days. I think impact investors have seen the changes in the energy access space and there is a broader range of them now than there was before. We were basically laughed at for three years in the Barefoot Power days, from 2005 to 2008. We were literally treated as a joke until the fuel prices spiked in 2008.
The biggest problem is being legally allowed to crowdfund capital. That’s still new. There are a few rules around whether you can or you can’t. Being able to crowdfund capital from a lot of individuals is still fairly difficult to do but it’s radically maturing and I think in a year or two it will be a hell of a lot easier than it was.
Does this mean that you believe impact investing is going more mainstream?
You now have some of the leading venture capital firms putting out that they are focusing on impact when they have mostly been focused on profit. Does that really change what they do day to day? I doubt it. There are all these people painting themselves with colours, just because this will get them more money. That’s their job. When you are a fund manager you need to get a lot of money and you jump on the latest trend, ride that for five or 10 years until another one turns up. I do think impact investing is crossing over, but I also think it’s diluting itself in the process.
What do you enjoy about what you do?
Nine times out of 10, I’ll be writing a report. The other 10% of what I do is actually enjoyable. That’s when I get to design a new technology or help install some of it in the villages, or I come up with financial solutions. There are times when you get the feedback from the villages - it’s not always positive, but sometimes it will make you cry as to how happy they are. That’s about as good as life gets.
You’re a big believer in trying to reach the UN’s 17 sustainable development goals by 2030. Do you think we’re on track?
We have the capital, we have the technology, we don’t necessarily have the intelligence, but all the elements that are required are there. However, we are gruesomely inefficient at connecting the dots and making it happen. Our own processes get in the way. I authored a paper with the Sierra Club about how we can help end energy poverty. It contradicted previous analysis from the International Energy Agency (IEA) about how much investment would be required. We painted a different and more optimistic picture about how clean energy for all could be accomplished at a much lower cost.
Your businesses have consumed a lot of your time. How do you enjoy your time out?
We managed to work for two years in Vanuatu, which is a beautiful country. It’s a great place for kids and a place where we could contribute - 50% of the country is pretty much living in poverty and yet they are happy and far less stressed than your average Westerner.
I come from a central European heritage on my mother’s side, and moving to Slovakia has been a chance to live in central Europe for a while. Life is good, cheap and happy in this part of the world. I’m not sure the local rocket fuel brings me joy, more like heartburn, but the locals are educating me about it on a regular basis, and they love schnitzel as much as I do. I occasionally have someone from the impact investing or energy access industry come out to rural Slovakia to meet up with me and talk about things. It’s not quite on the usual conference trip route, but everyone who has visited has loved it.
Stewart Craine is the managing director of Village Infrastructure Angels. To find out more about his work in the energy access space and the projects that VIA supports, visit the website.