First published in AMS business magazine. Author: Douglas Heingartner
The perfect location
“There’s great energy in this building,” he says. “We didn’t want the hassle of trying to find a perfect office for three months and then signing a long-term lease. We just wanted to get into the space and get to work.” And that is exactly what they did.
Helgesen and two colleagues founded Off Grid Electric in Tanzania in 2012, with the vision of making solar power accessible and affordable to the mass markets in Africa. There are currently about 150 million homes in Africa without electricity, and many of them rely on dangerous and toxic kerosene for their lighting needs. But Off Grid Electric is working to change that: its plug-and-play solar system eliminates the need for fixed subscriptions, meters and wiring, and takes advantage of the fact that more people in Africa have mobile phones than access to electricity.
Off Grid Electric’s mobile micropayment platform allows customers to purchase tiny amounts of solar energy as needed: enough to power the lights, or charge a phone or television. Users can pay as they go for solar power even without a credit card or bank account – the same way they might top up their phone minutes – for less than what they were spending on kerosene. “The idea was to take all the risk out of adopting solar for people without electricity. We want to mass market solar so that it is as common as Coca-Cola,” says Helgesen.
Head office in Amsterdam
In addition to its recently-opened head office in Amsterdam, the company also employs about 25 people in its San Francisco office and about 500 more worldwide. Off Grid Electric is growing fast; it now provides electricity to more than 100,000 households (about 500,000 people) in Tanzania, Rwanda and the Ivory Coast, with plans to add two more countries this year.
“As we grew to five and then ten and then 20 countries, we found it very important to have a group head office location from which we could easily access countries in East and West Africa,” says Helgesen, who began his career co-founding Better World Books, an online distributor of second-hand textbooks for countries in the developing world.
The Amsterdam office fulfils the functions that are not done in the individual country offices; for example the heads of commercial, human resources and accounting are located here. As CEO, Helgesen will also be based in the Dutch capital. “I just got an apartment on a canal. I’m very happy to be here.”
Off Grid Electric decided upon Amsterdam after weighing many crucial factors. The team had often travelled through Amsterdam en route to Africa from San Francisco. “KLM has long been main connection to Tanzania,” Helgesen says “You can fly one-stop to Kilimanjaro Airport from San Francisco.”
There were many possible locations in the running. “Amsterdam was a favourite, but we also looked at African centres like Nairobi, Kigali and Dakar. And we looked at Dubai, London, Paris and even a few US cities,” says Helgesen. “The Netherlands Foreign Investment Agency and amsterdam inbusiness helped to make the case for Amsterdam. Their people in San Francisco came over the very next day after we called. They were very helpful; they walked us through all of the available support, as well as the competitive tax climate for internationals.”
The supple Dutch immigration laws played a role as well. “Immigration was probably the most important factor for us because we were bringing in people from all over the world: for example a South African head of HR, an Indian head of commercial, and a number of Americans. So we needed a quick immigration process that recognises that business today is inherently global.”