By Anna Hirtenstein
GreenWish Partners, a renewable energy company run by a former Morgan Stanley executive, is planning to invest $800 million on solar-powered telephone towers across Africa.
The project could fuel economic growth by providing power for essential services. Sub-Saharan Africa has the lowest rates of energy access in the world and is home to about half of the world’s 1.2 billion people without reliable electricity, according to the International Energy Agency. The problem extends to businesses as well as households, cutting into productivity and growth.
“We reduce the total cost of power by 30 percent,” said Charlotte Aubin-Kalaidjian, the founder and chief executive officer of GreenWish, who was formerly a managing director at Morgan Stanley Investment Management. “Smaller towers can run entirely on solar and battery and larger ones reduce their diesel use by at least 60 percent.”
Africa has more than 240,000 telecom towers, which convey signals to and from mobile phones. Most of them are powered by diesel generators because they’re often attached to unreliable grids or in remote areas without power network access. The hybrid systems developed by GreenWish combine a solar panel, a battery and a diesel generator to provide complete off-grid reliability.
Africa’s telecom industry has exploded in recent years, leapfrogging traditional fixed-line infrastructure and moving straight into mobile phones and Internet services. Services have becoming increasingly competitive with local companies taking market share, setting off price wars and squeezing profit margins.
Mauritius-based Greenwish has partnered with Orange SA and will begin with 250 towers in the Democratic Republic of Congo this year. It’s aiming to reach 3,000 towers across several countries by 2018 and 10,000 by 2020, Aubin-Kalaidjian said.
“Given cost of solar has been declining rapidly and energy costs for off-grid towers are high, tower owners are incentivized to switch to hybrid systems,” said Takehiro Kawahara, frontier power analyst at Bloomberg New Energy Finance. “Africa has potential remaining to increase mobile subscriptions while most other markets are reaching saturation, but energy costs can be significant in rural areas.”
Aubin-Kalaidjian set up GreenWish in 2010 after working at Morgan Stanley during the financial crisis. She ran Morgan Stanley’s asset management division in France and Switzerland, helping grow the business from 500 million euros to 7.5 billion euros.
“I didn’t want to belong to an investment bank anymore, I wanted to create my own business mandate and finance only real assets,” she said. “Projects with a positive impact, socially and environmentally.”
She raised $20 million in June 2015, largely from African investors such as the Senegalese sovereign wealth fund. A year later, she raised $250 million, counting Boston-based private equity firm Denham Capital Management LP among her investors.
GreenWish first focused on renewable energy projects on the grid and has built a 27-megawatt solar plant in Senegal. It has a pipeline to install another 350 megawatts in West Africa. It also builds clean power generation for industrial customers, from mines to cement factories to banks.
Aubin-Kalaidjian is in discussions with other telecommunication companies in Africa. Greenwish expects to extend its partnership with Orange beyond the DRC, moving into other markets such as Nigeria, Senegal, Egypt and Ivory Coast.
“Our partnership with Orange is a client-supplier relationship, we provide them with energy management services,” she said. “We finance everything ourselves.”
GreenWish expects to raise debt from a combination of commercial banks and development institutions such as the Overseas Private Investment Corp, the African Development Bank, KfW and FMO of the Netherlands.