Rolled out in 2010, the Awango by Total program has gradually consolidated its processes in the areas of quality, logistics and marketing. Even for intrapreneurs, this is a necessary step if they want to succeed in a market where an entire category of products is seen as being nothing more than a bottom-of-the-range choice.
We spoke with Christophe Dargnies, Director of the Total Access to Energy program.
Can you tell us what Awango by Total is?
C.D.: Awango by Total markets solar lamps in developing countries where we already operate. To date, 1.6 million lamps have been sold, impacting 8 million people, mostly in Africa. Looking ahead to 2020, our goal is to reach 25 million users on the continent.
I like to describe Awango by Total as a start-up within a large company. We combine the agility, innovation and responsiveness of a much smaller organization with Total's extensive reach. This is true from the standpoint of Awango by Total's production, logistics and financial operations, as well as our presence in around 40 countries. That's our strong point.
You have Total's support and trust. Who are your other partners in this venture?
C.D.: When we launched the project, we carefully selected the start-ups we would be working with, including d.light and Greenlight Planet.
d.light is a longtime partner of Awango by Total. We chose them in 2010 because we share two business aims. The first is a desire to make our products widely available to low-income communities. The second is a powerful focus on quality and reliability.
d.light is growing fast in terms of both revenue and number of employees and today we speak the same language.
You mentioned quality and reliability. Could you be more specific?
C.D.: We work with d.light at every link in the solar lighting value chain. d.light starts with putting the necessary quality assurance processes in place for the product development and manufacture stages. Next comes certification to Lighting Global standards. We also perform our own tests. These involve plant audits as well as technical, marketing or sales tests carried out in a few countries. Once the products have been qualified, strict procedures are applied, including inspections of delivered goods and sending a report to suppliers whenever customers return lamps. It's a true partnership. We're even jointly developing new products.
What quality processes are deployed on the front line?
C.D.: An initial inspection is carried out when the container arrives in the port. We make sure that the lamps are good enough to be sold. Then, throughout the product's life we check that the battery is working, especially if the lamps have been on the shelf for a long time. In the marketplace, the Awango by Total label is now synonymous with quality, representing a substantial competitive advantage for us. The fact that the lamps are sold in service stations is another strong point, giving us direct access to the end user. With 4,000 retail outlets in Africa, Total is a brand known for its reliability and trusted by customers.
Today, the program has come of age. The decision to focus on quality from the outset was pivotal. As the business grew, our processes have been adapted to maintain this quality. In other words, the intrapreneurial start-up is organized in line with the standards and objectives of Total's "Better Energy" strategic vision.
Can a business like d.light adhere to the strictly structured vision and messages of a large company like Total?
C.D.: They can and must. It's critical. Buying a solar lamp is a huge investment for people with little income. The lower their income, the bigger the investment and the need for quality. Along with our partners, we have to take this into account. That's why our products come with a two-year warranty and a lifespan of five to seven years.
The market is demanding. For a long time, it was dominated by low-quality products. Thanks to new solar collectors and lithium-ion batteries, we've been offering very reliable lamps since 2010. What's more, quality products work out cheaper in the long run. With prices ranging from $10 for an entry-level model to $40 for lamps that can also charge phones, they pay for themselves in just a few months. That's because users don't have to keep on buying kerosene, batteries or candles. Low-quality products don't pay for themselves, since they have to be replaced frequently.
You say that the investment is a big one for customers. Are financing solutions available?
C.D.: We strive to find a balance between profitability for all players across the value chain and affordability for the very poor. We offer payment in installments, work with institutions that provide microcredit and leverage certain local customs such as tontines. A tontine is an association of investors who jointly fund a financial or physical asset in exchange for partial ownership. Final ownership goes to just some of the members. In Africa, a tontine association is similar to a benefit society.
The products sold back at the start of the program in 2010 are reaching the end of their useful life. What happens to them then?
C.D.: First we work with our suppliers to continuously improve the lamps' reliability so that they last as long as possible. Now we're starting to provide end-of-life solutions. We collect old lamps and either repair them — usually replacing the battery — or send them to recycling facilities that can handle all the components. These recycling services must be expanded. We've already launched projects in Cameroon and Kenya and other countries are expected to follow.
Our role is also to promote new practices and raise industry standards. And we're counting on our suppliers' engagement.
Are you proud to be involved in this type of business?
C.D.: The entire team is motivated by the idea of impact. Providing clean, reliable, affordable lighting has a direct impact on safety, health, education and women's rights. We know that our lamps positively impact their users' lives and we're proud to be committed to better energy. That's also why we're doing it.