Eric Schmidt, Reed Hastings backing Africa solar start-up

Eric Schmidt. Image: Valeriano DiDomenico/World Economic Forum

Reed Hastings, the co-founder of Netflix, and Eric Schmidt, the former Google CEO, through his foundation, took part in a funding round for an African solar irrigation start-up.

The two billionaires are among investors who have invested US$27-million in Nairobi-based SunCulture alongside others such as InfraCo Africa and Acumen Fund, the start-up said.

The company supplies small solar powered water pumps, the cost of which is subsidised by the sale of carbon credits, to small-scale farmers, allowing them to replace diesel-powered pumps in some cases and boost yields in fields that weren’t previously irrigated.

SunCulture operates in Kenya, Uganda and Ivory Coast and has distribution agreements in Ethiopia, Zambia and Togo.

“SunCulture helps farmers grow more food, which is exactly the kind of business that prospers,” Hastings said in comments supplied by the irrigation company.

The start-up estimates that of the 700 million Africans living on smallholder farms, only 4% have access to irrigation, meaning that they have significantly lower yields and are vulnerable to dry weather.

The company has sold 47 000 units, powered by solar panels that can be mounted on small buildings or shacks and in some cases batteries. They use as little as 310W of power, equivalent to that needed for about five standard-sized incandescent light bulbs.

“We’re the largest smallholder solar irrigation company in Africa. We use financial services and carbon revenues to make the cost of solar irrigation 50% cheaper than diesel and petrol pumps,” said Samir Ibrahim, SunCulture’s CEO. “Irrigation is just like old, very unsexy technology, but it could increase your yields by up to five times.”

African expansion

The series-B funding round brings to $65-million the company has raised to date and goes some way towards its aim of raising $219-million to install 274 000 of its systems in Kenya alone. That funding would come from equity, debt, grants and carbon financing, according to SunCulture.

The company also plans to expand across the continent with pilots currently being run in a number of countries, said Ibrahim. It’s also seeking to branch into facilitating the provision of other farming services such as soil tests and insurance.

Investors in earlier funding rounds included EDF International, DPI Energy Ventures, Equator Africa Fund and Energy Access Ventures Fund. London-based EKTA Partners advised on the series-B round.  — Reporting with Thomas Hall, (c) 2024 Bloomberg LP

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