What was the motivation to start SunFarmer?
“The story of SunFarmer began in January 2013. Co-founder Jason Gray and I previously worked in project development at SunEdison. While working for the clean energy industry, both of us saw, as the cost of solar energy rapidly decreased, many new comers invested in solar energy industry. Solar has tremendous potential, as it is the most cost-effective and deployable source of energy. Despite that fact, no one talked about the benefits of solar energy in developing countries. While wealthy countries talked about the possibilities of lucrative business with solar, some parts of the world were still facing lack of access to electricity, and lack of access to critical services such as high quality healthcare and education. We believed that the possibility of solar could turn into the most affordable and therefore accessible energy resource, especially for developing countries. We aimed to alleviate poverty and improve quality of life in those regions by providing fundamental services with solar power generation. It was with this motivation that Jason and I teamed up to make solar an affordable energy source in developing countries.”
What is your mission?
“We’re on a mission to provide reliable solar energy for schools, hospitals, and water projects around the world.”
Who are your customers?
“We hold social impact in high regard. For this reason, we are focusing on the three main customers: 1) local hospitals, 2) schools and 3) farmers. Those customers offer invaluable services: healthcare, education and agriculture, and need plenty of energy to do so. By providing solar energy to them, we believe we will make a huge positive impact on the local area. Regionally, we are now focusing on Nepal and we are expecting to expand our work to south east Asia.”
What has SunFarmer accomplished so far?
“In June 2014, we traveled to far-western Nepal to install solar at six maternal health clinics, each delivering between 80 to 120 babies per year, and serving 67,000 community members. In October 2014, our team installed a 4kW solar system at Kopila Valley Children’s home, powering fans, lights and computers for children in the Surkhet Village of Nepal. Our solar installation improved education for 350 students and teachers. After the earthquake struck Kathmandu in April 2015, we have been pouring our resources into an earthquake relief campaign by powering the disaster site with solar energy. Through our solar project so far, 28,000 people have access to improved healthcare, 710 students are getting a better education, and 132,796 *liters of diesel fuel – and $320,115 – have saved.”
* The Liters of diesel fuel is based on the full lifetime of the solar systems
How is SunFarmer model different?
“SunFarmer serves as the ‘general contractor’ for solar – we take care of all solar-related needs for the customer, from design to installation and maintenance. We also help arrange financing if needed. We assisted, educated and collaborated with local people so that they are deeply invested in and therefore self-motivated to continue to support the solar project, thereby maximizing impact.”
As a social venture, what is your own definition of sustainability?
“I think it comes from the reputation that we have built from the beginning. Jason and I were veterans of the solar energy industry. We have great engineers, and we have great support from well-known sponsors. So I can say that first, we have the strength of an expert company of solar energy, and second, we have reliable major sponsors who have the same alignment on providing renewable energy to developing countries. These two assets mean our company launched with a strong reputation that continues to grow, contributing to its sustainability.”
Could you compare an entrepreneur with a social entrepreneur?
“New York is a place where money is important. However, I do not think we need a lot of money to live. If we are not starving, the life as a social entrepreneur is rich enough.”
Is there an important tipping point for SunFarmer?
“Running a startup is like riding a rollercoaster. I can’t pick just one tipping point. Every day and every moment comes with many rewards and many challenges.”
Do you have a role model?
“Yes, it is the One Acre Fund. It has performed so well in reducing hunger and poverty in South Africa, and at the same time, it is financially sustainable. It has its unique model for generating social impact and profit. The model was the main reason that it has been able to run for almost 10 years. I want SunFarmer to also make such a great example as a social enterprise.”
As a Korean-American and as a Stanford graduate, Andy also mentioned the US startup culture.
“What’s great about US startup culture is that people embrace failure – it’s fine to fail and then get back on your feet, as long as you tried. I think it goes same for Korea. It is important to have an environment where you can experiment without distracting worries about failure – it would makes a huge difference. You know, founding a startup comes down to just trying.”
This article was written by Ellie Jisun Lee. You can reach her at email@example.com