Access to Clean Energy Offers a World of Benefits. Funders Are Paying Attention in Different Ways

The San Francisco-based company d.light is one of the world’s leading providers of off-grid, clean energy solutions. The company’s work revolves around offering affordable, off-grid power to poor families living in Africa and Asia, and over the past few years, it’s garnered quite a bit of attention from foundations and for-profit investors alike.

In its latest round of fundraising, d.light brought in $10.5 million to finance the expansion of its ongoing operations. The largest single take in this round came from the Norwegian Investment Fund for Developing Countries (Norfund), which put up a $5 million equity investment. Norfund is described as the Norwegian government’s “main instrument for combating poverty through private sector development,” and invests in sustainable commercial businesses in developing and least-developed countries around the world. The remaining $5.5 million came in the form of grants from Beyond the Grid and the Shell Foundation.

Beyond the Grid is a sub-initiative of the USAID program Power Africa. Driven by the private sector, Power Africa has leveraged over $1 billion in commitments to achieve sustainable solutions in energy poverty.

Now, I’m not usually one to promote the work of fossil fuel behemoths like Shell or its charitable arm, the Shell Foundation. But regardless of its business dealings, greenwashing accusations, and its products’ considerable contribution to climate change, the Shell Foundation’s investment in d.light—and the clean energy sector in general—is worth noting, especially since over 1.2 billion people worldwide lack access to electricity.

Shell’s latest grant to d.light, isn’t its first foray into energy access projects. Back in 2015, the foundation launched the $30 million responsAbility Energy Access Fund, which provides financial backing to manufacturers and distributors of off-grid energy solutions. Although the fund supports these efforts to groups working around the world, its main geographic focus is on Asia and Africa.

Related: Another Funder That Wants to Bring Energy to the World’s Poor: The Shell Foundation

There are other funders aside from Shell that have a place on the short list of groups paying attention to energy poverty, such as the Omidyar Network.

Energy access isn’t one of Omidyar’s top funding priorities, but that didn’t stop it from leading an $11 million Series C funding round in 2014 for d.light and a $15 million Series D funding round in 2016.

Also in the energy access space is the Rockefeller Foundation, which has been a leading funder here for some time now, as we've reported. And because this is Rock we’re talking about, its investments in the energy sectors in Africa and India tend to be rather substantial.

Related: Smart Power: Rockefeller Steps Up its Fight Against “Energy Poverty” in India

Access to energy is a linchpin in advancing sustainable global development. Major challenges in poor countries include the fact that rural populations don’t have access to a power grid, that costs are too high, and that many power sources are spotty and unreliable. Providing access to energy, particularly through off-grid and sustainable measures, is directly related to improved health, education, and economic security.

Some funders, like the Howard Buffett Foundation, also see energy as a key to bringing peace to war-torn regions. As we've reported, Buffett has supported hydro-electric power plants in the Great Lakes region of Africa. 

RelatedWhich Big Funder is Coming to Congo’s Rescue?

U.N. SDG Goal 7 calls for ending energy poverty by 2025, and a number of aid organizations around the world speak of the importance of energy access.

There’s obviously some money behind the movement to end energy poverty. Still, it remains a bit of an overlooked issue in the global development landscape and progress in this sector is slow. Given all the benefits associated with access to energy, it’s puzzling that more funders aren’t jumping into this space.