VIA has two major streams of work – it connects investors to village infrastructure projects, and it helps others develop similar projects.
These are formalized as a two streams of business:
Project Development and Consulting Services
What we don’t do is equally as important.
Rather than shares in startup companies, VIA and its angels are building up a portfolio of project assets, generally through 3-5 year lease agreements with local communities or intermediate partners. With early support from Rotary (Melbourne and Arlington), the International Renewable Energy Agency, the Asian Development Bank, the World Bank, Hivos and a dozen angel investors, VIA developed a range of pilot projects in Vanuatu, Indonesia, Honduras and a few other locations. These pilot projects proved that local teams could quickly generate sufficient revenue from a modest number of solar power projects in rural villages to cover their daily operating costs, and additional revenue which accumulates in the bank to repay investors. The first projects focused on 5-10W of solar per house for lighting and phone charging services at the household level, then later projects installed 125-500W solar for 20-50 households to share a solar powered agro-processing mill, such as a rice huller, corn sheller, flour grinder, or coconut/cassava grater. In our first target villages that reached 1000 households, women spend up to 1 hour every day processing these staple crops into food by hand, a job that the solar powered 24V mills can do in just 5 minutes. So for 10-20W per household, more advanced solar power stations can be designed and deployed, and support has now been secured to scale up the portfolio to 10,000 households by 2018. See the projects here.
VIA is as happy to help others with their projects as to build its own. For this, a suite of tools and services have been developed since 2012 that bring the team’s expertise to partners who may need one or all of the following services that cover the full development process from start to finish:
- Mapping – both at large-scale for national and global planning, but also at the local level to map individual households (www.developmentmaps.org) and then create least-length rural electrification networks using open source algorithms, producing plans like this.
- Field studies – after initial analysis and mapping, it is important to fine-tune the desktop project design with on-ground data from targeted fieldwork to verify assumptions, communicate project objectives with communities and prepare for implementation.
- Product development – in some instances, existing products on the market do not exist for an identified need, or are at the wrong price point or are not designed as we believe they need to be. VIA can assist with developing new products and sourcing supply partners to address this.
- Procurement and logistics – VIA can also ensure that the products required for a project are procured and efficiently delivered to the project via sea, air and land transport modes.
- Installation and training – after delivery of the equipment, local partners can be trained on how to install the renewable energy systems into rural villages, and to train local village operators and supply chain partners on technical aspects of the products, and business skills.
- Asset management – in some cases, a client may ask us to manage the project they have financed the construction of, following up on after-sales problems, mobilizing revenue, decreasing default and increasing the capacity of the local team to fully run the business.
- Industry and policy papers – a number of clients have sought assistance in reviewing existing energy and water markets in their country and providing input to government and other stakeholders as to how further develop the markets. VIA consults widely and reviews large volumes of literature to ensure it provides well-researched strategies, often with some new ideas that had not yet surfaced or been fully analysed.
- Capital mobilization – the team of VIA has mobilized over $15 million for micro infrastructure over the past 10 years, some of which has been to help others further develop their project and dream. VIA does not aim to give classic capital advisory services, charging a percentage of any funds raised, but generally bundles such capital raising efforts at little to no cost with other general project management services, as a long-term project partner.
Details on these services can be found here.
WHAT WE DON'T DO
A typical angel investment group is mostly focused on buying shares in early-stage companies that might one day become the next Facebook or SKS Microfinance. VIA is not, as it does not believe that the exits of trade sales, IPOs and management buyouts are particularly likely for any but the largest micro infrastructure companies (who probably don’t need our help anyway). VIA prefers to focus on project equity and debt opportunities rather than corporate equity and debt, which causes less dilution for existing shareholders, less Board control issues, a much clearer exit from the project rather than from the company, and the ability to ringfence investment returns from the project itself rather than the overall performance of the company. Many creative financial tools exist beyond just plain vanilla purchasing of shares, and VIA is keen to any available tool to get better outcomes for investors and investees than will be generated by blind replication of the “Silicon Valley model” in developing countries that dominates a lot of impact fund management today.
Unlike other fund managers, VIA also does not stretch itself over too many sectors, but prefers to have deep knowledge about one particular sector – small-scale infrastructure. To our knowledge, no such entity exists with this kind of focus, and yet the potential infrastructure that needs to be built is a deep need running into many billions of dollars required each year.
Lastly, VIA is not requesting business plans from entrepreneurs, but is fine tuning a replicable model of infrastructure investment that can be undertaken in any developing country by the right partner.