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In 2015, Sun Exchange launched in Cape Town. The company facilitates financing for 21 solar projects across South Africa (16 in the Western Cape) and plays a key role in making solar power accessible and affordable for schools, small-to-medium businesses and retirement homes in Cape Town and throughout South Africa. They have received multiple accolades for their unique approach to solar finance and have been named one of Fast Company Magazine’s Top 10 Most Innovative Companies in Africa and are listed among Africa’s “Energy Elites” by ESI Africa for two years running.

The fast-growing company has built a global community of over 13 000 members across more than 150 countries. Their simple, efficient and innovative approach to solar finance has helped several organisations to reduce their energy costs and carbon emissions. To date, their projects have offset 1,280 tonnes of carbon emissions.

Over the next 3 years, Sun Exchange wants to take their innovative and sustainable business model in Cape Town and into new markets, including Eastern Europe, South America and Central Asia.

Tell us a bit more about your business and what it offers?

Sun Exchange is the world’s first peer-to-peer solar cell micro-leasing platform. We directly connect organisations and businesses wanting to go solar, with tens of thousands of individuals globally who want to invest into owning solar cells to become clean energy producers.

Our platform enables these individuals to buy solar cells and then lease them to be installed in solar projects powering schools, retirement homes, businesses and other organisations in regions with high solar irradiation.

Since launching in Cape Town in 2015, we have facilitated financing for 21 solar projects across South Africa (16 in the Western Cape), including for the Wynberg junior and high schools, the Stellenbosch Waldorf School, Groote Schuur High School and a number of local retirement homes and businesses.

Sun Exchange has built a global community of 13,000+ members across 150+ countries and to date our projects have offset 1,280 tonnes of carbon emissions. We have received multiple accolades for our unique approach to solar finance, including being named one of Fast Company Magazine’s Top 10 Most Innovative Companies in Africa, and being listed among Africa’s “Energy Elites” by ESI Africa for two years running.

What important role does your company play in Cape Town, and abroad? 

Sun Exchange plays a key role in making solar power accessible and affordable for schools, small-to-medium businesses, retirement homes and other community organisations in Cape Town and throughout South Africa. Our model enables these organisations to reduce their energy costs and carbon emissions through a simple, efficient and innovative approach to solar finance.

As an added benefit, organisations that go solar through Sun Exchange become models of sustainability for their communities in Cape Town and beyond.

For example, with the support of the Western Cape Education Department, we’ve brought solar power to nine schools in the Cape Town area to date. Those solar installations have provided excellent educational opportunities for learners to see renewable energy in action, and to learn more about sustainability and climate change mitigation. In addition, the projects serve to offset carbon emissions in Cape Town. For instance, the solar system at Wynberg Boys’ Junior School will offset 1,479.94 tonnes of CO2 emissions over its 20-year lifespan. In addition, the school can use the savings that they are making on their electricity bill to focus on their core mission – raising the future boy leaders of South Africa.

Sun Exchange also plays a role as a leader driving the local technology and innovation ecosystem. The recognition the company has received, such as being named one of Fast Company’s Most Innovative Companies, helps to solidify Cape Town’s position as a global hub for technology leadership.

In terms of our role abroad, Sun Exchange’s growing community of international members act as the engine for our crowd-sourced approach to solar finance. Through the Sun Exchange online platform, we enable individuals across the globe to play a direct role, and benefit from, the solar transition here in Cape Town and South Africa, and soon, other sunny emerging markets.

When considering Cape Town, what factors made you choose to start here? Why Cape Town? 

Sun Exchange’s CEO and Founder initially moved from the UK to Cape Town for a solar engineering job. However, when the idea for Sun Exchange started to take shape, he quickly realized that Cape Town was the perfect location to start the company. The sunny climate was one key factor, as well as a clear need for an innovative finance solution that could help local organisations harness that sunshine by making solar more accessible and affordable. Additionally, the city has a business and regulatory landscape that is supportive of and promotes innovation and sustainability, making it an ideal home for a fast-growing company like Sun Exchange.

Because of choosing Cape Town, what has the return on your investment been?

Cape Town has been an excellent base from which to launch Sun Exchange’s operations in South Africa and Africa. From humble beginnings at the end of 2015, our global and fast-growing user base now exceeds over 13,000 members across more than 150 nations, who, through Sun Exchange, have installed over 600,000 solar cells, already offsetting close to 1.5 million kilograms of greenhouse gas emissions, and these figures are growing exponentially.

The electricity generated through the platform has now exceeded 1 GWh (1,000,000 KWh). This is the equivalent energy required to drive a Tesla Model S for seven million kilometres, the same distance as travelling to the moon and back nine times. This electricity powers and lowers the costs of education and running businesses in South Africa.

What are the highlights/success stories you can share since starting your business?

See above as well.

All 21 of our solar projects are great success stories that showcase innovation and sustainability in action. 

A great example is the 73.26 kilowatt solar installation that we deployed last April to power Wynberg Boys High School (WBHS) in Cape Town. The crowdsale Sun Exchange ran for the 15,984 solar cells in the WBHS project sold out, staggeringly, in just over three hours. One hundred and seventy five Sun Exchange members across 20 countries came together on our platform to make the project happen. Those members will now enjoy earnings of an estimated 11.49% Internal Rate of Return from the solar cells they’ve purchased for 20 years. Meanwhile, WBHS benefits from a significant reduction in energy costs and an educational opportunity on sustainability for its students, and will offset more than 2,000 tonnes of carbon emissions over the 20 year lifespan of the project. 

In 2019 alone, our solar projects at schools and retirement homes benefited ~5,500 learners and ~150 elderly people.

What challenges, if any, have you experienced in setting up your business?

Developing the excellent Sun Exchange software platform was a massive challenge when we started the business. We learned in real time about how time and resource intensive it is to develop truly great software. Thankfully, we were able to bring some of the brightest developers South Africa has to offer on board. Needless to say, it was a very rewarding feeling when the Sun Exchange platform was deployed after many months of tireless development work.

Have you had any interactions, positive or negative, with the City of Cape Town in setting up or running your business?

The City of Cape Town has been incredibly forthcoming and often speaks publicly about their support for solar. As an active participant in the industry, worldwide and locally, Sun Exchange has had multiple interactions with CoCT, all favourable. Several of our solar projects are going to be feeding surplus power back into the grid, a process only made possible because of the City’s foresight and proactive attitude to creating rules, regulations and tariffs for embedded generation, and its commitment to transitioning the City to cleaner and more distributed sources of energy.

How has doing business in Cape Town, or with City of Cape Town, been different to anywhere else?

The challenges in South Africa, and the rest of the continent are magnified out of the City of Cape Town, but still present. Being able to develop solutions in Cape Town has been a fantastic test bed for rolling out across the rest of the continent as it is stable, relatively safe and has such a vibrant and energetic start-up ecosystem that doesn’t exist anywhere else.

What’s next? What is the future of your business?

With a proven business model, solid momentum and a significant addressable market to tap into, Sun Exchange is perfectly positioned for rapid expansion and future growth. In the next three years, we aim to achieve 37.3 megawatts (MW) of cumulative installed solar energy generation capacity generating 38.9 gigawatt hours (GWh) of electricity per month (increase from 1.5MW / <1GWh per month currently). To achieve this, some of the steps we will take include:

  • Scaling to new markets in Sub-Saharan Africa in the short term, and Eastern Europe, South America and Central Asia in the medium term.
  • Developing plans for automation in order to scale and speed up, and create efficiencies during project selection and identification, the selection of solar installers, etc.
  • Adding to our existing project pipeline in South Africa, of which there is presently more than US$100 million of weight value over 111 projects.
  • Elevating marketing efforts to grow the Sun Exchange user base (potential solar cell owners) from 13,000 to 280,000 members over the next three years. The growth achieved to date has been the result of organic marketing, and without a marketing budget.
  • Building out our technology team to further develop our already robust award-winning platform into an interactive and gamified solar cell ownership dashboard with rewards and referral programmes.
  • Developing a secondary marketplace for solar cells, which will allow solar cell owners to buy, trade and sell solar cells among each
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