Interview with Vladimir Delagneau Barquero, Tecnosol

Saturday October 14th, 2017 - Smart Villages

Vladimir Delagneau Barquero, President and Managing Director, Tecnosol

Location: Managua, Nicaragua

“20 years ago, some Nicaraguans thought renewable energy was the work of the devil”

When Vladimir Delagneau Barquero explains why he launched Tecnosol he brings the story back to an experience he had over a decade in the mid-eighties, during his military service in a remote area of Nicaragua. He had first experimented with a solar panel that had been put together, and used it to fix a radio he was setting up to open a communications line. Come 1998, when he founded his company, he was also holding down two other jobs at the same time, as a university lecturer and employee of an electricity company; he soon moved to teaching evening classes, and left the other job, hauling in his brother, wife and friends to help him go around the country and drum up recognition for an industry which, in the late nineties, did not exist.

In contrast, renewables were booming in Germany, which is where Delagneau lived for three months. He won a scholarship from the German government and moved to the village of Rosenwinkel, north-west of Berlin, to study solar energy. Within two years of his return, seeing how German homes were being heated, he knew what he had to do. “I wanted to solve the energy problem,” says Delagneau, an electrical engineer by trade.

Nicaragua is often referred to in international literature as a ‘paradise’ for renewables, and it aims to reach 91% of clean energy output by 2020. Yet 45% of the population still lives off the grid. Tecnosol was born out of a philosophy very much driven by its founder’s passion; that everybody needed to see the potential of renewable energy, and employ it to improve their lives. Delagneau has thus effectively helped to pioneer off-grid in Nicaragua; today, 17 offices stand dotted around the country, with subsidiaries opened in other countries in Central America too.

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Promoting solar energy in remote communities was a vital step. Delagneau, at the time still working two other jobs, was essentially running his own company in his free time. “I needed to find the time to go to the mountains or to the rural areas and speak to people who were using kerosene and candles to cook by night. No bank would lend to me. What little staff I could find needed to be trained from zero about the technology, and then it was about keeping them motivated on a low salary.” Working on the ground to promote the technology was an “incredible challenge” in itself. “Many people didn’t believe in it – some people even thought it was the devil’s work. They said it wasn’t possible to get light in their houses or switch fans on or power televisions in this way.” The problem persisted: in the Nicaraguan countryside, more than half a million homes (viviendas) did not have access to energy.

For the first four years, the company made losses, with Delagneau’s salary going to pay a secretary and for advertising, such as via radio adverts, to spread the word about what wind, solar or hydroelectric technology could do. Delagneau attended trade fairs and made other media appearances. “Slowly, slowly,” he recalls, the gamble paid off; the company edged forwards. Siemen solar panels were soon being imported from Germany, batteries from the US, with the inventory stored in Managua and sent out with local dealers to the remote areas of the country. Tecnosol was in charge of installing solar panels on roofs, buying and cutting into place the necessary cables.

Once word spread, the ball was rolling. 400 systems were sold a year, moving up to 700 a year. “Solar energy was simply not a given then,” he emphasises. “It’s so much easier today, where people just walk into our shops and ask for specific wattages for their solar systems.”

The fifth year brought the company working capital, as reported in The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid by C. K. Prahalad. In 2003 the US company E+Co invested 100,000 dollars, enabling Tecnosol to save in areas such as shipping costs, and to open offices in such locations nationwide such as Nueva Guinea or Rio Blanco, where there are some 1,500 off-grid homes. With this development, finally, a national bank was interested in working with the company.

Delagneau holding the polluting 'candile', lanterns with wicks which used to be lit with kerosene

Delagneau holding the polluting ‘candile’, lanterns with wicks which used to be lit with kerosene

“Another important step was promoting renewable energy in institutions such as the health ministry,” says Delagneau. “Officials could see the benefits too. We showed how vaccines could stay refrigerated in 80 health clinics, and we worked with 80 schools – we started to promote solar more heavily after this.” To date, Tecnosol has installed solar home systems in over 150,000 homes, the majority of which are paid for by customers in cash or with credit. Other options include taking out a loan, using microfinance, or the eventual government subsidies which came in, although he believes that the latter is a system which can sometimes be exploited by a customer.

Expansion began in 2010, to replicate the business model in other countries nearby – Delagneau said this was to introduce the technology abroad, where there was weaker competition, but also to ensure stability in countries which could sometimes be unstable. “It was a good idea to be everywhere, and provide employment to people, some anchors in their communities. We get people to understand what solar is – and after all, it’s more attractive now.”

The original Tecnosol team, in 1999

The original Tecnosol team, in 1999

In El Salvador, there is a small team of 4 people to work on 500 viviendas. Panama, where Tecnosol launched in 2011, was easier because of tenders won, for example to electrify more than almost 2000 viviendas, and a second office was opened with 6 people in total. The largest team opened in Honduras one year later, with 20 people and 5 offices, thanks to work on a Prosol project with the World Bank, reaching over 3000 homes, 10 schools and 2 health centres. In the same year, an official training programme was launched with the NTR Foundation, the philanthropic arm of an Irish international renewable energy group, to provide certificates in installation and maintenance.

That’s not to say that the work is done in Nicaragua; with 95 employees of the company, Delagneau remains committed to providing energy to the very poor in rural areas. “There are still 170,000 viviendas off-grid, and we will keep on promoting solar technology, and productive uses such as solar water, for example, to reduce poverty for those at the base of pyramid, through funding like microfinance with the organisations we have connected with.”

For Delagneau, the rural market continues to grow, even as solar prices have dropped – where a 50 watt solar panel cost 500 dollars (at 10 dollars a watt), today it costs 70 dollars. “Economically it’s a bit difficult to maintain the company, so we’re now looking at the urban market and on-grid too – this on-grid did not exist before, selling electricity to the grid.” If Tecnosol could start again now, Delagneau is sure he would be more aggressive about reaching a rural market with smaller, easier solutions. “We started with systems which were expensive and poor people couldn’t access them or buy them. We stayed in a middle market, which is not big. Today, we would roll out a campaign for the base of the pyramid and have a bigger capacity for funding it.” Whilst the rural market continues to grow, the problem remains that people seem to be getting poorer, not richer – Delagneau, the former professor, electrical engineer and foreign exchange student in booming nineties renewables Germany, still has their backs, two decades on.

-Nabeelah Shabbir, @lahnabee