Spark and its vision on sustainability

Atradius news

We often ask our customers for their vision on the topic of sustainability. This time we spoke with Marcel van Heist, one of Spark's founders.

Spark is a Breda-based SME that provides off-grid solar installations, offering access to electricity through a pay-as-you-go system.

Can you tell us a little bit about Spark? 

Spark believes that the only way to give everyone equal opportunities is to ensure universal access to energy. At Spark we also believe that this is not necessarily a technical challenge, the solutions are there, it's about developing the right tools so that small communities can provide their own access to sustainable energy. By doing this in areas where there is currently no access to energy, we create huge impact and can skip steps in development. For example, think smart, connected or peer-2-peer grids instead of first developing central grids that are not sustainable and flexible.

In your operations, sustainable products are pretty much the core of the business. Has that always been the case?

Spark is a means of achieving sustainable access to energy. The business is and never was the goal, but to achieve sustainable access to energy we have to have a revenue model so that it is also financially and business sustainable. So yes, we started with the mission, not with "creating a thriving business," which is just the means.




It is sometimes said that investors line up for sustainable entrepreneurs. You have found your way to the Dutch Good Growth Fund for many of your transactions and have been able to invest as a result.

It is not so easy to attract investment for our projects in Africa. The end customer is a person, sometimes not even with a formal identity, let alone a credit score. Our systems are relatively expensive for the end customer and can only be sold by installment. This means that our local distributors need capital to advance the products, with a financially risky customer. This requires investors who believe in breaking away from traditional risk analysis and dare to invest in a target group where real impact can be made. It took quite a long time before we were able to set up a construction that would allow us to attract investments with which we can help our distributors in this cash flow-challenge. Through our ecosystem that includes support, we ensure that our products continue to do what they are supposed to do and thus the customer continues to pay.

You are particularly active in Africa, where off-grid solar is necessary in many areas. Here in the Netherlands we struggle with overloading the electricity network. Could off-grid or hybrid installations or, for example, storage also be a solution here?

We are convinced that the future of energy (networks) is going to consist of much smarter, distributed solutions. Small communities or neighborhoods should absorb the peaks and troughs locally through local generation and smart storage and can then supply back to a larger grid as a hub and share energy between these neighborhoods. How that works, what the role of the user is, etc., is exactly what we are trying to figure out in off-grid areas. We believe that the pilots of the energy grids of the future can be developed in off-grid areas and can serve as a blueprint for the whole world.

Spark Atradius DSB visit
Spart renewable energy

Do you think government intervention is necessary to provide more opportunities for renewable energy developments and progress?

One of the most important pieces of the puzzle in our business is access to financing. Who dares to invest quickly on good terms with long maturities? It is often too exciting for corporate financiers to step in. When the market proves itself it will be different, but to kickstart things we believe in government help. Except for real R&D, we don't believe in donations; it has to be a sustainable financial model so the impact is not dependent on governments. If the model proves itself it should be able to scale up with commercial funding, but the government can play a role by daring to take risk. Then when this stops we can arrange other funding in its place because we have been able to prove it. That way developments keep growing and it doesn't collapse.

Do you have any tips for international entrepreneurs when it comes to integrating sustainability into international business operations?

If you want to build something for the future, you simply cannot do it without sustainability. Sustainability should not be "there" but should be the foundation. So the tip is not to look at how you can "also do sustainability," but to make sure that your long term product vision is sustainable at the base.


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