India faces major air pollution challenges. According to an article published in The Lancet in 2021, approximately “1.67 million deaths were attributable to air pollution in India in 2019…” Alongside these negative health outcomes is a huge need for access to clean energy. But how do you make it affordable for retail customers?
Metafin, a venture based in Delhi and Mumbai, answers this by putting the customer first. As one of India’s first cleantech-focused lenders for retail customers, Metafin’s customised financial model allows customers to pay for solar energy with the savings they gain from it. Co-founders Sandeep Chopra and Aditya Shah hope that this model will exponentially expand access to clean energy for retail customers in India. Metafin opened their first commercial launch in September of 2019. Since then, they have helped more than 150 customers adopt clean energy in 11 states and over 50 cities and towns in India.
We were glad to have the opportunity to interview Metafin CEO Sandeep Chopra about the inspiration behind Metafin, and what he sees in its future!
Harvard Innovation Labs: What inspired you to start Metafin?
Sandeep Chopra: After spending close to 20 years in the corporate world, I decided to do something that has a greater impact. As soon as I left school in 2012, I joined a startup in the clean energy world. That company today is one of the largest solar players in India and is listed at NYSE.
While I was at that company, one of our major questions was: what problems cause climate change and how do we tackle them? While a lot of work is being done on the large scale solar farms side, for large-scale impact to happen, retail adoption of cleantech energy is the key.
The next question was: what is the biggest impediment to accelerating retail adoption of clean energy? The answer was providing a right technology solution that is engineered well, and affordable for retail customers.
For example, customers today are either using grid power through electricity connections or using alternative fuels like diesel to meet their electricity needs, depending on whether they are in urban or rural India. As solar becomes affordable and economically viable, it makes a lot of sense for retail customers to adopt it. However, lack of quality installation options and steep upfront capital outlay impedes adoption by retail customers.
If somebody told me, “You can change your energy consumption from the grid to solar on a deferred payment basis, such that monthly payments of installations are largely funded by the energy savings, and system maintenance and insurance for the payment period are also taken care of,” I would definitely go for such a solution.
HIL: I know that COVID-19 affected many businesses. Was that the case for Metafin?
Chopra: We had about six months in action before COVID-19 hit. In September of 2020, the market started showing signs of recovery. Since then, we’ve tripled our sales.
However, COVID-19 affected our focus. India is a large country. We started in urban centers and did not pay attention to rural areas. When the country went into lockdown, we realized that it’s actually the rural economies which were unaffected by COVID-19. In rural areas, people rely on agriculture and daily essentials. So ninety percent of our growth has actually happened in rural areas faced with intermittent power problems.
The first project that we financed in rural India was for a customer running a flour mill, a wheat and pulse grinder – a great example of energy inclusion in rural India. In Indian villages, people who grow wheat must find a way to grind it. The owner of the grinder charges money to grind wheat, mustard etc and give it back to the villagers.
The grinder was being operated by the owner by using a tractor motor that burned diesel. So, by day, the tractor was being used to farm, and at night, it was burning fossil fuel to grind wheat! We said, “we’ll finance and put in a solar-based installation for your mill, and you can pay it back with the money you’ll save from not purchasing diesel.”
Three things happened.
One, he didn’t have to wake up at night to switch on his tractor because solar works in the morning. While he was running his farm, his grinding work was happening, so his working day became shorter.
Two, he was not burning fossil fuels, so the cost of fossil fuel was eliminated. If he was paying $700 every month before, he was only paying $200 a month after the solar installation. He ended up saving $500 per month, part of which was being used to pay for his solar installation.
Three, he was using clean energy. All of this was made possible because we know the technology well, can build a financial product around it, make it affordable for the farmer, and change his life for the better.
Since then, we’ve done close to a hundred and fifty transactions for customers in urban and rural India, and our business model is evolving. Every dollar that we lend is one that helps climate change reversal.
HIL: Could banks help overcome this barrier to helping customers adopt solar energy?
Chopra: Typically, banks and other financial players are geared up to lend larger ticket sizes and specialise in evaluating credit risk alone. Traditional lending approaches do not render banks as a natural fit to lend to retail consumers looking for financing for clean energy installations. Furthermore, lack of industry-specific knowledge hinders banks today.
Our customers also struggle to make the leap. They want to make sure that the equipment is of a high quality and will work for many years. How can we make sure that customers will get a solution that’s both risk-free and delivers energy?
Our way of solving this problem is to look at the operational risk and center the customer. Through our strategic partnerships, we’ve accessed hundreds of retail partners who are validated by us or our strategic partners and who use technology that’s validated. If we are financing something for a customer, the customer knows that their payments only start when their equipment is installed and working. All installations financed by us are covered by mandatory Operations and Maintenance contracts covering the tenor of our loans.
HIL: What do you see as the future for Metafin?
Chopra: We are one of the first cleantech lending companies in India focused on retail customers, and our ambition is to be a leader in helping retail customers accelerate the move from fossil fuel to clean energy by defining how the financial players will respond to this challenge.
Metafin is customer centric. If we, as a lending organization, behave like a normal lending agency and are not solving the real problems for customers, then the risk of default goes up significantly. By taking financing from us and the solution from our partners, a customer is ensured a working solution and is not likely to default because all or most of the money will come from the savings they’re getting. We did not have a single dollar of default (there have been some delays, though) because of COVID because we know our customers and their needs well, so they make money before we do.
Metafin is part of our series of profiles on ventures in the inaugural Harvard Climate Entrepreneurs Circle, a global cohort of Harvard students and alumni actively working on solutions that tackle climate change. Want to learn more about what businesses are doing, can do, and should do to confront climate change? Check out the BEI Climate Rising podcast, hosted by Rebekah Emanuel, Director of Social Entrepreneurship for the Harvard Innovation Labs.