Solar energy company setting its sights on Africa

OPAM Solar, which manufactures solar energy devices, is planning to expand its operations in Africa. Support from Finnpartnership helped the company to find and test a business concept suited to developing countries.

OPAM Solar is a Helsinki-based company that has manufactured control systems for laboratory and electronic devices since 1991. In 2004, OPAM Solar expanded its product range to include solar energy products.

From the outset, it was clear that developing countries would be one of the key market areas for the Finnish company’s solar devices.

OPAM Solar’s first contact was made in Kosovo via a Finnish friend. Going international was going to require support, so OPAM Solar’s managing director, Otto Manninen, looked into the available options. He found Finnpartnership, whose support enabled OPAM Solar to analyse markets and opportunities for launching production in Kosovo.

“In the end, Kosovo proved to be a difficult operating environment for us. The war had only just ended, so it wasn’t really feasible for us to set up business there,” says Manninen.

Concept refined in Kosovo

But their work didn’t go to waste. The operating model that OPAM Solar had drawn up for Kosovo could, with a little bit of fine-tuning, be adapted to other emerging economies.

The concept was put to use when the company set out to analyse the African solar energy market.
A contact in the West African country of Ghana was made through a Ghanaian living in Finland. OPAM Solar found a suitable partner, and signed a contract to launch production.

“We didn’t apply for any support from Finnpartnership to launch our operations in Ghana. Our previous cooperation with this reliable organisation did, however, provide backup for our negotiations in Ghana.”

In spring 2010, OPAM Solar opened a production facility for solar panels, charge controllers, and installation mounts in the capital city, Accra.

Production lines, tools, machinery and training were imported from Finland. Employees received a thorough introduction to and training for the entire production process, from ordering components to manufacturing products. It has been agreed that OPAM Solar’s Ghanaian partner will run routine operations, while OPAM Solar will focus on technology and R&D, and also provide marketing support.

“Success in this market will require both parties’ expertise. My partner is more familiar with the local target markets and also knows how, and to whom, to sell our products.”

East and South Africa also appealing

On the basis of its favourable experiences in Ghana, OPAM Solar began considering expansion into other areas of Africa. Analyses of the markets in Kenya, Uganda and Zambia are now underway. The Finnish company has received Finnpartnership’s Business Partnership Support to carry out this work.

“The most interesting of these countries is Kenya, where the stabilising political situation appears to be enabling economic growth again.”

In Kenya, OPAM Solar is cooperating with World Vision Finland, which has development projects in rural areas.

In addition to East African countries, Manninen is also interested in looking into opportunities in South Africa at some point.

“South Africa is the continent’s most industrialised country. The solar energy market is also getting a boost from building regulations, which state that new buildings must be equipped with solar-powered systems for heating water.”

Products suit African conditions

OPAM Solar’s product range extends from industrial solar electrification to small packages for mobile phone chargers and LED lighting. Manninen also thinks that small systems are ideal for poor, sparsely populated areas that are not connected to the national electricity grid.

“This device provides light in the evenings, enabling children to do their homework and parents to do household chores. Solar energy can also be used to charge mobile phones.”

OPAM Solar is prepared for tough competition in African markets. Others, such as Chinese manufacturers of solar energy devices, are also after the same fishing grounds.

“The only way to beat off competition from the Chinese is to manufacture products locally in Africa, where labour costs are significantly lower than in Finland.

Alongside affordable prices, quality is also a requirement in Africa. We can guarantee Western quality by importing Finnish production lines, components, and expertise.”

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