A Childhood Interest in Energy Leads to a Startup With Global Recognition

Former BCGer Tomiwa Igun founded the solar power startup SunFi. He sat down with BCG to discuss the challenges of rapid growth, how BCG prepared him for entrepreneurship, and how exciting it is to have a lifelong passion lead to something good for the earth

SunFi seeks to fight climate change by providing a FinTech platform that enables clean energy solutions scale. This, no doubt, comes with unique challenges. Could you share background on how the idea for SunFi was conceived, and more about your model?

I think the seeds for SunFi were planted many years ago but it only came to fruition last year. As a 15-year-old waiting to relocate from Nigeria to the US for university, I was idle, and convinced my parents to let me use my mum’s shop to set up a video game arcade/café. The business grew quickly, but I realized I needed to buy a fuel-powered generator because of the unreliable grid. This had a profound impact on me and I ended up studying electrical engineering. And later I pursued a career that was connected with power/electricity so that I could help improve Nigeria’s power situation. Over time, I realized our power issues were not engineering-related, so I pursued an MBA to learn more about the business and strategic solutions. Having co-authored an HBS case study on the privatization of the power sector in Nigeria, I learned the depth of the problems and wanted to witness the unique privatization process firsthand.

BCG was kind enough to allow me to defer my post-MBA job offer so I could do a stint at Africa Finance Corporation where I supported their foray into power privatization. I would simply say the privatization didn’t go as I hoped, so I joined BCG back in the US, depressed over Nigeria’s missed opportunity in a space I had dedicated my career to. I mostly did power projects at BCG, and came to realize the opportunity solar presented as an alternative distributed energy source which is clean, reliable, and affordable (relative to fuel-powered alternatives in weak-grid markets like Nigeria). That’s what led to my first venture in the space, Aspire Power Solutions, which was a distributed energy provider/installer I co-founded to improve access to electricity in a cost-effective way. Over time, we learned that we could not scale Aspire due to lack of financing. Solar power systems are mainly capex, and Nigerians are accustomed to the more expensive, but cash-flow friendly, fuel-powered distributed power solutions. So we decided to build a platform that addressed solar installers’ pain-points, anchored to offering payment plans to end-consumers.

We operate a B2B2C business model that leverages solar installer partners (our “heroes”) for customer acquisition, and provides referrals to solar installers for end-consumers who come on our platform directly. Our current revenue model relies on margins charged for the payment plans. Our value proposition is sticky as we enable solar installers to scale by addressing their end-to-end value-chain needs. In addition to accessing payment plans in as little as 24 hours, they can design optimized solar-inverter-battery solutions, aggregate equipment demand for better supply chain terms, access a wide installer network, and activate remote monitoring capabilities. At the same time, end-consumers who previously could not access financing from traditional sources and had no clue what solutions or providers to engage, can now enjoy the offerings from the SunFi platform.

SunFi was recently inducted into the Norrsken Impact Accelerator 2022 as one of 20 of the world's most promising impact startups, and you personally were featured on the Nasdaq tower in Times Square recently (congratulations). How has such incredible recognition of the work you’re doing helped bring more awareness and voice to your mission?

Entrepreneurship is a roller coaster on steroids, oscillating between highs and lows! So I find it important to maintain balance even though wins ought to be celebrated. We have an exceptional team that continues to make a tremendous impact in the market. One of my co-founders says we’ve been training on Krypton because of how scrappy we’ve been. It is wonderful when our efforts are rewarded with recognition. We’ve been fortunate because, in most cases, recognition come from recommendations from members of our networks. Through these recognitions, we’ve been connected to other amazing entrepreneurs making an impact across the world, mentors who continue to provide valuable inputs and insights, programs that offer tremendous learnings, and the credibility to engage partners and investors. More importantly, the investment community is now more attuned to profitable business models that create tremendous positive network effects for society.

SunFi has seen rapid growth since it was founded, and with growth comes new and exciting opportunities. What are some new opportunities or partnerships you’re excited about when you think about SunFi's future?

A famous rapper once said, “more money, more problems." We’ll take the problems that come with having more money right now because we are growing at 35% month-on-month and that means our funding needs are ramping up significantly. We now have some of the biggest solar installers in Nigeria on our platform and they have very effective sales teams that continue to increase demand on the platform. That means we enjoy low customer acquisition costs and expand our reach, thanks to those solar installer partners. I’m excited about how those partnerships will continue to evolve and how we’ll continue to increase the number of active installers on the platform. I’m also very excited about some of the equipment finance and working capital conversations that will enable us meet growing payment plan demand on the platform. We’re also excited about creative partnership conversations with climate institutions, development finance institutions, and other international organizations that are looking to offer concessionary financing to integrators (like SunFi) to increase their reach. In the long run, I’m excited about the partnerships that will help spur our category and geographical expansion. We recently connected, via the Norrsken accelerator, with a trading platform for used electric vehicle batteries, and the circularity of their business model aligns with our sustainability mission.

Climate and sustainability is now a critical global topic that many individuals are focused on as well. Do you have any advice for other alumni looking to create impact in this space, or fellow entrepreneurs who want to follow a similar path?

Follow your passion when you’re ready. It’s really that simple and I find that many of us are not willing to take risks. What’s the worst that could happen? Be prepared for a hot-and-cold ride if you decide to pursue entrepreneurship. Seek out other entrepreneurs, because not many people can relate to your struggles. If possible, find a complementary set of co-founders because you’ll need that support or balance when times get tough. I suggest you also be cleareyed about your financial situation and how to sustain yourself should the business not be able to cover your expenses while you’re ramping up. A key unlock for me was realizing I needed recurring cashflows from investments instead of relying on savings which only dwindle over time. Get used to doing more with less—a place like BCG is not the real world. You won’t always be surrounded by the brightest minds and may find that you cannot afford access to amazing resources. Lastly, prepare your mind for working in much less structured environments and having less structured conversations.

You held various roles at BCG on the consulting and business side. Are there any lessons that you took with you from your time at BCG in these roles that continue to influence how you operate and lead your team today? How do you leverage your BCG skill set in your role today?

Indeed, I learned a lot during my time at BCG and those learnings have shaped much of how I operate. I’ve also been humbled after my departure because it’s easy to take for granted the level of talent, excellence, and resources available at BCG. A few things stick out for me—create value and rewards will come, approach complexity with structure, be data-driven, manage stakeholders and their expectations effectively, and build deep relationships. Beyond Excel and PowerPoint, I find that I rely heavily on efficient problem-solving, effective communication, proactive stakeholder management, practicality, and effectiveness—lifelong skills that keep on giving.