Prabissh Thomas, the managing director of PTL Solar, based in Dubai, started the company with Dh10,000 (US$2,722) in his pocket. The 39-year-old from India has since spread the company to 11 countries and is diversifying into retail outlets. The company is one of the finalists in the Gulf Capital SMEinfo Awards, the winners of which are to be announced next month.
What made you venture into solar energy sector?
I saw there was a need for renewable energy sources, and I was driven by the vision of powering sustainable growth. I am a management graduate and learnt about the sector on the job in India and the UAE, where I came in 2003. I started the company Green Energy in 2005 for the Gulf and the UAE, and in 2007 I started PTL Solar to expand the business in the Middle East and Africa.
What were the challenges in the initial days?
Like any start-up, it was a one-man show. Our focus then and now is off-grid segment, that is, we provide power using solar energy to stand-alone entities, such as street lamps, homes, hospitals and power backups for gadgets for corporates.
The solar energy sector is capital-intensive. In 2008, one 100-watt solar panel cost US$400 (Dh1,469). Now it has come down to $100. So finance was a challenge and banks do not lend money to start-ups when you need it.
It is only in the past couple of years that you hear of sustainable growth. But creating awareness at that time was also a challenge as the UAE is an oil-rich country and grid tariffs are among the cheapest in the world.
What does the company actually do?
We import components such as solar panels and batteries among others and assemble the system. We have tie-ups with 18 of the world's big companies. For instance we get solar panels from Mitsubishi of Japan, S-Energy of South Korea and Reliance of India.
In the UAE, where homes are yet to go off-grid, we work with Dubai Electricity and Water Authority to power the street lamps. We also work with the corporates, such as Mars, who have a mandate to get a percentage of their power from renewable sources. In Africa, we have powered hospitals and government entities.
You have a wide presence in Africa, including Nigeria, Kenya, Malawi, Djibouti and Ghana. What made you go so extensively into that continent?
There is a need in Africa. Some places go without power for eight to 12 hours a day. There we have provided solar energy powered systems to non-governmental organisations and hospitals and have worked as sub contractors for World Bank projects.
What are your plans for PTL Solar?
We plan to operate in 70 countries by 2015 and open 500 PTL Solar Marts by 2020. The first one opened at Dubai Creek Tower in June where you can buy even a single solar panel, cable, battery or garden lights.