How One Entrepreneur Is Moving Kenya Toward Renewable Energy

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Written by Frank Mutulu

As an African entrepreneur, Lois Gicheru could have had a successful business in IT, tourism or real estate.

Instead she chose renewable energy because she said it allows for innovation, is continually changing, and she knew she would always be challenged.

Gicheru was the first distributor of solar-powered generators for the Kenyan market. Her company, Solafrique Ltd., offers a cost effective, clean, uninterrupted, renewable energy supply for businesses and rural off-the-grid users who are looking for a substitute to diesel generators, according to HowWeMadeItInAfrica.

At 28, Gicheru was among five entrepreneurs selected for the BiD Network’s 2012 Women in Business Challenge award. The award focuses on women entrepreneurs in emerging markets.

Solar-powered generators are the solution to end Africa’s energy hunger, Gicheru told AfkInisder. It is an industry that allows her to contribute to the growth of Africa’s economy and the well being of society, she said.

She spoke with AFKInsider on how she found a solid footing in a turbulent African market.

How hard is it for a woman to do business in Africa?

Being a young woman in business is a double-edged sword. On one hand it can open doors, because right now it is a male dominated industry and the people you are dealing with are mostly men. I am therefore more likely to get a meeting because I am a woman.

On the flipside because of cultural barriers you might not get that deal because you are a woman.

Most if the time you are dealing with men from an older generation who grew up “knowing” that a woman’s place is at home, yet they find a woman young enough to be their granddaughter asking for mega deals.

They therefore find it hard to give business, not because they are bad but it is just how they were raised.

This is a cultural barrier that has to be surmounted but I believe that this will be done as you build mutual beneficial business relations. You will win their trust and confidence then they will see you as a serious business person.

Is this always the case?

No, it is easier to deal with the younger generation who are more exposed and open. They are also the first generation to be raised by professional women that saw their mothers in formal employment while growing up.

What event showed you that you chose the right path as an entrepreneur?

It was not one event but a series of events; both good and bad.

Still making it after a series of bad events showed that I was on the right path.

If you are meant to do something, even when you find a mountain in your path, you may not be able to surmount it but you will get round it eventually.

The fact that I have dodged all the curve balls thrown, shows that I am on the right path.

One example is when Solafrique almost got a deal that was supposed to be our first major one, but I ended up losing it after working on it for six months and I fell out with our suppliers as well. I had to start from scratch.

But four months later I had new suppliers, designing better products. I got new clients so that major setback has made us stronger and Solafrique is set achieve greater things than if things had gone as planned. We would be one of the pack, nothing unique about us.

If AFK Insider interviews you five years from now, what will have changed?

Solafrique would have definitely set up its own manufacturing plant in Kenya. That is what I can say for now. I cannot give away my strategy. Let’s talk in 2018.

How hard is it penetrating Africa?

It is difficult but it is not impossible.

To make it in this sort of market what you need is ingenuity, persistence, passion and lastly money.

You can do so much with the first three even with limited funds, which is actually what defines an entrepreneur.

If you are creative enough you will definitely find a way of getting money. Having money is good since it gives you a cushion but it is not all there is to it. It is important but not the priority.

What is your take on energy and green energy in Africa?

Africa is lagging behind, especially where green energy is concerned because the government is not taking the initiative to create the environment to empower the industries, consumers and other parts of the economy to move towards green energy.

This should be done through policies that should take advantage of the huge resources that would make Africa energy self-sustainable.

While the world is moving away from nuclear energy, Kenya for example is thinking of the idea of setting up a plant yet it has one of the most stable wind corridors in the world.

Africa cannot manage even simple tasks such as garbage collection so how can we then manage nuclear waste?

Why did you think of a business in energy instead of real estate, IT or tourism?

I have always been interested in green energy since college when I did a thesis on environmental management accounting. I started a wind company in 2009 when I left a job I had just gotten at the local branch of Citi.

I used to deal in urban wind turbines but the time was not right, the market is not ready for such products. It is not ready now as we speak.

But I still stayed in energy because this industry allows for innovation, it is continually changing as it is yet to mature. This means that I will always be challenged.

It is also one industry that will allow me to contribute to the growth of economy and the well being of the society.

Energy is a basic need anywhere but connectivity is lagging in Africa so this industry allows me to do a lot.

So what has kept you going?

My grandmother has been and continues to be a source of inspiration. She has raised me to believe I can do anything and that there is no goal that I cannot achieve.

She reminds me of this every time that I am with her.

We are very much alike. She was a pioneer in the nursing industry in the late 50s together with my grandfather who was a doctor. They were among the first indigenous medics.

What is your advice to young women entrepreneurs in Africa?

Follow your heart but do not forget to take your brain with you and never give up on your dreams.

It is difficult especially coming from an education system that does not give you the skills to create a business. They only teach you how to be part of a system.

If we are going to go‘anywhere we have to start creating our own systems.