Patrick Ngowi: Capturing East Africa’s Light

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Written by Cody Copeland

The founder and CEO of Tanzania’s top mid-sized company is bringing inexpensive renewable energy in the form of rooftop solar panels to parts of East Africa not covered by the main power grid.

His company’s slogan is “Capturing The Light,” but Patrick Ngowi, founder and CEO of Helvetic Solar Contractors in Tanzania, has garnered so much media attention lately one could argue he’s as good at capturing the limelight as he is at harnessing the natural solar stuff.

Earlier this year, Forbes listed Ngowi among the 30 best young entrepreneurs in Africa, and Helvetic was ranked No. 1 in KPMG East Africa’s survey of Top 100 Mid-Sized Companies in Tanzania in 2012.

“The attention received last year as the top mid-sized company and being featured on the Forbes list has been a humbling experience,” Ngowi said.

Although solar and other renewable energy sources are increasing in Tanzania, there is much more room for growth, energy officials say. Just 1 percent of Tanzania’s electricity comes from renewable sources.

Green energy, however, wasn’t Ngowi’s first choice of entrepreneurial enterprise. When he received a small loan from his mother to start up a business 10 years ago, he began by selling mobile phones and got off to a great start. He sold more than 5,000 phones, but soon got complaints from his customers about keeping them charged. He discovered that Tanzania’s energy infrastructure was insufficient to support the business he had started.

“Everyone wanted to get a phone and they could afford it. However, the challenge (was) …charging it. Thousands of my customers complained,” Ngowi said.

He realized Tanzania needed a solution to its electricity problem, one of widespread lack that affected the lives of his countrymen in many more ways than keeping their phones charged.

“They needed a solution to this. I then grasped the opportunity and looked at the industry as a whole,” Ngowi said.

At 18, Ngowi started to look into national power statistics. By age 19, he had saved enough money to enroll at Dezhou University in China. There he studied renewable energy. Ngowi returned home to Africa with the knowledge and ambition to bring affordable and accessible energy to Tanzania.

“I am happy that 10 years later, I go to the same rural communities that I sold mobile phones to and identify them by the endless solar panels installed by (Helvetic) on their rooftops,” he said.

Helvetic has installed more than 5,800 small home systems in Tanzania and the four other East African countries – Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi. Jointly, Helvetic Group (E.A.) operated with more than $15 million in turnover as of the end of 2012. This, in Ngowi’s opinion, is just the beginning.

“We still have to invest massively in getting the grid to the wider parts of Tanzania,” he said.

A Fertile Market

Ngowi’s success is a story of identifying and taking advantage of an opportunity. A decade ago, he saw a need and came up with a solution.

“When I started the solar business, the national power grid coverage (in Tanzania) was 11 percent in urban (areas) and 1 percent in rural. Seven years later, we have 15 percent urban and 5 percent rural,” Ngowi said.

The market for green energy is fertile, according to the Tanzania Renewable Energy Association (TAREA), a non-profit that strives to promote accessibility and use of renewable energies in Tanzania.

“Electrification is still very low, only 18.4 percent (countrywide),” said Matthew Matimbwi, executive secretary at TAREA . “Regulations are very favorable for the off grid.” In the last 10 years, the installed capacity (of renewable energies) has increased from 100 kilowatts to 2 megawatts, per year, he said.

Although solar and other renewable energy sources are increasing, there is much more room for growth. Matimbwi says just 1 percent of Tanzania’s electricity comes from renewable sources.