It is very rare in our part of the world for individuals and companies that are doing well to keep silent over their achievements. It is common to see individuals and companies use traditional and social media to tell the public what they have achieved. However, that is not the case with Josh Kalisa, Managing Director of One Africa Business Solutions (Pty) Ltd, a South African-based social entrepreneurship company that is specialised in Renewable Energy solutions for the local communities with a focus on solar energy. Josh and his brother, Sammy, established One Africa in 2016 after an extensive research and studies on energy challenge in East Africa between 2014 and 2015.
Despite initial funding challenges, Josh and Sammy never gave up on their dream, but rather continued to pursue their mission to improve the quality of life in rural and poor communities through manufacturing, supplying of solar products as well as building off-grid solar plants. Within the few years of the existence of One Africa, the company has made impact on thousands of lives in rural communities through their solar products in East and Central Africa. In spite of the tremendous achievements and impact his company is making, Josh has decided to be on the quiet side and not open One Africa to any media publicity until recently when he accepted an interview request from energynewsafrica.com.
One Africa supplies solar lanterns in East Africa especially in Tanzania, Kenya, Rwanda and Eastern DRC. In 2017, the company signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with World Share Tanzania, a Korean Non-profit organisation that deals with supporting children and empowering women around the world. Since then, it has been supplying them solar lanterns. In 2018, One African won an award for being Solar Energy Implementation of the Year from Alleem Business Congress Awards, a UAE-based company.
In the same year, it signed an MoU with Alleem Research and Development. In 2019, it launched a new product (Nara solar backpack) for supporting students. One Africa is hoping to establish a solar factory in East Africa by 2025 to help them address many challenges on energy poverty and socio-economic issues. Below is an excerpt of an interview with Josh Kalisa via mail:
What kind of solar products do you produce?
One Africa has three types of solar lanterns namely (Nightlight (mushroom) Solar Candle, Solar Jar and Solar Top, power bank and solar cooking stoves.
• Nightlight solar candle have life span of four to five years depending on how it used, it can light up between 6 to 7 hours once is full charged, it is a water resistant.
• Solar jar and solar top are one of best selling products. They can be used for different purposes. They are waterproof. They can light up between ten to twelve hours once they are full charged.
• Nara solar backpack is recycled bag made with PVC billboards, banners and other waste materials. This bag is has a transparent pocket which a solar top is placed in and can charge while a student is on the way to or from school and during studying hours at school.
Products and value chain
• Nara solar backpack is a waterproof school bag made from recyclable materials like PVC billboards, banners etc (which make them eco-friendly products). The bags are integrated with solar lanterns which can be charged during the day time when a child is on the way to or from school. These two helps the learners to carry their school books in safe environment and also at the same time charge the solar lantern which they will use later at night when they doing homework and studying.
• The solar lanterns and bags are designed and made here in South Africa (Proudly South African products). The majority of people who are making these great products were not fortunate with formal education background mostly are (women and youth from townships and informal settlements) and they were unemployed but after soft skills trainings offered and equipping them with tools, today they have permanent job and they are contributing in South African economy. Another positive impact is that they can send their children to school and sustain their families.
Who are the beneficiaries?
Our primary beneficiaries are people who live in rural areas and poor communities which are not connected to electricity. We are focusing on students and small businesses.
How is your company’s initiative addressing shortfall in electricity in beneficiary communities?
To address the energy poverty in these areas, we decided to focus on education and small businesses. So we started Nuru Education Initiative (Nuru is Swahili word which means light) and, together with our partners mainly NGOs, we supply solar lanterns and Nara solar backpacks to schools that are located in rural areas and under-privileged communities so that they would be able to study and also do their homework at night more comfortably than using kerosene lamps or candles, which have a lot of health consequences. So far, we have received a number of great testimonies from students, parents and teachers, which is a great success and proof that when students are empowered, they can perform well at school and get excellent results. At the same time, we have been working closely with street vendors who are playing a huge role in most under-privileged communities where their businesses need lights because most of them work till late night especially in cities or towns. We identified their challenges quite easily, hence, they use kerosene lamps and, sometimes, the kerosene lamp can spill kerosene over their products like foods and other essential items and that affects their daily sales. Street vendors are happy to use solar lanterns over kerosene lamp because per day, a street vendor can use up to one litre of kerosene, which is roughly around $ 0.38 a day and $ 11.4 per month. If you compare it with one of our solar lantern which costs roughly $11.76 and can be used between two to three years with the capacity of lighting between 10 to 12 hours once it is fully charged, you can see there is huge financially benefit for them and most importantly for their health benefit too. So switching from fossil fuel to solar energy will change a lot in our communities.
Is your company facing any challenge?
One Africa, like any other companies we are facing challenges in different factors, I can mention few.
• Rural and underprivileged households typically have unpredictable cash flows and may not be able to immediately pay for our products.
• Mistrust of solar technology; there is general mistrust among rural and underprivileged households of solar technology. Several local shops and vendors have been selling cheap solar lanterns and solar panels home systems that are defunct within a year of purchase. This has caused general mistrust of the technology among rural and underprivileged communities.
• Underestimating and devaluing made in Africa products (like our solar lanterns and bags) is something we encounter always to a point many would even dare to ask why we don’t buy Chinese products and bring them as cheap and sale.
• Trade information and communication is very low and this make it hard to do business around the continent because it has became as norm that every products must come from China or elsewhere so we take this as huge challenge.
• Lack of regulations to deal with counterfeit products which are available to the markets.
• Lack of policies and information that clarify the incentives given to solar products, because some countries have different policies on customs, (VAT and Import duty). Some have exempted the VAT and import duties in order to promote clean energy, however some haven’t done that. Sometimes we are forced to pay the VAT and Import duties while the policies are in place but not applied by custom officials.
• Logistics is another big challenge we are facing and this affects the prices and services.
• We are still struggling to get financial support from local banks, this disadvantage us as local company to grow because we are in a competitive market which we share with big economies which are industrial countries that produce in mass what we are doing so when we can’t get financial support from our own banks, how will we stand the foreign companies that are coming with financial supports from their own countries and can easily get a quick support even our governments than us who are trying hard to manufacture and create jobs?
What can African governments do to ensure that island communities without electricity have access to power?
So far, African governments in recent years have invested in the energy sector especially by building hydropower plants and also promoting renewable energy. But a lot of work needs to be done to reach those in remote and isolated areas. We have seen many clean energy companies investing in Africa for the past ten years. However, African governments must improve partnership with private sector in the energy field by promoting Power Purchase Agreements (PPAs) with Independent Power Producers. We can attract many local and foreign investors to build off-grid electrification once the government is willing to buy the power.
However, this can be achieved if there are friendly renewable energy policies that enable the spread of solar technologies to isolated communities and also political will and commitments to support these investments. This means, even local financial institutions like our banks will be able to engage with energy companies and set renewable energy loans so that we, as local companies, can take up loan for clean energy projects. This can be achieved when these institutions have guarantee that governments are going to buy electricity from the independent power producers. So partnership is very essential between all actors from public and private sector. The larger population of sub-Saharan Africa lives without electricity and we know once a village is connected to power, it changes rapidly economically and socially. We have seen this improvement even in our solar initiatives.
I believe solar energy is very suitable to many African countries because we have a long period of sunny days, and all we need is to invest in the energy sector and at the same time moving quickly in manufacturing solar products here in Africa. If we have more producers in our continent, this will decrease the high cost of solar products compared to current costs. One Africa is currently engaging several partners and seeking capital investment for solar factory that we want to build in one of the East African countries based on market strategies for the entire region. So, we are still in talks and hoping the best for this project. We believe that manufacturing solar lanterns, panels and other solar products like batteries in Africa will bring a great benefit in energy sector and offer jobs to young men and women and add to the value chain. This means from manufacturing to end users, many people will be involved.
We cannot continue with old habit of buying final products from overseas because it does not add up value to us and that is why solar energy is still perceived as an expensive energy alternative because all products are imported. Here, I can say that India is doing a lot to boost domestic solar cell and module manufacturing capacity. Why can’t Africa do that while we have young people from formal and informal sectors who can work in the factories? This will address the high unemployment rates that African youth are currently facing.
Lastly, in 2018, the South African government, through Eskom, signed 27 independent renewable energy agreements with a combined investment value of 56 billion rands and capacity of 2,300 MW. We need to see more of these kind of partnerships in Africa. I strongly recommend all actors to work together if we want to see a huge change between now and 2030. We must work hard to achieve Affordable and Clean Energy as one of United Nations Sustainable Development Goals because if we have enough electricity, we have power to turn Africa into industrial hub that will boost our economies. The African Continental Free Trade Area will not benefit us if we don’t have products made within our continent. This means, African governments must give the energy sector the priority.