Lois Gicheru is the founder of Solafrique Limited, the first distributor of solar generators for the Kenyan market. These generators offer 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.
Gicheru has been selected as one of five finalists for BiD Network’s 2012 Women in Business Challenge that focuses on women entrepreneurs in emerging markets. How we made it in Africa takes a moment with Gicheru to find out more about her entrepreneurial experiences and the importance of renewable energy in Africa.
What was the inspiration for starting Solafrique?
I have always been interested in green business practices and technology and that love began on campus when my research paper was on environmental accounting. When I started my events company I wanted to power my events using solar energy, however, the solution wasn’t available in Kenya. So I looked abroad and found my current suppliers. I identified the opportunity to use the generators to power facilities during the doctors’ strike in my country. I found out that they would have to use kerosene lamps at times when the power from the grid was unavailable and when their diesel generators were not working. With increasing fuel and energy costs, the generators would provide these institutions with uninterrupted, affordable power supply throughout the year, whatever the weather. Thus I decided to start Solafrique to market these products to the public.
How important do you think renewable energy is in Africa today?
Renewable energy is very important to Africa as this will provide our continent with the power source to provide sustainable energy to fuel our ever increasing activities, whilst providing the basis for the building of a green economy across the board. Our continent is blessed to have bountiful sources of natural resources and our governments should take advantage of these resources to make their states self sufficient, especially where energy is concerned.
What is the biggest challenge Solafrique faces?
The biggest challenge we face at the moment is the cost of the technology. Solafrique will overcome this challenge by firstly entering into agreements with financial partners to lease out the generators or offer asset financing packages for the clients. In the long run we hope to have an assembly factory in Kenya for the generators, which [will] drive the prices down further. The developments in the solar industry also show signs that the prices will come down in the long term and this will further improve the adoption of the technology in Kenya and Africa at large.
Solafrique is not your first business; tell us about your other entrepreneurial endeavours.
I started my first business, a cosmetics import business, whilst in campus with US$20 and grew that to revenues of $8,000. That business was later sold to my partner. I later started an accounting practice after I left full time employment in 2009, which I ran until I started my events management company in 2010, which I have been running and still run concurrently with Solafrique.
How do you manage your time between running two businesses? What is your secret?
There really isn’t a magic secret to running two companies at the same time, one just has to have very good time management skills, know how to prioritise and delegate when it comes to that, and have a passion for what your companies want to do. My events management company Innovent Africa’s main goal is to sensitise and educate the public on green living habits while making it fun and Solafrique’s main goal is to provide the fuel to grow the green economy. There cannot be a green economy if the society – an important component of the building and running of the economy – does not understand why they should be adopting green living practices or why it is important to protect the environment in which they live in.
Drawing from your experience, what do you believe are the most important traits an entrepreneur should have in order to be successful?
Persistence, passion, the ability to work hard, and a constant need to learn and improve on what they already know. Starting a business is not easy and one has to start a business in a field that is their passion because that is the only way you can overcome the obstacles you will surely face, like waking up in the morning and working even when there is no income and you are broke, or knocking on the next client’s door even when everyone else has told you no. Passion is the main trait an entrepreneur should have because when the chips are down it is the only trait that will fuel your hope.
Do you have any advice for other budding women entrepreneurs in Africa?
Entrepreneurship is not easy but then nothing good comes easily. When you decide to embark on your entrepreneurial journey, surround yourself with like minded individuals, get a mentor in your field to guide you through the obstacles you will surely face, work hard, read every day and never give up on your dreams.