‘The potential is big,’ says green energy entrepreneur

Socially and environmentally conscious entrepreneur Mshinwa Edith Banzi is the founder of Illumination East Africa (iEA), a Tanzanian-based company that offers affordable solar chargeable LED lamps to predominantly low income earners. These lights have a battery life of between 18-24 months and batteries can be replaced thereafter.

Mshinwa Edith Banzi

Banzi is one of this year’s finalists for the BiD Network Fast5 Challenge, which aims to identify the most sustainable companies in emerging markets and present them to ready-to-invest financiers on the international stage. Banzi tells How we made it in Africa about the green energy industry in East Africa.

What inspired you to start Illumination East Africa?

The idea of Illumination came after a lot of thought on how I can assist the poor to access some of the important services that they don’t have or they can’t access. Clean and safe water and clean energy for lighting and cooking are the things which affect women and children in most African countries.

In my developmental work I have used 70% of my working time working around the energy issues, including environmental issues. Now I think it is my time to get more advanced and act rather than [sitting] with wishful thoughts that have no impact. I thought of having a simple, cheap, good quality solution for low income people. As I said, I am always thinking of new ideas and opportunities. My experience from developmental work in different parts of Tanzania made me curious of doing something extra. Seeing people living without light, with no access to clean and safe water, having several cases of fire accidents, seeing school children ending up having low performance in school – it was disturbing me and I decided to go into a business that would have a social impact on these people.

After Tanzania, which countries are you interested in expanding to?

The next countries are Kenya, Uganda, and Rwanda. Firstly, because they are in East Africa and share similar problems when it comes to most of the social services issues. Secondly, most of these countries speak the same language, hence it is easier to penetrate and be understood by the client. When I go to these countries I don’t need to change the promotion materials, I just use the same ones in Swahili/English.

What role do you believe green energy will hold on the continent in the next 20 years?

Renewable energy in Africa is a huge opportunity to allow for a better standard of living for a large part of current and future populations in Africa. The high share of rural populations is coupled with the low ability to pay for the cost of electricity hence pushing them to use traditional locally available energy sources, mostly biomass from agriculture residues and forest and savannah wood for their daily cooking and heating needs. In the next 20 years we are looking at green energy in two aspects:

– use of renewables to build power infrastructure and secondly,
– use of renewables to increase access to modern energy services.

How have you gone about marketing the business?

At the moment the marketing is done by word of mouth. In the past two years we have participated in agriculture shows and through those events we have been able to establish many customers and sales agents.

Marketing has also been through the network of Village Savings and Loans Association – these groups provide loans for their members for solar lights.

What advice do you have for others who are looking to enter the green energy business in Africa?

The potential is big. Agriculture needs to be modernised and with green energy business the sky is the limit. The only problem is on how to start and where to get enough capital (seed money) for green energy businesses. The investment cost is high, and sources of finance are limited with lots of bureaucracy. The linkages are most important so that you know where to sell and buy what is needed in the market. My advice is that these entrepreneurs have to join the business with a package of different products. The need is huge and the green energy business seems to be a long time solution for the energy problem. What I mean here is that there are various needs at the household level – having a combination of a variety of green energy can add value to the business. There is also a need to take care of items like refrigerators, TV radios, etc, that are of high value to the rural areas.