CEO of Uganda’s Bakulu Power finds her feet in renewable energy game

Lucia Bakulumpagi-Wamala

Seven years ago, while visiting her family in the town of Gayaza, in central Uganda, Lucia Bakulumpagi-Wamala couldn’t help but notice the garbage on the streets. Having grown up in Canada, this was an unfamiliar sight for her. She began to wonder if the trash could be used for something productive.

“When I noticed all the garbage, I became curious. Something about all the garbage really struck me. That was how I started Bakulu Power,” says Lucia.

Bakulu Power is a Uganda-based renewable energy company that designs, installs and operates systems for residential and commercial clients.

“We operate at the micro and macro level,” Lucia explains. “At the micro level, we design systems for homes, hotel or manufacturing companies to help reduce their reliance on fuel or the grid, which is technically unreliable in our country. At the macro level, we develop mini grids and sell the electricity to the entire community per unit.”

Initially, Lucia wanted to focus only on producing power from waste, but after talking to a friend, she started thinking towards solar energy.

“Bakulu Power started in my mind years ago but it was incorporated in November 2015. When I went to Uganda seven years ago, I was pregnant. It is very common for women in that condition to look at things differently, especially since you are bringing a child into the world. I think that sort of contributed to establishing the company as well.”

“People ask me, ‘Why energy?’ Well, it is the prerequisite for all development,” says Lucia.

Prior to creating her company, she worked for UNICEF Canada and also operated as an agent in the fashion and entertainment industry for several years.

Bakulu Power is currently developing three solar mini-grids in Uganda’s Buvuma district that will bring electricity to over 8,000 people. It is also involved in a clean cooking fuel (biomass) production plant at a refugee camp in the western part of the country.

“We use solar a lot. We also use biomass and biogas. We don’t have the opportunity for wind at the moment but we are looking at a project that will employ the wind and we are also looking at using the hydro now.”

Courting investors

The initial capital to start Bakulu Power came from Lucia’s savings and support from her siblings. “When you are an entrepreneur, it’s not like you have a perfect idea or some money hidden somewhere. You start to build on the idea and nurture it with whatever money you have.”

The company doesn’t have an external investor yet, but Lucia says half of her time is now spent on courting backers to believe in her entrepreneurial dream.

“In the world we are now, people understand the need for rural electrification. It is not like I am proposing something that doesn’t already exist. It’s not really easy, but the conversation is already going. But then, it’s always a challenge when you are new. We are all very young in my team and we are a local company. This is a big challenge for some investors,” says Lucia.

“It may be difficult when you are dealing with large multinational companies or donors who may look at newness as a shortcoming. Sometimes people forget that every business has to start one time. That can be frustrating because in my team, everyone is a rock star but there are times when people will just say, ‘Oh, you are young. You just incorporated about one and half years ago’.”

“It can also be difficult to prove to people that I am serious. I laugh a lot, I make a lot of jokes, and I am a free spirit. Sometimes people misconstrue that. But then, I don’t see it as a challenge because I am who I am and I like it.”

Another challenge is maintaining a work-life balance.

“I am a mother and my role as the CEO and founder will take a while for me to get used to,” she says. “For example, I just came back from Kigali on business and my daughter was in Canada with my sister. That is difficult but you just have to keep trying. Whenever my work takes me away from home, I bring my daughter a lot of souvenirs. I compensate with toys!”

“I try to remind myself that there is no such thing as perfect or that it might be a home run. I learn from experience. I take a look at what works and what doesn’t work and I adjust,” she explains.

Adapting to local realities

Having grown up in Canada, Lucia was used to the way things are done in the West. However, she had to tweak her approach to align with the operating environment in Uganda.

“In the beginning, I tried to do things in the ways I am used to in the West but I suffered from that. Now, I consciously try not to disregard the way things are done locally,” she says. “For instance, we ran a very successful ad campaign on Facebook but in my North American mind, I wanted to drive traffic to the company’s email address because in North America, you never drive traffic to let say, the WhatsApp number. That’s not how companies work. But you know, that bias I had affected the effectiveness of the ad campaign because people weren’t responding to the email.”

Lucia believes this can happen to anyone who has lived outside the continent for a long period of time. “When we have grown up in the Western world, we assume that… is how things should be and that it is what everyone in the world wants.”

“You really have to be conscious of how things work where you are working,” she advises. “If you keep doing things according to your biases, you may end up damaging your business. Bring what you have learnt but do not think that things can always be done the way you saw it where you have lived.”

Popping up on Forbes’ list

Although Bakulu Power is less than two years old, the company is already attracting attention. This year, Lucia was selected as one of the 30 African entrepreneurs to look out for by Forbes. Its chief technical officer has also been selected for the Tony Elumelu Foundation’s entrepreneurship programme.

Lucia says her proudest achievement is putting together Bakulu Power’s founding team. “I assembled my founding team based on recommendations. One of my cousins suggested a cousin who is a brilliant engineer. He has brought in a few people within his network. As I find great people I ask if they know more great people. I once read Tony Robbins calls himself a ‘Hunter of human excellence’.”

To aspiring entrepreneurs, Lucia says, “Follow your heart. Learn everything you can and remain open to learning. Don’t ever think you know everything because you don’t.”

“I have gone to a meeting where people literarily laughed at me. Your self esteem just takes the beating. But then, you lick your wounds and keep going.”