“People Thought We Would Give Up”- CEO, Zonful Energy

By November 1, 2018

Young William Ponela experienced many evenings in Zimbabwe where he could not study due to lack of electricity. On many such evenings, it was almost pitch-black in his home as kerosene lamps served as the only source of illumination in the absence of power. It got even worse during the rainy season as when the rains came down in massive torrents, they dampened all the firewood and ruined another source of illumination and energy in William’s home. William remembers those days when snakes would enter their house under cover of darkness and stay undetected. He recounts many occasions where children and family members would have no choice but to wait an entire night for the snake to somehow slip away.

 

William Ponela, CEO, Zonful Energy

Today, William is the Founder and CEO of Zonful Energy; a company that has sold over 20,000 units of solar lanterns to people across 32 districts in  Zimbabwe. Entrepreneurship is not new to William, though, as he is proud of having founded three other companies earlier and two decades of business experience under his belt.

Having seen successful exits in his previous ventures, Ponela was determined to make progress in a pertinent issue faced by the country. For him, creating a sustainable business became his passion. This time he was more focused on creating value than creating a higher valuation for his company.

Zonful Energy was established back in 2014 after a couple of years of rigorous research and experimenting with products at various stages. The business also secured a loan worth USD 4 Mn from KIVA International, and this capital injection helped spread the company’s products to rural areas. The company now prides itself in being at the forefront of providing clean and efficient solar energy to many rural communities.

Zonful Energy was in the news recently for having secured investments from Persistent Energy Capital. William’s team has built a product that mimics consumer behaviour instead of trying to change it after studying the East African Off-grid market diligently. In their experience, they had noticed that many countries had products that did not fit into the buying capacity of an average household. Moreover, there was a lack of understanding of the original social fabric which results in a lot of companies using traditional methods of credit rating which has made it difficult for them to scale-up. This is known to be somewhat responsible for the high rates of default.

The other loophole that the Zonful team detected in the East African Market was that most suppliers believed one product fits all approach and this hardly proves efficient for all customers. Customers are more suited to flexibility and variety.

Zonful customer showing the newly installed product

William estimates the Solar Home Systems (SHS) market in Zimbabwe to be comprised of around three million households and USD 1 Bn in annual revenue. He has also noticed that the first movers in the market with SHS products had a clear short lifespan. Also, the menace of counterfeit products is glaring wherein the end consumers pay the real price of low-quality products. This is one of the growing cause for concern for Zonful Energy in the SHS market, as naive consumers end up mistrusting genuine products. To get consumers to see the benefits of their products; the energy startup arranges community awareness meets. This perhaps works best for the team as it eliminates the need to engage in door-to-door selling.

To fit into the houses of its consumers, the energy startup has built a variety of products. Understanding that customers use these products for various purposes ranging from charging mobile phones and tablets to operating televisions, it has different category of products to fit the unique needs of individual customers.

 

The startup has been generating healthy revenues for the past two years; with an estimated figure of USD 3.5 Mn YTD for 2018. A lot has been able to streamline on its own, due to the addition of the mobile payment option for the customers. There were times when the startup could not collect money from consumers due to the manual process of obtaining the service fee, but that can be thought to belong in the past now.

The story had not been this rosy until a few years back. In a conversation with WeeTracker, William offered; “People thought we would give up.” One of the primary reasons for this was also the political and financial situation in Zimbabwe. “Getting the attention of investors was very difficult in this region. Hyperinflation was a big concern for any investor who was harbouring thoughts of plunging in.”

However, one of the most triumphant moments for Zonful, as William recounts was securing investment from Persistent Energy Capital. This investment gave them a much-needed foothold in the market. While the company is entirely focused on capturing Zimbabwe in this sector, it is also piloting in Malawi and Mozambique. It has been testing the market for both product feasibility and local governance.

 

Zonful team fixing solar panels on a rooftop

Recently, the company set a benchmark of installing 10 K SHS units in 6 months period; a number equal to their achievement in the last 3 years. William who has adopted a unique strategy for sales feels overwhelmed at achieving these numbers. He recounts, “In Zonful energy’s early days I would walk the corridors and ask people, what they do at the company: selling solar products, or selling a solution to a problem?”

The founder decided from the beginning to develop Zonful’s sales and marketing department organically rather than to compete in a zero-sum poaching contest with regional competitors. Since then, the startup has invested hundreds of dollars in the training, facilities, and tools the sales and marketing people need to succeed. William and team will be incepting  “Class Of” sales and marketing training program in 2018 and would aim at bringing close to 1000 fresh college grads to the company.

According to a survey by Afrobaromete, 62 per cent of Zimbabwe’s population live in zones served by an electric grid, but the households do not necessarily have lights or at times are undermined by erratic supply and reduced services. On an average, only 12 per cent of the connected households have electricity that does work, but the majority of the people are living in areas without an electric grid.

This, William feels is not just an opportunity, but a mission he has undertaken to solve. As the African population is getting younger; there is a greater need for people to have access to clean and uninterrupted energy. In one of his visits to a remote location in Zimbabwe, he met a man who shared his delight at having installed a solar lantern at his home. He was happy that the other family members might not have to suffer the harmful effects of a kerosene lamp that he had to. The 75-year-old man had lost his eyesight due to extensive use of kerosene lamps and firewood smoke.

Hustling for 20 years has given William a perspective entirely different on things. He feels every difficult situation is an opportunity that can be turned in one’s favour. For placing Zimbabwe amongst the top players in the growing startup ecosystem of Africa, Ponela adds, “Every business is created to address social problems in communities. Every entrepreneur should not be short of solutions as Zimbabwe has an abundance of problems to fix”.

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