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

November 1

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”.

Did you know: Over $725.6 Mn was invested in Africa in 2018.
Keep tabs on the Venture Capital Landscape of Africa with the VC Report 2018 by WeeTracker. Find out the Latest Fundings, Top Investors, Leading Sectors & much more..

Meet Jean Bosco Nzeyimana: The Rwandan Entrepreneur Who Is Changing Lives One Briquette At A Time

January 14

From Nyamagabe – a small village in rural Rwanda – comes the story of a confident 25-year-old that is solving some of the problems of his immediate community one briquette at a time.

Jean Bosco Nzeyimana grew up in a poor, rural community that could boast of very little by way of infrastructure or even the necessities. Housing was shabby, clean water was hard to find, and electricity was a luxury most of the locals would rather not think about – mostly because it was more non-existent than it was inconsistent.

Even though he was only a child of school age, Jean Bosco did feel the pangs of the dire situation from those early times. Every morning, before he left for the only school in the community, he would have to meander through the woods in search of firewood – a precarious and exhausting ordeal for a child his age.

As was the case for most of the locals, life was anything but a rosy affair for Jean Bosco. But unlike many of his peers, the young Rwandan chose to look at the big picture instead of feeling distraught. And that mindset would eventually become the catalyst for what is proving a tonic for community growth and economic emancipation.

Image Source: italkstuff.com

Growing up in his village, Jean Bosco was no stranger to the hardships and privations that characterised rural life. Most of the community was living in squalor, and the young boy was greatly disturbed by those living standards, or perhaps, the apparent lack of it. Thus began his quest to give the locals a chance at a better life.

Due to the absence of electricity and because the community knew no other energy source, wood was the go-to guy for all things fuel. As is common in many parts of rural Africa, the villagers relied on charcoal from wood for cooking.

Apart from the fact that burning wood is unhealthy and inefficient, the wanton felling of trees for firewood and other purposes also has an adverse effect on the environment. Throw that in with the fact that a very significant proportion of the Rwandan population still use wood for their energy needs, and the environmental impact becomes even more alarming.

 

Jean Bosco was concerned by the devastating deforestation, but that was not the only thing that caught his attention. He was also disturbed by the many rubbish-laden landfills that dotted parts of Rwanda, and his village was seeing more than its fair share.

 

The idea of felling trees eliminated much-needed ground cover which left lands susceptible to erosion. The ravaging erosion created vast, gaping gulleys, and the idea of filling those gulleys with waste was nothing close to an ideal solution.

Jean Bosco Nzeyimana was only 19 when he began to explore better ways to solve the problem, and he soon came upon a single solution to what seemed like a two-headed problem. If his idea was anything like a slingshot loaded with a single rock pellet, it was going to take out two birds in a single shot.

Jean Bosco And Habona Staff At A Waste Site
Image Source: newtimes.co.rw

The then-teenager found a solution that involved turning waste into energy and the solution was unique in that it was going to take care of two problems – deforestation and waste. His idea involved turning organic waste into clean-burning and efficient briquettes, as well as fertilisers for farmers. If all went according to plan, gone will be the days of villagers felling trees and burning wood for fuel, and no longer would grotesque waste engulf the scenes of Rwanda’s landscape.

With the idea now in the bag, the next challenge was always going to be the toughest nut to crack – and that’s finding the funds that would breathe life into the idea. Being only a teenager in an economically-disadvantaged locale with very little by way of track record or experience, it was always going to be an uphill task to get the requisite financial backing.

But the young Rwandan entrepreneur remained undeterred in his quest to improve lives with his solution. Like the gospel, he spread the word of his idea to all and sundry, and it soon began to gather momentum.

By contesting for prizes in various entrepreneurship competitions and participating in some tech events, Jean Bosco had begun to generate buzz around his waste-to-energy idea, and before long, he was lodged in talks with potential partners from various parts of the globe including the U.K. and U.S.

With some financial support from African Entrepreneur Collective, Jean Bosco was able to set up a business called “Habona” which literally translates to “Illumination” after reaching an agreement with his district’s authorities which allowed him to use a waste management facility for free. He established the company back in 2013 while he was still studying Business Administration at the University of Rwanda’s College of Business and Economics.

But then came another hurdle. Since it was a relatively new business, it was hard to find employees with the requisite skills. Granted, collecting and sorting the trash hardly required any special skills, but when it came to processing, there was a manpower deficit as many of the locals had neither seen nor heard of briquets.

It was very unlikely that the workers would waltz in and start making a product they knew nothing about, so the Rwandan ‘wastepreneur’ went about training the workers himself, and spending funds in the process too. But those days appear to be over as Habona now seems to have found a foothold.

Jean Bosco’s startup collects and sorts garbage to make briquettes, biogas, and organic fertilizers for a customer base that encompasses restaurants, hotels, schools, businesses, farmers, and government offices.

More so, Habona’s biofuels are believed to be currently used by as many as 1,500 households in Rwanda while employing up to 26 people on a permanent basis and nearly 50 more as casual workers. Thus, empowering people and improving quality of life in parts of rural Rwanda.

Jean Bosco With Obama, Medhat, Checa, and Zuckerberg At The 2016 GIS 
Image Source: eetimes.com

Jean Bosco has seen his stock rise tremendously since piloting his idea. In 2014, he was named Top Young Entrepreneur of Rwanda while also going on to claim the African Innovation Prize. He also shared the stage with the likes of Former U.S. President, Barack Obama, and Facebook Founder, Mark Zuckerberg, at the Global Innovation Summit which took place in California back in 2016 – both of whom were impressed with the progress he has achieved his community.

Now 25, Jean Bosco seems to be thirsty for even more success and is showing no signs of slowing down. He hopes to extend his idea to other parts of Rwanda and beyond in the near future.

 

 

Feature image courtesy: @nzibosco via Twitter

Did you know: Over $725.6 Mn was invested in Africa in 2018.
Keep tabs on the Venture Capital Landscape of Africa with the VC Report 2018 by WeeTracker. Find out the Latest Fundings, Top Investors, Leading Sectors & much more..

Microfinance Software Company Musoni Services Gets Investment From Alterfin

January 14

Africa focussed microfinance software company Musoni Services has raised an equity investment from Alterfin; a Belgium based Co-operative society. Existing shareholders of the company joined Alterfin in this round.  The funds will be used for expansion into new markets, though the details of the transaction remain undisclosed.

Speaking about the investment, Jean-Marc Debricon, Alterfin’s General Manager said, ‘Alterfin understand first-hand the challenges that many rural microfinance institutions have when it comes to technology. We believe that Musoni can revolutionise the way financial services are delivered across the industry and particularly in rural regions where financial inclusion is at it’s lowest. The Musoni team has consistently demonstrated the system’s impact, and we are excited to work with them continuing our shared social mission.’

Musoni provides banking system to microfinance institutions in emerging markets, helping them to leverage technology and improve efficiency. The company claims to be used by a hundred financial institutions across 14 different countries (10 in Africa and 4 in Asia). Musoni BV is an investment company based in Amsterdam. It currently holds investments in Musoni DTM in Kenya and Musoni Services in Amsterdam.

The offerings of Musoni also include an integrated platform for multiple mobile money transfer services including SMS module for sending automated payment reminders. Apart from the core banking software, it has developed a tablet app for loan officers to process offline data collection and CRB integrations to assist in the lending decision.

To make the system accessible to MFIs, the Musoni System uses licenced SAAS pricing model; the annual fee is based on the size of the MFI licensing the system.

Alterfin was established in 1994 and focusses primarily on rural areas in low-income or middle- income countries around the world.

Did you know: Over $725.6 Mn was invested in Africa in 2018.
Keep tabs on the Venture Capital Landscape of Africa with the VC Report 2018 by WeeTracker. Find out the Latest Fundings, Top Investors, Leading Sectors & much more..

Branch Cumulatively Loans Kenya USD 10 Mn After Recent USD 5 Mn Issuance

January 14

San Francisco-based digital lender Branch has announced its commercial paper issuance of KES 500 Mn USD (USD 4,922,000) in Kenya.

The latest commercial paper follows a KES 350 Mn (USD 3,444,204) issuance that was announced in 2018, which was preceded by KES 200 Mn (USD 1,968,116) in 2017. This third and largest issuance which has been arranged by Barium Capital brings the entire commercial paper to a little over KES 1 Bn (9,840,583).  The investment will be used to expand the firm’s services in Kenya.

Branch had recorded a series of strides in the African landscape. Starting from its trade launch in 2015, it has grown by means of efforts made in Kenya, among which are internet penetration which has enabled users to access financial assistance using smartphones.

In competition with Tala, Okash and the likes, Branch offers micro-lending services in Nigeria, Tanzania, and Mexico. As part of this latest announcement, the firm revealed its intentions to expand into India this year.

Daniel Szlapak, Head of Global Operations for Branch, expressed excitement the firm draws from serving millions of Kenyans and easing them into essential financial service access. “ The huge growth and success in the Kenyan market have positioned Branch for strong global operation”, he said.

Branch offers M-Pesa loans of up to KES 50,000 (USD 491.64) via an Android application that can be installed from Google Play Store. The lending decisions are made by a proprietary credit score calculated by analyzing more than 2,000 data points on the phones of applicants. New borrowers begin with a loan up to KES 1,000 (USD 10), after which they can increase their credit limit based on their repayment performances per previous loans.

December 2015, Branch became the first African company to raise money from U.S-based VC fund Andreessen Horowitz who has Facebook and AirBnB included in its portfolio. The round was reported to have been USD 9.2 Mn. To date, the mobile-based financial services firm has raised more than KES 1 Bn in equity and debt financing.

 

Featured Image: Branch International Via Medium 

Did you know: Over $725.6 Mn was invested in Africa in 2018.
Keep tabs on the Venture Capital Landscape of Africa with the VC Report 2018 by WeeTracker. Find out the Latest Fundings, Top Investors, Leading Sectors & much more..

What If Sign Language Could Be Heard? This Kenyan Techie Is Making It Happen With His ‘Magic Gloves’

January 14

Roy Allela’s six-year-old niece was born with a hearing impairment. Being one of the 34 million children worldwide that are estimated to be battling disabling hearing loss, the poor little girl struggled to communicate with family and friends as attempts at conversation were often punctuated with moments of awkward misinterpretations and a general inability to convey her truest feelings.

Imagine not being able to hear or speak; while most people tend to jump at the idea of sight being the most essential of the five senses (or is it six these days?), I would like to think of hearing and speech ability as a rather close second – or perhaps the margins are even finer than I think and it’s more like a tie.

Roy Allela
Image Source: LinkedIn

In any case, that was pretty much it for Uncle Roy’s little niece who would be often be left distraught and throw ‘inaudible’ tantrums whenever she wanted something and couldn’t get it mostly because no one could tell what she wanted. Sad but true for most kids living with the condition, and maybe also living with people that don’t know much about sign language or facial expressions.

It’s not like the rest of the little girl’s family was having a swell time with the whole situation either. Folks at home were often tripping over themselves in attempts to communicate with her or answer her requests. This inability to communicate made it rather difficult for the family to connect with their little girl during the first six years of her life. But all that is beginning to seem like a thing of the past now.

Dejection. Frustration. Exasperation. Pain. Those feelings were mostly the case for most members of the poor girl’s immediate and extended families – well, everybody else except Uncle Roy, it would seem.

Roy Allela had always been fond of his little niece ever since she was an infant. When the unfortunate news of her condition became family knowledge, he cherished her even more. But with time now flying fast, the little girl was beginning to seem distant. Very disturbing, even his for his usually calm and optimistic self.

But he didn’t lose his head, though; which would have been some loss given that he carried a pretty good one on his neck. He began to think up ways to bring back his ‘baby girl’. Now, lavishing her with presents and spending quality time with her would normally seem like a plan, but he may have decided to give her more – something of the ultimate gift for persons living with her condition, as some might say.

Roy Allela opted to ‘gift’ his niece with something that was, to a large extent, neurologically unfeasible for someone with the condition – the ability to communicate by speaking. How he went about the whole thing, though, was nothing short of ingenious. The good thing about Roy was that he was more than just a doting uncle who was big on spoiling kids with chocolatey treats – he was also a highly-skilled engineer (you’ll sure get the idea why I mentioned the head he carries on his neck too).

As necessity is the mother of invention, Roy landed his wonderful creation. Inspired by his niece, the 25-year-old has brought to life a unique invention which is a smart glove that converts sign language gestures into speech.

Essentially, his creation could be thought of as a sign-to-speech device that makes it easier for people living with hearing and speaking disabilities to communicate better with spoken words through audio speech – which is also great for the multitude that doesn’t know the first thing about sign language; a win for both sides, so to speak.

The glove, aptly called Sign-IO, converts sign language into audio speech after identifying several letters signed by sign language users and passing along the data to an Android application through which it is then vocalised. Voila!

Through flex sensors fitted in each finger compartment of the glove, the degree of bend to which a finger is subjected to in the process of signing a letter is characterised and quantified. These signals are then processed and sent via Bluetooth to a mobile application that is also developed by Roy. The app takes up the baton from there and makes out audio speech from the signed letters.

Image Source: kenyans.co.ke

As Roy says; “My niece wears the gloves, pairs them to her phone or mine, then starts signing, and I’m able to understand what she’s saying. Like all sign language users, she’s very good at lip reading, so she doesn’t need me to sign back.”

Roy’s project went through preliminary trials at a special needs school in Migori County in Kenya’s south-western region. It was from the results of those trials that he obtained valuable data which helped him work on one of the most important aspects of the gloves – the speed at which sign language is converted into audio.

Just as it is with spoken language, people speak at different speeds and require varying lengths of time to put together their thoughts into sign language. Hence, it was imperative that this gets incorporated into the mobile application so that just about anyone could use it with ease.

Through the app that goes with the glove, users are allowed to set preferences in terms of gender, language, and voice pitch. Roy also claims that the gloves translation accuracy currently stands at an impressive 93 percent.

True to his fondness for kids, Roy Allela has also designed the gloves in a number of style variants – from ‘Spiderman-themed’ gloves to ‘Disney Princess-esque’ ones – giving kids something to be excited about and putting paid to the stigma and difficulties associated with hearing and speech disabilities.

For his efforts, Roy Allela has been the recipient of numerous awards and nominations. At the 2017 Innovation Showcase (ISHOW) competition organized by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), he took home the prestigious Hardware Trailblazer award. The prize money that came with the recognition helped him upgrade on the prototype and develop gloves that give more accurate translations.

Roy Allela is also one of 16 young African innovators drawn out from six countries that were nominated recently for The Royal Academy of Engineering Africa Prize for Inventors. Clinching the grand prize will see him go home with up to EUR 25 K to support his project.

Image Source: Intel Corporation

Having made his bones at the University of Nairobi where he won numerous awards before earning a degree in Microprocessor Technology and Instrumentation back in 2016, he also successfully completed a number of Udacity courses in the year that followed, with stints at Microsoft, Soko Store, and Emobilis Academy sandwiched in between.

A 2018 fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering, Roy Allela currently juggles working at Intel Corporation with tutoring at Oxford University for courses on Data Science and IoT. He also hopes to place at least two pairs of the Sign-IO in every special needs school in Kenya. Well, guess it’s true what they say – superheroes do not always wear capes, some only have gloves on.

 

Feature image courtesy: nairobinewsnation.co.ke

Did you know: Over $725.6 Mn was invested in Africa in 2018.
Keep tabs on the Venture Capital Landscape of Africa with the VC Report 2018 by WeeTracker. Find out the Latest Fundings, Top Investors, Leading Sectors & much more..

Naspers Fully Acquires Dubizzle For USD 190 Mn

January 14

The investment arm of South Africa’s Naspers – Myriad International Holdings – has decided to go all in and acquire the entire stake in Dubai-based Dubizzle for USD 190 Mn. According to the firm’s interim results, Naspers now owns a 100 percent stake in the company.

December 2012, Naspers made their first investment in Dubizzle, acquiring a 25 percent stake in the company through its MIH subsidiary. Through OLX, Naspers eventually went in for more to own 53 percent of the company, giving them the lion share. Having gone for the full deal at USD 190 Mn, Dubizzle is now valued at USD 409 Mn. 

Dubizzle was founded in 2005 by Sim Whatley and JC Butler and is the leader in online classified in the UAE, receiving nearly 8 million visitors each month. In August 2013, the founders announced that they were leaving the UAE to return home to the U.S, eight years after launching Dubizzle. They relinquished their day-to-day running of the company, which as at then had grown to include websites in 10 cities across the Middle East. According to an Arabian Business interview, both men were expecting babies in December that year, and needed to relocate to commune with family and friends. It was a difficult situation at the time, but it was a sacrifice both founders were willing to make.

The step down was also believed to have been as a result of majority stake acquisition by Naspers. After hiring talented staff who could act independently, both founders were reported to have felt less needed. Making good on their pre-intention to transition out of the business, Whatley, and Butler, both sold a portion of their equity to investor MIH. They had both built the company from scratch and had invested USD 12 K of their personal money, lived on passion and a 10-AED-a-day budget until they met an angel investor in 2006.

This isn’t the first mark of the newspaper firm’s prominence in investments, as they have a 30 percent stake in China’s Tencent Holdings, 28.7% stake in Digital Sky Technologies, others in Souq.com, Delivery Hero and another in Russia’s Mail.ru. Naspers, who is also listed on the London Stock Exchange, made the recent acquisition to increase its global presence in classifieds, payments and food delivery verticals. 

 

Featured Image: Techmoran

Did you know: Over $725.6 Mn was invested in Africa in 2018.
Keep tabs on the Venture Capital Landscape of Africa with the VC Report 2018 by WeeTracker. Find out the Latest Fundings, Top Investors, Leading Sectors & much more..

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