How A Frustrating Airport Blackout Might Just Inspire A Solar Revolution

By  |  May 1, 2019

In what was a storied career in the corporate scene, Richard Awuor was always on the move – jet-setting and globetrotting. He was a hotshot in a big corporate firm and most of the time, that meant spending more time in the skies than he would have liked.

More often than not, there was a conference to attend somewhere or a meeting to be had halfway around the world. And that meant that there was always a plane to catch. Airports had become something of a regular hangout spot for the then-Kenyan corporate guru.

He didn’t exactly hate the life – in fact, he revelled in it – but that was mostly because he didn’t know he had an “aha!” coming; something that was going to put his life on a whole new trajectory.

It began with yet another visit to the airport; something that had become routine by now. Awuor was hoping to catch a flight at an airport in Tanzania back in 2014 but while waiting at the terminal, something terrible happened. The entire airport lost power completely. The facility was plunged into darkness as the blackout happened after dusk. For Awuor, it was a combination of precarious, embarrassing, and frustrating.

When the power finally came back up in the airport after several minutes, Awuor had spent most of it feeling disgusted at how such a thing could still happen and thinking about what could be done to squash these power problems once and for all. It was during this moment of disgust-inspired introspection that an idea hit him. The said idea was to eventually lead him off the corporate track and onto the path of entrepreneurship.

Today, Awuor is one of the cavalrymen in Africa’s growing army of solar entrepreneurs who are lighting up the continent with its abundant supply of clean, free, and renewable solar energy.

Data from the International Energy Agency make for gloomy reading especially as the numbers indicate that about 625 million people in sub-Saharan Africa do not have access to power – that’s a staggering 68 percent of the continent’s total population.

It’s even more worrying in countries like Chad, Liberia, Burundi, South Sudan, and Malawi where electricity is accessible to less than 10 percent of the population in each of those countries.

Current systems that have been put in place to improve power supply on the continent has proved inadequate at best and as such, there’s been a clarion call for more reliable modes of power generation.

There’s hardly any doubt about Africa’s potential when it comes to solar energy. Solar power remains the most viable means of reaching some of the continent’s remotest parts; something that would remain elusive for decades to come if the traditional power grids are stuck to.

And beyond electrifying vast areas on the continent, it also comes with the plus of making the environment cleaner and greener as it cuts off dependence on fossil fuels.

Awuor probably had those in mind when he opted to abandon his corporate career path in favour of a foray into entrepreneurship forged around delivering affordable solar power to just about anyone. Today, he has the run of the place at Cellulike; a Pay-As-You-Go solar distribution company that procures and installs solar home systems in off-grid communities for customers who pay daily, weekly or monthly under fixed-term credit.

Richard Awuor was born in the coastal city of Mombasa in Kenya. That was where he had his education and lived most of his early life before moving to Nairobi for some part of his early work life.

He moved to Tanzania in 2012, where he worked as Country Manager for a Heineken franchise for a while before finding his way to another company – Maritime & Mercantile International; a member of the Emirates group dealing in fine wines and liquor. Here he handled sales and distribution within mainland Tanzania and the island of Zanzibar.

Richard Awuor
Source: Youtube

A firm believer in digital supply-chain technology innovation – before the move to Tanzania materialised, he had gone through a stint at Zain (Now Airtel Kenya) in Nairobi, where he proved himself quite valuable by designing the digital supply-chain process for Mobile Number Portability – something that saw him gobble up significant awards and recognition within and outside the company.

The airport power outage situation occurred while Awuor was still working for the Heineken franchise in Tanzania. He had made a market visit to the Mtwara region, South of Tanzania, and was due to return to Dar es Salaam that evening.

The power outage made flying impossible and while he waited in the lobby of the departures terminal, he wondered how other parts of the country might be faring if an airport couldn’t even get sufficient and reliable power.

The solar idea seemed like a decent solution to the problem and once back in Dar es Salaam, he teamed up with a friend and associate who was just as enchanted about the idea. Together, the duo dug into research on the electricity situation in Tanzania.

Just as they had feared, the power situation was a big problem that hadn’t seen much in the way of solutions. Then, Awuor and his friend took trips to Arusha and Mwanza where they visited companies that were making significant strides with the adoption of solar technology as a solution to the power problem, as well as people living in off-grid communities.

Having picked the brains of these persons, as well as similar ongoing solar interventions in Rwanda, Uganda, and Kenya, they learned a thing or two about what they were getting into.

Even as the feasibility studies had “jump in” written all over it, there was still some trepidation. Would he quit his job? What if he did quit and the whole thing turned out a fiasco in the end? Those fears were always there.

And they were still there to some extent when he took the big step – walking away from his position in the Heineken franchise in 2016 and joining a pan-African labour outsourcing firm. Now, though, there was no going back.

With his savings, he was able to purchase the first 50 units of solar home systems at USD 119.00 each – effectively the birth of his company, Cellulike. At this point, he was only testing the waters since nothing was guaranteed in this new undertaking.

Well, it would seem that, at this point, he’s gone way past testing the waters – it’s probably more like scuba diving or snorkeling these days. Today, Cellulike is in three regions of Tanzania: Dar es Salaam, Mwanza & Kagera. The company has connected over 200 households with solar home systems and another 508 with solar lanterns.

Through the solar home systems, customers – who are mostly rural people — can light up their homes at night, charge mobile phones, and listen to the radio; all these from as low as USD 6.00 per month. And this is improving the quality of life in those areas.

Unlike most of the other solar solution providers, Cellulike works with village agents who do the actual installation and collect repayments from customers. This model guarantees sustainable self-employment for the locals who make up the growing number of agents in those locales.

“I have always found it shocking that less than 25 percent of East Africans are connected to main-grid electricity,” he says. “More shocking is the reality that several mainstream solar companies have developed a variety of off-grid solar solutions to bridge the energy gap.”

“Yet, after more than 7 years of active work and heavy funding, less than 5 percent of the addressable market has been reached with these solar home systems, he adds.”

In an effort to bridge gaps associated with Pay-As-You-Go solar solutions currently in use in the market, Awuor has set up Cellulike to unlock the rapid scalability potential of solar energy in Africa.

Featured Image Courtesy: Twitter

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