Solar Energy in Africa – George Mtemahanji is not too Young to Lead

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“Electricity supply is really important for the development of a counry. Without electricity, New York or Johannesburg would just be villages – they’d be like Ifakara,” – Mtemahanji.

George Mtemanhaji is CEO of Sunsweet Solar, a renewable energy providing Tanzanian firm which he co-founded with former classmate Manuel Rolando, and the company is committed not only to providing low cost clean energy to rural communities, but also rethinking the African energy market by providing innovative solutions based on local market needs.

At 25, it feels good to sit atop such an ambitious company born out of a vision forged in personal experiences.

How Did It Begin?

Born on the 12th of March, 1993 in the village of Ifakara, a small rural town in the Kilombero District of Morogoro Region in south central Tanzania which is home to about 99,000 inhabitants, life had not always been a bed of roses for the young Mtemanhaji who grew up without knowing his father.

Attending school was a rare luxury, by Ifakara standards, but the young George was able to enrol even though the weight of sustaining the responsibility was almost crushing life out of his poor mother.

She was soon to find her way out of Tanzania to Italy where, after a five-year separation, George and his older brother went to join her in 2002.

And that move to Europe lighted the bulb of his imagination to “switch on Africa.”

In the Tanzania of his youth, access to electricity was a luxury available to only a select few but a chance to move to Europe when he was barely 10years old changed his perspective.

Growing up in Modena (Italy), the young Mtemanhaji had the opportunity to get a better education and this, in turn, helped to open his eyes to the stark realities of the struggle faced by his people back home which included a lack of critical infrastructure.

He was convinced that most of the problem faced by Tanzanians is due to lack of energy and was challenged to find a means of providing cheaper and cleaner form of energy to make life better for them.

If going to Italy represented an epoch in the life of Mtemanhaji, then meeting Rolando was the catalyst to achieving his dreams.

Classmates at IPSIA Ferrari, a technical college in Modena which focuses on mechanical and renewable energy (Mtehamanji specialised on renewable energy), they shared a dream of doing something for the development of Africa. They played around with a lot of ideas but soon settled down on solar energy which they believed would resolve many of Africa’s problems.

Mtemanhaji and Rolando, now business partners, learned all they could about this source of energy and at 18, in 2011, he returned to Tanzania for the first time since he left almost a decade earlier.

Even though the country had grown from what he left, the problems still persisted.

Mtemanhaji did a business research on the Tanzanian solar energy market and his findings revealed that there won’t be a better moment to launch.

He found out that the demand for high quality solar materials was high as the few available companies sold only low and substandard products.

Mtemanhaji saw an opportunity to not only become competitive in the solar energy market but also the chance to teach young Tanzanians about Solar Energy and to create more job opportunities.

Breakthrough in Solar Energy in Africa

Sunsweet Solar started in December 2014 and by the following January the company landed it’s first project at a girls secondary school in Ifakara.

This was the breakthrough the young entrepreneurs needed.

They installed a solar sustem which had the capacity to store 27kWh of energy at the Benignis Girls Secondary School. It was the largest plant in the region of Kilombero with the ability to run 236 lights, dozens of computers and fans, a bar and a recreation room.

The revolutionary decision to take on the project without making a profit allowed the young company to demonstrate its ability and competence and the rewards were not long in coming.

Achievements

In less than two years of setting up Sunsweet Solar, the company was a finalist in the prestigious Anzisha prize (for young entrepreneurs in Africa) and this was the turning point for Mtemahanji.

The visibility (and media exposure) that came with the prize broadened Mtehamanji’s horizon and pushed many opportunities his way.

(After the nomination for the prize), we started receiving support from an Englishman who lives in Korea, after he read our story on CNN. We also received support from Denmark, Brazil and Sweden.

Even a Swiss family decided to sponsor our next solar installation in a dispensary in Mlimuba (in Kilombero Province in Tanzania), after they had read our story on the internet.

And a Chinese company came all the way to visit us in Tanzania after they found out about our company thanks to an article written in Chinese that talked about the Anzisha Prize finalists.

I also had the opportunity to speak with the Tanzania Private Sector Foundation, the Tanzania Investment Centre, the Tanzanian Rural Electrification Agency, as well as many other state agencies in Tanzania. The prize was like a launch pad.

Sunsweet Solar now has an official partnership with the Italian multinational company FuturaSun, as well as a partnership contract with Trine, a Swedish company.

Challenges are Part of the Business

Setting up a business in Tanzania, like most of infrastructure-challenged Africa comes with the all-too familiar headache of a lack of adequate transport and good roads but, for his kind of business, a bigger problem is the people’s lack of knowledge of solar energy and the limitless opportunities it brings.

The biggest challenge, from an entrepreneurial point of view, is a lack of access to finance and little or no institutional support for small businesses.

Raising funds to grow his business wouldn’t have come easy but for his personal savings and the kind assistance of a family member who showed enough belief in the young George.

Not many private investors and seed capital providers are willing to trust a youngster trying to start a business at just 21.

Words of Advice

I suggest all young African entrepreneurs who want to solve the continent’s problems should not be afraid of how big or small their business is today, but focus on how big their dreams/ideas are for the future of Africa. I wish them all the best.”

Lessons from Mtemanhaji

  • Start small even if all you have is your savings and determination.
  • Don’t look for instant gratification
  • Have integrity and credibility
  • You’re never too young to lead

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