SunSweet Solar: Low Cost, Clean Energy for Africa
George Mtemahanji, co-founder of SunSweet Solar, is an innovative entrepreneur on a mission to provide low cost, clean energy to rural communities across Africa. His company is currently installing solar panel systems across Tanzania to communities who aren't connected to the national grid, or have frequent blackouts. This helps to provide enough electricity to support villages, schools and health centres and to provide running water to those in need.
His determination and passion is evident: he won't stop until he has improved as many lives as possible across Africa, whilst changing the way everyone thinks about energy.
We were thrilled to speak to George to find out more about SunSweet Solar, their social impact, the difficulties he faces as a young entrepreneur in Africa and his aims for furthering the innovative work of SunSweet Solar across the whole continent:
Tell us about SunSweet Solar – what are the aims of the company?
SunSweet Solar Limited is a Tanzanian energy company and one of the most innovative energy companies in Africa. We design and install Solar Hybrid Micro Grid Systems to supply electricity to rural communities and Smart Solar Off-Grid systems for NGO and Government facilities. Our customers buy our energy simply through their mobile phone. Until today, 95% of rural communities in Africa have had no access to electricity, and our main goal is to power life in these areas. To do this we want to use solar generators to produce enough electricity to satisfy the entire energy demand of a village or villages. The rural communities will have energy for their houses, for their medical and educational facilities and for their businesses. With our solution, a family living in a rural area can have electricity for just $0.15 per day and a whole village can have drinking water for only $1.20 per day. Thanks to solar energy, we are creating the first completely ecological and energetically independent villages in Africa.
How much of an issue does access to power remain both in Tanzania and the continent?
Energy is very important for the development of Africa. As I often say, without energy even New York or London would be only villages. Today 70% of people in Africa have no access to electricity, 95% in rural areas. This means that there are many people who are living completely in darkness, many children who have no opportunity to study computer lessons and cannot do their homework. There are many women who are forced to give birth under candlelight, many children who are not receiving appropriate vaccines and entire communities who do not receive adequate health services and cannot produce water for drinking or irrigation systems. Villages that lose 50% of their fruits and vegetables and 30% of revenues from their agricultural goods. All this has a direct influence on the development of Africa.
What is the opportunity for solar energy in Africa – from a social, economic and environmental perspective?
To electrify rural areas with traditional energy by connecting them to the national grid is very expensive. Very often you must install high voltage, medium voltage and low voltage transmission lines to transport electricity from the production sources to the houses in rural communities, and all this has an enormous cost. Solar energy can cut these high costs. In fact, very often a photovoltaic (method for generating electric power by using solar cells) system is installed directly to the users. In addition to this, there are communities in Africa where solar energy is the only solution to bring electricity. Thanks to solar solutions such as our Eco-Friendly Village Solar system, we are transforming the centralised public grid to the decentralised mini-grid, and we are moving it under the control of local communities. Today even a poor rural community can control their energy production sources. This is an energy revolution; a green energy revolution.
What is the social impact of SunSweet Solar?
We have installed more than 100 solar systems, from small systems to the main grid systems in rural communities and more than 28,000 people have benefited directly from these installations. At Benignis Girls Secondary School, the percentage of female students who have passed the national exams increased by 13.8% and the school went into first position out of 56 secondary schools in the Kilombero district. Our customers in the villages are saving $15 per house every month. In Michenga dispensary, a health centre that provides primary health care services to more than 7 villages, thanks to our solar system they have had an increase of 133% of people who are receiving health services, especially during the night. Pregnant women who visit the dispensary for the control of their pregnancy and to receive medicines and vaccines increased from 42 women before the installation of the solar system to 86 women after the installation. Women who give birth in the dispensary has increased by 40%. With its low cost and easy installation, solar power and our company are bringing huge benefits to millions of people in Africa.
Who are your main customers?
Our main customers are people with low income who live in rural communities: small farmers, small business owners and often people who live on less than $1.25 per day. Thanks to our solar systems they save from $0.50 to $0.65 per day, which is really helpful. In addition to this, our customers are non-governmental organisations and the Government of Tanzania that need energy for their facilities such as schools, healthcare centres, postal centres, police stations and local government offices.
What has been your biggest achievement so far?
In the two years since we launched, we have been blessed with several important achievements. In 2015, SunSweet was chosen by the Africa Leadership Academy as one of the top 12 companies led by young entrepreneurs out of over 500 companies across Africa. This year our company was invited to speak with Bill Gates at the MTV 'Bill Gates Meets African Innovators' event in South Africa. In addition, a key achievement has to be all of the solar systems we have installed and employment places we have created.
George Mtemahanji with fellow African entrepreneurs meeting Bill Gates
But from my point of view, our biggest achievement so far has been the installation of our first RuDEK system at the Michenga Dispensary. RuDEK is a solar system with the ability to meet the energy needs of a healthcare centre in rural communities. This system is part of our social program, which aims to electrify all health centres in rural communities, where 95% of medical centres have no electricity. This program is funded by private individuals, NGOs and government agencies. At the Michenga Dispensary where the solar system was funded by Toni and Hermina Fischer from Switzerland, women giving birth in the dispensary has increased by 40%: 17 children have been born so far with no deaths and people receiving health services have increased by 133%. The 17th child born in August at the dispensary was given my name (George) in my honour, and for me (I was born in a health centre where there was no electricity), this was a very special and emotional achievement. This was exactly what I wanted when I founded SunSweet Solar - to improve people's lives.
What challenges do you face?
The biggest challenge that we have at this time and I think the challenge facing many young African entrepreneurs, is access to capital. Although youth unemployment is a big problem in Tanzania, our government and our financial sector has no financial support programs for young entrepreneurs, especially during the first years of a start-up. Foreign capital, which seems like a paradox, all goes to non-profit organisations rather than entrepreneurs. But humanitarian aid will never bring millions of Africans to work. Aid will not develop Africa: indeed it will make Africa even more dependent on developed countries.
Other challenges that we need to improve are the clarity of the laws, especially taxation laws. Us young entrepreneurs do not have much experience in taxes and legal documents, Many people are taking advantage of this by making us pay more than usual for legal documents and for taxes. Last year we paid 4 times more in tax than the actual number, according to our revenues. And this money did not go to the state, because on the receipt was not written the extra money.
Another challenge is the African mentality of not believing in young people. Adults and government must give more credit to African youth, because young African people bring freshness into the system and we are the future of this continent. Young people have the capacity to do great things in Africa, just believe in us!
How do you see SunSweet Solar furthering its positive impact across Africa?
I see Sunsweet Solar as one of the leading energy companies in East Africa over the next 5 years. We want to install our Eco-Friendly Solar System and to bring electricity to villages reaching 5,000 people every week in 2021. And if we can achieve this, then we will expand our solutions to other countries in south and central Africa, such as Malawi, Zambia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. In addition to this we want to bring something new especially for our customers with high incomes. As many know, the world is becoming more and more computerised. In a few years we will have homes with sensors that monitor our health and they will understand before us if we are ill or not, and send our health status to our doctor. We would then integrate these home automation (domotic) systems with our solar systems, to give our customers more and more control over their homes and power systems. Our desire is to continue to innovate Africa, especially in the energy sector.