Interview with Don Kweka of the Rural Initiative for Sustainable Energy (RISE)

Arfa Karani Written by Arfa Karani
Published on 16 November 2018
7 min. read

 

Rural Initiative for Sustainable Energy (RISE) is a local distribution company that is currently working with the manufacturer Amped Innovation to reach out to various rural consumers and sell solar powered home-systems consisting of four lamps, mobile charging ports and a radio. RISE is a daughter company of Sollatek, which is an established manufacturer of innovative products in voltage protection, power control, energy stabilising and saving, temperature control and solar energy. Andrew Soper, the founder and CEO of RISE Tanzania, hired Don Kweka in February 2018 to engage in the distribution business for solar products for rural electrification. RISE was setup solely based on the high demand for solar products in Tanzania.

 

Being a young company, RISE has launched its activities in the Kyela region and is currently working on building a loyal customer base in the local farmers’ community. Mr. Kweka shared insights on the factors that have contributed towards RISE’s success in the Tanzanian Off-Grid Solar (OGS) industry.

What is the range of products supplied by RISE? How do these compare to your competitors?

We are the only distributor of Amped Innovation’s products in Tanzania. Our PayGo system is very versatile and works on multiple mobile networks. We have a close relationship with our manufacturers, which helps us provide customised products based on consumer demand. For instance, the original home-kit product from our manufacturer (Amped Innovation) only included three lamps; our market research showed that many customers required an extra lamp. We were able to report this finding to our manufacturer who then altered their product range accordingly to address the specific consumer demand. As local distributors, we are also open to working with other manufacturers to expand the range of products we can offer. Creating a loyal consumer base has proven to be quintessential for the success of our business. Hence, we are focused on building a personal relationship with our customers. Once we establish a loyal consumer base in the Kyela region, we will be upgrading our products by providing solar-pumps for agricultural purposes. We are also very open to working with various other manufacturers like Azuri for future projects.

What is your impression of a typical consumer base here in Tanzania? Are the people welcoming to solar power?

Solar-powered or not, the product that companies are selling aims to provide basic access to electricity, which, in rural areas, is a promise for a better quality of life. As long as a company can provide affordable access to electricity, consumers show a high interest. In remote villages, there is no form of electricity available other than solar systems. Overall, consumers are very welcoming. Having a few electrified houses in a neighbourhood attracts further demand for our products.

Do you envision your products having an impact on the socio-economic development of the local communities that you work with?

Yes, definitely! We are not only providing employment to local sales agents but also making longer hours of lighting available to the local entrepreneurs and all households. Mobile charging ports and ports for entertainment appliances such as radio, and USB make our kits especially popular. Again, our customers require access to electricity regardless of where it comes from. Hence, our main product is affordable electricity to run a limited set of household appliances. And it being renewable and clean energy source are the by-products. People here used to run their homes on kerosene lanterns but they are now aware of the detrimental effects of such lanterns on their health. Indeed, with the aggressive consumer awareness campaigns from the government and various other organizations like the Rural Energy Association (REA) and the Tanzanian Renewable Energy Association (TAREA), about 80 – 90% of the Tanzanian population are now aware of the benefits of solar-powered products. Therefore, there is a huge business opportunity if the right market is addressed with right range of solar products. Our investors work primarily towards rural electrification for socio-economic development but, interestingly, it also presents a huge business opportunity at the same time.

How is the Tanzanian market split across various suppliers? What is your strategy for maintaining a competitive edge in the market?

You need to find a community that likes you and trusts your products! It’s important to have the blessings of the community leader in order to be able to engage with and be accepted by the community. For RISE, Kyela was one such location where we began to find a loyal consumer base.

Non-profit organisations such as TechnoServe have been of great help to us. TechnoServe provided locally-based, skilled agents who were familiar with the community and became our advocates in the locality. There was a successful female agent who now works full-time at an NGO. She used to sell products and deliver them door to door with male agents in tandem. She would sell the product and convince customers about its benefits and reliability while the male agent would install them. Success stories like these help us connect with the community on a personal level and gain their trust in our company and our products.

There is ample demand for solar products. In fact, RISE is short on stock! If we had more capital we would definitely buy more kits and sell them out. We are constantly on the look-out for funding. We are convinced of the demand for our products and are confident that we can sell more if we have a larger stock. At this stage, it is a challenge for us to retain our staff and agents employed through off-season time (NB: harvest season is the period of high sales as farmers are selling their produce and have substantial income) or when we run out of stock because of low capital and relatively long payback time for our products. As a way to retain our trained agents, we recently equipped them with motorcycles to make a living during off-season by using these bikes as boda-boda (local taxis) for instance. To sum-up, we are not worried about competition at the moment, but about developing a sustainable ecosystem for our customers and staff.

How is your relationship with the government? Does the government support young companies working on Solar?

The government has made solar products exempt from all import taxes. As local distributors, this makes it possible for us to work with international product manufacturers. Tax exemption makes our products competitive with other sources of energy (like kerosene lamps) available to the local farmers. This means we can sell our products with a conviction and belief that we are providing affordable and quality products to our consumers.

Don Kweka, Project Manager from RISE, was born and brought up in the UK. Recently, Don moved to Tanzania after graduation. Don shares his experience on the transition to working in Tanzania after having lived in the UK.

What was your first job here in Tanzania? How did you decide to work for RISE, and how are your personal goals aligned with the company’s goals?

While I was born and brought up in the UK (near Sheffield), I have an extended family in Tanzania. After working in the UK for a few years after graduation, I decided to come back to Tanzania on my cousin’s advice. After struggling for a while to fit into the culture, I spent some time as a swimming coach in Tanzania following my passion for swimming. I have been a national-level swimmer in the UK and wanted to carry on the sport and build on my strengths. Meanwhile, I continued looking for work opportunities. Andrew Soper, the co-founder of RISE, approached me to lead on his projects. At the same time, I was also offered a job opportunity with the Deloitte Bank. I chose to work with Deloitte to keep my options open to go back to the UK and also because I recognized the opportunities for personal development in the banking ecosystem. After working with Deloitte for three years, during which time the Tanzanian branch has grown and moved to a bigger office in Dar Es Salaam, I was approached again by Andrew. Having kept the conversation going for three years with RISE, I realised that working for a young company like RISE would provide opportunities to shoulder greater corporate responsibilities, create lasting impact on their customers and learn from motivated innovators.

During the past six months at RISE, my personal goals of finding what I am capable of and how it can make a significant impact on the society are slowly being realised. While the learning curve is steep, young start-ups instil in each individual the spirit of self-sustainability, namely the abilities to learn new skills quickly and to be innovative in devising solutions to challenges. At the same time, there are tremendous opportunities for everyone to contribute and leave their impact on the company’s culture and development. I am convinced of the potential of the Tanzanian OGS market, and am keen to continue contributing towards the sustainability and development of the industry through our passion and hard work.

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