Meet Rwanda’s Most Successful Solar Energy Entrepreneur
Rwandan Henri Nyakarundi, 38, accomplished exactly that with his business, African Renewable Energy Distributor (ARED). ARED uses solar-powered charging kiosks to provide low-cost phone charging as well as airtime and…mobile money transfers.
An experienced entrepreneur, Nyakarundi knew a good opportunity when he saw one. Some 70% of Rwanda’s 11.5 million people use a cell phone, but only 22% have access to electricity. He realized that solar-charging stations could power phones, create jobs, and turn a profit.
The innovation has attracted both national and international attention. On June 24, Nyakarundi won the American Society for Mechanical Engineers’s Innovation Showcase, a global competition for hardware-led social ventures.
In a wide-ranging interview with AkilahNet’s Didier Bikorimana, Nyakarundi shares his entrepreneurial journey. Read on for his best advice, biggest challenges, and what he looks for in potential employees.
Tell us about yourself.
I was born in Kenya, grew up in Burundi, and then moved to Atlanta, Georgia, in the U.S. in 1996 for college. I graduated in 2007 with a computer science degree.
In 2013, I came back to Rwanda to develop a project that was really dear to me called ARED. I developed a mobile solar kiosk platform to promote entrepreneurship at the base of the pyramid using a low-cost franchise business model.
I read a bit about you: A Rwandan who lived in Burundi and studied computer science at Georgia State University in the U.S. You have had your feet in quite different worlds, huh?
As I mentioned, I grew up in Burundi. I had a great childhood. The U.S. definitely had a huge impact on me. First, I had to learn English, and the culture was different.
I was exposed to the race issue, which really made me realize that every country has their problems. My experience in the U.S. was definitely not what I had in mind. I always thought that everyone was rich. People were happy based on movies and magazines I read prior to going there, but the reality is totally different. The U.S. was by far the hardest country I’ve ever experienced. But I discovered my love of entrepreneurship there.
I started my first business when I was 21. Even though it was a failure, I learned a lot. In America, you are taught that to be successful, you should own your own business. You see so many commercials on business everywhere.
In Africa, we are taught that school education is the way out. I started to educate myself about business by discovering books like Think and Grow Rich. The U.S. is a country where efficiency and performance are key to almost everything, so for 19 years I was part of that mindset.
You trained as a computer scientist but went on to start a business in renewable energy distribution. What inspired you?
Let’s be honest, I went to school because my mother told me to, but I was never an academic. I never liked school; my passion for business grew in the U.S. Having a job was not meant for me.
“Instead of buying existing technology, I wanted to develop my own that catered to the African market.”
I learned quickly that I liked the freedom that entrepreneurship offered me. However, it took me 10 years to succeed in business. The inspiration came from a company called Equinox International. I started working there as a salesman in 1999. The company was so ahead of its time, and part of our training was about the impact humans have on the environment.
So I started doing research and reading about environmental products, organic food, and renewable energy. When I came back to Rwanda, I had decided that renewable energy was the sector that had the most potential, and innovation was the space I wanted to be in. Instead of buying existing technology, I wanted to develop my own that catered to the African market.
From there, the idea of a solar kiosk was born. However, the vision has evolved dramatically. In business, you start with an idea first. You then have to mold it, so it can take form, and adjust it based on the marketplace to become a masterpiece. I believe we are almost there.
How did you start ARED? Where did you get funds?
I have self-funded the whole project so far. I was able to use the profit I gained from my last business to research and develop the solar kiosk and fund two years of business operations.
I first came up with the idea of a kiosk in 2009, and then I had to find a designer and then an engineer to build a prototype. That took four years. Then, in December 2012, I moved back to Rwanda to follow my vision.
Can you take me through a typical day at ARED?
Well, as a startup, there is not a typical day. You have to wear many hats. The key is to be good at solving problems because I have to fight many battles: cash flow issues, partner payment issues, technical issues with the kiosks, etc. Having a small team, I have to be good at delegating and taking over the rest.
However, I also have to stay focused on the bigger picture of the company and the vision, so working toward the future is the key. I spent a lot of time getting our project out in the media, looking for potential investors and international partners. Social media is important too. Business is a long-term battle, but the biggest battle is the one to profitability, and that is where we are now. That battle should be won this year, and then will have more battles to fight.
“Business is a long-term battle, but the biggest battle is the one to profitability, and that is where we are now. That battle should be won this year, and then will have more battles to fight.”
How big is your business in terms of revenue and profit? Do you work across the continent?
I cannot talk about revenue, but we are not profitable yet. We just signed two major deals with two big partners in Rwanda. We are negotiating to start in two more countries next year and should get some investors at the end of this year. But I anticipate ARED will be a US$50 million business in the next 10 years, that much I know.
What has been your biggest challenge so far?
The challenges are many: raising funds, securing research and development capital, finding quality employees, getting the right partners, and bringing credibility to our technology.
However, challenges are part of business and that is what I love about business: finding solutions to problems. We go into business to overcome challenges and be pushed to the limit; eventually when you get to the finish line, you have something to be proud of.
And your biggest learning experience?
I learn every day, but the biggest lesson is that I can literally achieve anything my mind conceives. If you believe, work hard, dedicate yourself to it, and do not quit, there is no limit.
In 2014, your work earned you a sief Award for Social Entrepreneurship. What does it mean to you?
We won the social entrepreneurship part of the award and US$11,000. For me, it is just validation that our innovation has huge potential and we are on the right track as a company and concept.
Suppose a fellow young East African wants to get started with a similar business. What would be your tips?
Hard work, dedication, and never quitting. Rejection will be part of the day-to-day business for a while, but as long as you keep pushing and adapting to your marketplace, doors will finally open up.
“Business might be different in substance, but the tools needed to succeed are always the same. The No. 1 reason why people fail is because they quit, and we all know quitters never win.”
Business might be different in substance, but the tools needed to succeed are always the same. The No. 1 reason why people fail is because they quit, and we all know quitters never win.
How large is the ARED team?
We only have three people: a technician, a project manager, and myself. We also have a few advisers and consultants, who are helping us structure the company for future growth and investment.
We have 25 kiosks on the ground: 30% are run by women, and 5% are run by people with disabilities. We plan to have 100 more kiosks this year and 500 total in Rwanda.
What do you look for in potential employees?
What I first look for is drive. If you seem driven, you can handle obstacles. If you’re a problem solver and think outside the box, then we can talk.
Education is secondary because being book smart does not prepare you for the real world. But of course, a trial period does tell me more about a person.
What’s your plan for the future of your business?
The plan is simple: We want to bring high technology to people at the base of the pyramid on the continent and become a highly profitable company in the process. We believe social impact and profitability can coexist: You can become successful by helping others — this should be the future trend of companies.