Name: Henri Nyakarundi
Name Of Company: African Renewable Energy Distributor – Smart Solar Kiosk
The essential element of creating a successful and sustainable business is to provide a solution to a problem. This is exactly what Henri Nyakarundi has managed to achieve with his Smart Solar Kiosk.
The native Rwandan is the Founder of African Renewable Energy Distributor with the Product, Smart Solar Kiosk. This startup provides a low cost, one stop shop for mobile users to conveniently charge their phones amongst other services.
With a background in computer science and logistics, Henri has managed to simplify a complicated problem. The solution is in tune with the way of life of his potential customers. This is the type of simple but smart idea that is desperately needed from entrepreneurs in Africa. We need solutions that are specific to the African market, and not ones that imitate Europe and the US.
After reading about Henri, I became convinced that not only does Africa have the idea holders; we also have people who can bring life to those ideas. With this mind-set, Africa can indeed solve its own problems.
Since coming across Henri, my thoughts about having complicated ideas to change the world have been transformed. It is not necessarily the biggest idea that creates the biggest impact. But sometimes, it’s the smallest ones that create that ripple effect that eventually builds up to create a wave. Sometimes we have to think locally, but act globally to make a difference.
Henri is amongst a new breed of entrepreneurs in Africa who are successfully doing business in Africa using this approach. Smart Solar Kiosk finds a solution to solve a basic problem that regularly impacts and complicates our everyday life.
In this exclusive interview, we discuss all things business with the great African son, Henri Nyakarundi.
Creating an Energy Solution Business in Africa
Prince: Can you describe Smart Solar Kiosk, and the idea and concept as if I knew nothing about it or the market?
HENRI: To explain the Smart Solar Kiosk I have to explain my journey as an entrepreneur. I started my first business when I was 20. My first nine years in business was not successful, but I gained so much knowledge, which changed my thought process about life and business as a whole.
Being an entrepreneur in Africa has been the most difficult, and most fulfilling journey of my life. It has empowered me more than any other entity. It taught me about my potential, my drive and my abilities.
In 2009, I was coming home to Rwanda and Burundi more often. I noticed the lack of energy the region was experiencing but also the huge problem of unemployment the youth were experiencing. So I decided to look for a solution that could solve these two issues and also be a sustainable business. Initially, It started as a hobby, but gradually evolved. However, I could not find an existing solution that was low cost, using renewable energy and could create opportunities for people at the base of the pyramid. So I came up with a simple idea to create a kiosk that is solar (so access to energy would not be an issue) and mobile (to facilitate implementation of the kiosk anywhere we wanted).
We provide services such as charging small electronic devices, mobile money, and Internet hotspot using a low cost franchise business model. The “Smart” part is a recent addition to our technology, we want to collect data from our customers, engage customers, offer digital advertisement and content using our built-in Machine to Machine technology on the kiosk and connect it to cloud data management services that will enable us to lay the groundwork for more comprehensive intelligence service.
My belief is that entrepreneurship and innovation is the key to solving some of the challenges of the 21st century. An entrepreneur by trait is a problem solver, and to truly bring long-term changes in someone’s life, you need to offer them a platform that will empower them. I believe this is what we offer with our smart solar kiosk.
Prince: At what point and how did you know that this business idea would be successful?
HENRI: You never really know if a business will be successful until you have paying customers. I knew the concept was needed because a lot of people were using our kiosk to charge their phones. However, to become a business take times, trial and error, etc…. especially if it is an innovative idea. But when we landed our contract with Airtel Rwanda, I knew this had huge potential and it will be a huge business on the continent.
Prince: It’s been widely publicised that you were looking for funding. How did you raise funds and how difficult was it securing that startup capital?
I learned that when doing business in Africa, investment solution/lending institutions are not fit for SMEs, especially if you have an innovative idea. Bank institutions have been given the role of funding SME’s and they are failing. Banks are not designed to take risk.
We have been denied loans by two major banks even though we now have contracts and revenue, but we are still considered too small or too risky.
Local Venture capital/ impact investors are almost non-existent so we find ourselves looking for funding outside Africa to build an African company, which is disappointing. I was lucky. I was able to self-fund my project with money I earned from my previous business. We did get a small loan from an accelerator program called Inkomoko that allowed us to buy 10 kiosks; we also won a few grants.
Africa needs to wake up as a continent and create strong financial tools for young innovators. If not, we will remain consumers of foreign products.
PRINCE: Our first mobile Solar Kiosk was designed & manufactured by an engineer I found through an online freelancing website.
He was from Poland and he designed & manufactured 5 kiosks. However, a Rwandan company completed the second design and we shifted our manufacturing to China after that to save cost.
Through this experience I learned a lot about the process of design and manufacturing.
Prince: What type of feedback did you receive from your first costumers, and which of them inspired you?
HENRI: I worked on the first kiosk for a month when I first started. The kiosk was located in Nyabugogo (market place in Kigali centre), and the experience was great because I received very informative feedback from customers.
We learned that charging phones alone would not generate enough income as a business for our franchisees. We learned that turning the kiosk in to a one-stop shop would be more attractive to the end user. We learned that training our franchisees was extremely important because most people that applied for our program do not have a business background. Finally, we learned that incorporating advance technology on the kiosk could bring more value to our corporate partners.
Prince: What mistakes have you committed that have taught you great lessons and increased your passionate for your company?
HENRI: The biggest mistake was finding the right engineers and manufacturing company to develop my concept. Before this I had never developed a product, so this was a steep learning curve.
Due diligence and knowing what questions to ask are key. We lost a lot of money because we contracted the wrong people. Always get some type of expertise from friends or your personal network to minimize mistakes because it can end up being costly.
Prince: How are your operations so far in Rwanda?
HENRI: We have 25 Solar Kiosks so far; we are working to add a 100 more this year. We’ve developed a partnership with Airtel Rwanda and Mobicash to increase the value added services our kiosk offers.
Our next step is expanding outside Rwanda. We are working on deals with MTN south Sudan, and some entities in Nigeria, Burundi, and Uganda
Prince: How do you measure your success?
HENRI: We first measure our success by our social impact. Our goal is to create low cost business opportunities for people at the base of the pyramid. We focus also on gender equality (our goal is to have at least 50% women working on the kiosk).
Second, we measure the sustainability of the business as a whole and see how we can bring a business opportunity on the continent and beyond, what type of revenue do the franchisees earn, which services sell best, etc…
Prince: What are your current plans for expansion into other African countries?
HENRI: Our plan is simple, to find strong partners that will bring our vision to their respective countries. We developed a franchise business model; our goal is to find like-minded people that are looking for an opportunity that has a social, environmental and economic impact.
HENRI: Solar Energy is just a solution. Renewable energy as a whole is the key to solve the African energy issue, not just solar, but you have wind, hydro etc…. But the real key is to be able to empower African innovators so we can have a real long-term solution to this energy crisis.
The real issue today is that we do not own any of the technology that we use. We still depend on foreign solutions that do not necessarily work well on the ground.
Prince: And what advise would you share with African leaders to help solve our current and persistent energy crisis?
HENRI: I would say this, stop wasting our tax money looking for solutions outside our borders, look within, empower our engineers, inventors, innovators and trust them to develop products and services to solve the challenges that we are facing.
When are we going to realize that no one will take care of our African problems but Africans?
Prince: What support do you think African governments must give to young African innovators and entrepreneurs?
HENRI: Just like the developing world, they have to play a more aggressive role so we can finally get out of this AID mentality that has dominated our continent for decades now.
In my case, we spend hours looking for funding in Europe and USA because it is not available locally. We need to create more venture capital, seed funding, etc… to fill this gap. SMEs are the backbone of any economy and we need to offer real support (not through banks).
Prince: Which African Entrepreneurs Inspire you and why?
Vérone Mankou from Congo is one of these people because he designs and manufactures his own mobile phones/tablets. Also, Iribagiza Clarisse from HeHe limited (a Rwandan company specialising in Apps).
Anyone that starts a business at a young age and sticks to it no matter what deserves a lot of respect because contrary to what people see in the media, being an entrepreneur is by far the most challenging endeavour someone will ever go through.
Prince: And which industries, and lucrative business areas do you think will provide future business opportunities for African entrepreneurs?
HENRI: What I love about Africa right now is that regardless of what the media says, it is the last frontier of real opportunities.
I came back to Africa not knowing what to expect, with my own bias idea because I had been away for so long,
The market is wide open. Africa is open for business. The key is to find your niche or passion because you have to do something that will get you out of bed everyday regardless of how you feel, or how bad your day might be. So passion, purpose become your internal engine.
Prince: What does the future hold for you and your company?
HENRI: Global expansion is our future. We are branching into machine to machine/internet of things type of technology. We want to push our limits and show that our solutions are locally developed but have a global reach.
My vision is to see 50,000 Smart Solar kiosks on the ground all over the continent.
Beyond the company, I want to inspire our future generation and teach them that Africans in Africa can do product innovation. You don’t have to be a genius, or an engineer, or from a western country to come up with something new or innovative. I am an average guy that achieved average grades all of his life, and failed his last year of high school. But I had an idea and I stuck to it no matter what. If you can do that, then you can achieve anything. It is time that we realise and create our African Dreams.
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