Ayo Alonge, [email protected]
Having started his renewable energy business with an appreciably small capital, Francis Odim, who is the Founder of African Sustainable Energies, a startup into renewable energy business, can boldly say he is a successful businessman. The Abia state -born environmentalist, in this interview, fielded questions on entrepreneurship and its challenges.
I have always had a flair for engineering. I loved fixing things. Even if it was working fine, I would dismantle it to see what is inside then couple it again. I always wanted to experiment. My parents kept buying new laptops, phones and other gadgets for me every time but they all end up just like the first one. I would always loose them to see what was used inside then end up not knowing how to fix it again. I did that to over four laptops before my parents gave up on getting me another one. My mother always complained but I would say she contributed to my passion. It was after she came back from America and she bought lots of science, engineering and tech books. Curiosity and boredom made me read them and that was how I became the engineer of the house. I fixed the television, laptops, lights and every appliance I could lay my hands on. Studying Engineering in school only fueled the already ignited fire.
Unfortunately, I got admission to study Petroleum Engineering in Federal University of Technology, Owerri. I always wanted a more practical engineering course but this is Nigeria, you get what they give. I had no choice but to accept the admission. Although I did not like Petroleum Engineering as a course, it helped me realise that petroleum as a source of energy is diminishing. In a couple of years, petroleum would not be used. People would move on to the next big thing just like they did in the boom of oil and gas or telecommunication. As an inquisitive person, I wanted to know what that next thing was, that was how I found out about renewable energy. I started researching and gathering knowledge on climate change and clean energy sources. After graduating, I started doing some courses in renewable energy and I kept growing more passion for it. I saw that in the next five to 10 years, nobody would be buying fuel, or using other unrenewable energy sources. Renewable energy is the future. Renewable energy is the new oil.
When I discovered all these, I had to align myself with this new form of energy. I contacted some friends I had in the United Kingdom, Netherlands and America and we shared ideas. They had an enabling environment and opportunities to do the same thing over there. Looking at Nigeria, it was a perfect market for solar energy due to the unstable power supply. We decided to hook up – they bring the technology; we bring the financing and opportunities. The major issue was how to start. I did not have such resources and funds stashed somewhere. We literally did not have any capital so we had to start small. I could not afford to get an office, equipment, or hire any staff. I had to start with other people’s money. I had to start pitching to family members and people close to me. In early 2014, my uncle in Asaba saw my efforts and asked me to give it a try and install the solar system in his house. I gave him the quotation and he paid in advance and even supported with more. One of the major challenges we have been facing is the high cost of getting materials.
There are no policies on importation duties for people going green. In most countries, there are reductions given to you just because you are helping the environment, just to support the movement and make it affordable for middle and low-income earners. In Nigeria, there is a 20 percent tax on solar batteries and 10 percent tax on panels, while in Ghana it is less than five percent. The government does not want to go green and it does not speak or support it in any way. Another challenge is the rapid technological advancement in renewable energy. Things are changing fast; even in this sector and to be a major player, you have to be ready for change. So, we need to keep training our staff and engineers.
They need to keep taking courses to ensure that they are current. I don’t think ignorance is a major challenge because we sensitise people on the need to go green. Most people know about it, but they don’t have the resources to pursue it. There are no institutions that are interested in helping with the sensitisation on the need to use renewable energy, neither do they help people get it.
So, we are left to bear the brunt of it all. We have some companies that we partner with that assist with some subsidies and costs sharing just to ensure that people actually afford it. Rather than ignorance, affordability is the challenge. The challenges were enormous, at the early stage. I was really scared. I was afraid that it might not work because I had not done it before. It was a huge risk but I had to be courageous. Being an entrepreneur, especially in a country like ours, demands a whole lot of courage.
It takes courage not to dust your certificate in search of a job that you are sure of earning from every month. I did not want that kind of comfortability, so I had to keep pushing even when there is no reason to. That project was very successful. It exceeded his expectations and ours. He recommended us to other clients and it has been upward from there.
My family has been of huge support to the business. They are the best. From the times I broke things because I was eager to fix them, they never discouraged me from my passion.
Though they were civil servants, my parents made life comfortable for me. That does not mean that I did not struggle but the support and love made it bearable. Most of my course mates are military personnel now but I did not see myself continuing on that path. I knew that I would not tap into my full potential, as a serving personnel. There are restrictions to what they can do, where they go and how they live their lives. Everything is done according to orders. I did not want such restrictions. I wanted to be in control of my actions because I knew where I was heading and what it takes to get me there. Being in the military might not leave room to actualise those dreams. Steady finance determines the growth of a company. Being a player in a new industry, we always tried our best to avoid loans, as it would break you rather than make you. So, we had to look for financial support elsewhere. Now, we have a couple of financial investors, though I have invested quite a lot in the company.
Tips for successful entrepreneurship
You have to be ready to stay for the long haul and withstand the challenges life throws at you. It is not easy, so you need to get yourself sorted out. You need to know your vision, ambitions and dreams and be willing to pay the price. Another advice is that you can start small.
You must not be able to raise millions to establish your business. You can start with other people’s money. This concept exists. I learnt it from entrepreneurial studies. Start at your own pace. I have to state it point blank, being an entrepreneur is not as rosy as most people think. If, as an aspiring entrepreneur, you do not understand this, then you have no business being in this field. To be a successful entrepreneur, you have to be steadfast, diligent and you must persevere.