Technology

More than a Dream — Esteeri Kabonero Eyes a Renewable Energy Future

Esteeri displays some of the portable solar equipment that her company provides. (Photo by: Paul Mugume/ChimpReports)

While working with the Rwanda Development Board (RDB) from 2013 to 2015, online Esteeri Kabonero saw “a big problem with the Energy Sector, ask not only in Rwanda but across the continent.”

She then started thinking about ways she could provide environmental friendly solutions to the problems she had observed.

At the time, Esteeri – daughter to outgoing Ugandan Ambassador to Rwanda Richard Kabonero – was working in RDB’s ICT sector.

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She was charged with ICT investment strategy, investment promotion and management.

It was in 2016 while she was pursuing her Master’s degree at Zhejiang University, China that Esteeri saw an opportunity to extend cheap, environmental friendly solar energy in Uganda.

“I saw Chinese taking solar energy to Africa and I thought I could bring the same to my homeland Uganda,” Esteeri said during an interview with ChimpReports at Innovation Village in Ntinda, Kampala.

In January 2017, her start-up, Powah Limited, which provides communities with solar lighting when and where the grid becomes unreachable or unreliable, was registered.

Powah also helps Ugandans purchase quality solar equipment including solar panels, lights, fridges, water heaters to mention just a few.

“Ugandans have suffered with low quality solar equipment. A solar panel is made to last for over 25 years but you find some getting faulty in just three years; that’s one of the issues we seek to solve,” she said.

Esteeri is currently working with a team of 7 people: two technicians and 5 sales people.

Moving to US

I was born in Kenya, but later moved to United States when I was 4. I stayed in US till I returned to work in Rwanda after my graduation at the age of 22.

[She graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Business and Management Information Systems and Technology from Boston University.]

[At the time of her birth, Esteeri’s dad had been posted in Nairobi as the 3rd Secretary at the Uganda Mission.]

[He would later be deployed to United States as First Secretary, Economic, Congressional and Press Affairs, Embassy of Uganda, Washington D.C.]

Why did you choose business and Information Systems?

I have always had this creative personality, even when I was younger.

I am, I think, naturally predisposed to entrepreneurship, which is why I find business enjoyable.

Creating something new, having just an idea and developing it, looking at a problem and the finding a solution is what brings satisfaction to me.

As for Information systems, it was actually new but from the way the world is going; we need computers to understand almost everything.

When did you decide to come back to Uganda?

When I was in States, I used to visit Rwanda for vacation.

I visited in 2007 and in 2010. So my mother started telling me that I had become more Rwandan than Ugandan.

With time, I developed the idea of joining the renewable energy sector. I felt the urge to come and try this venture from home; that’s how I ended up here.

Why Powah?

When I came back at the end of 2016, I was basically sharing with people about different business ideas, and I realised energy was the best thing to venture into.

I figured that only 20 per cent of the population has access to the power grid and not only is power inaccessible, it is also expensive.

On top of that, there are many outages and I looked for a way to provide a solution to that.

With Solar energy, it can be expensive in the short term but it becomes cheaper in the long run and this being Africa, the sun is always around.

What group of people do you target?

We are currently doing a pilot study around Kampala to find out about power usage.

But our main target is the rural areas. When our study is finished, we want to start with Ntungamo and Mbarara areas.

In the near future, we are also looking at developing a public-private partnership. We are targeting partnerships with NGOs and Private companies.

We cannot develop solar energy without such partnerships.

How do you operate so far?

We are looking at specific persons with specific energy needs and we handle them according to their need.

We get to the client, after understanding what they need; we make a quotation for them and start the procurement process.

There are a lot of fake products on the market so we help the client identify the original products that will last longer and then we do the installations.

How affordable are your services compared to the already existent ones?

Affordability varies with the energy needs of a client.

It may seem expensive at the start but once installed solar lasts for over 25 years, which makes it a cheaper option in the long run.

We are looking at a payment module where clients especially in the rural setting will be allowed to pay in installments but right now, payments are upfront.

We have worked with clients who have bigger needs like lighting a full apartment but we also have products like a basic lantern that can provide light and charge a phone which is quite cheaper.

The yellow solar lantern provides light and can charge a phone

The yellow solar lantern provides light and can charge a phone

Why did you choose to start with Uganda and not Rwanda where you had spent more time?

It’s true, I had spent more time in Rwanda than in Uganda but aside from Uganda being my home; it is also a bigger market.

It is also easier to move from Uganda to Rwanda than it is to move from Rwanda to Uganda.

Do you see any opportunities for ladies in Business and Technology in Uganda?

During my time in Rwanda, I worked with Miss Geek to promote STEM with girls in ICT.

I realized that most of the solutions created by men for the ladies are not actually fully solving issues faced by females.

Only someone who has gone through a problem can find a better solution for it and that’s the opportunity ladies need to exploit.

There are opportunities for women to create solutions in Agriculture, cosmetics, medicine, energy and so on.

What would you say are your Achievements so far?

My biggest achievement is being able to change lives of people and helping to keep someone alive; that’s what I would call an achievement.

I have worked with young entrepreneurs and with some of the solutions we are providing, we shall change lives.

Uganda is among the most enterprising countries but many start-ups don’t get to see the light of the day; what problems have you cited and how do you plan to deal with them?

The problem with most entrepreneurs is that they want to do it all alone which is impossible.

You need to share your idea with other people and do a lot of networking for your start-up to remain sustainable.

Different people have different ideas, some of which will help you develop your start-up.

People don’t share their ideas for fear of being plagiarized but there are ways you can discuss an idea without pre-empting it.

Education or Money?

I believe Education is needed. It is actually very important. It helps you think in a different way.

Education is not only in class and it never ends. Even the most successful business persons continue to learn through reading.

What is your life like outside work?

I love travelling, visiting different national parks in the country and the different towns.

I also do writing and spoken word poetry.

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