Tonye Irims, founder and CEO of WiSolar, has over a decade of entrepreneurial experience. He founded two startups that failed before hitting it big with his third during this period – a prepaid solar electricity provider.
Irims sure knows a thing or two about the heartaches of building a startup from scratch in Africa.
In this exclusive interview with Business Elites Africa, Tonye shares the lessons he has picked up along the way and the opportunities in the adoption of solar electricity in Africa.
BEA: How did your entrepreneurial journey begin and how did you end up in the renewable energy industry?
Tonye Irims: The journey started in 2006, when I began selling dual SIM phones online. We started Wikiglobal in Johannesburg, South Africa, which introduced the first dual SIM semi-feature phones with the nucleus Operating System. We started FriendsChip in 2011, which was a social payment platform launched in Texas, U.S. They, unfortunately, did not go as planned.
With my venture into RE, I had to unearth my interest in integrated sciences when I saw the coming shift from fossil fuels and increasingly frequent electricity bill escalations.
A new path for the future, where climate-friendly, low-cost electricity will be the preferred form for residential power use and electric mobility, had to be created as electricity demand was fast increasing with population growth.
BE: Tell us about your startup, WiSolar.
Tonye Irims: WiSolar is a Green Digital Utility. Our mission is to provide solar electricity for everyone. We integrate prepaid solar electricity into developments for on-demand, low-cost solar power alongside grid power, which is purchased per kWh as required.
We gained further international recognition when we received the 2021 MEA Markets business award. WiSolar is also regarded as one of the most innovative clean energy companies in South Africa and is currently a leader in residential solar financing and installation in South Africa.
BE: What were the challenges you faced in the early days and how did you navigate them?
Tonye Irims: Educating people on solar technology while bootstrapping the operation. We navigated with continuous learning, patience, courage, and innovation.
BE: What has your experience in providing renewable energy products taught you about the African energy landscape precisely and about the business landscape in Africa generally?
Tonye Irims: The business landscape in Africa is extremely volatile. Energy policies can change from state to state. You have to deal with currency fluctuations, the difficulty of movement across African states, which is now even worse post-COVID-19.
BEA: How big is the renewable energy market in Africa?
Tonye Irims: It’s a $280-billion market. Africa’s population is the youngest and among the fastest-growing globally.
With the burgeoning cities on the continent and rapid economic and population growth, the continent is set to become the most populous region by 2023, even surpassing India and China. Renewable Energy will make up almost half of the continent’s power generation by 2040.
BEA: Adoption of renewable energy is on a gradual rise across the continent, with an annual growth rate of 21% recorded between 2010 and 2020 and a current total renewable capacity of more than 58 GW (of which hydropower contributes 63%). How does solar energy stack up to the other forms of renewable energy generation like hydro, wind, etc.?
Tonye Irims: Captive solar energy is best suited for on-demand renewable electricity. Hydro, wind, and other forms are better suited for commercial and utility use cases.
BEA: As an African entrepreneur, what have been the biggest challenges so far?
Tonye Irims: African entrepreneurs are rarely adequately funded. According to the trend, the startups that receive the most funding have non-African composites or non-African founders moving or registering in Africa and branding as an African tech startup to secure funding designed for African tech startups. So basically, a veritable factor of production is either withheld from African entrepreneurs or provided at exorbitantly high-interest rates through financing chains, brokers, and middle people.
BE: What, in your view, are the biggest challenges to building a viable business in Africa and how best do you think this can be solved?
Tonye Irims: Businesses in Africa are not provided with enough incubation to experiment or refine their business model. They are expected to hit the ground running and be profitable from day one, hence the high business failure rate in Africa.
BEA: How much is WiSolar worth at the moment, and what are your expansion plans?
Tonye Irims: This is still under review. However, we would like to determine our worth in terms of how much value we add in any geography we are present in, especially in terms of skills development and customer value.
BEA: You recently embarked on an ambitious project to create 1000 jobs for solar engineers in South Africa. Tell us about it and what inspired it?
Tonye Irims: There is an urgent need to develop and retain talent on the continent. Galloping unemployment and talent flight are causes for concern in South Africa.
Secondly, is the need to address the skills gap between theoretical electrical engineering and practical solar engineering. Also, bridging the chasm between electrical, hardware, and software engineering
Our work environment and culture will make for highly engaged solar engineers that fit WiSolar’s ethos and are willing to learn and grow.
BE: What are the necessary skills and competencies needed to become a skilled solar engineer?
Tonye Irims: It’s basically just having electrical knowledge or at the very least, the right attitude to learning and growth.
BE: This project is focused on South Africa. Are you planning to expand to other countries like Nigeria?
Tonye Irims: WiSolar is positioning itself as a Pan African Green Digital Utility for low-cost electricity. We intend to intensify our presence in Nigeria and expand into Ghana, Tanzania, Rwanda, and Zimbabwe.
BE: Going by the experience gathered so far, what would your advice be to other aspiring entrepreneurs?
Tonye Irims: The entrepreneurship path is difficult. But it is twice as difficult as in the west, where you have funding and mentorship access.
BEA: Data shows that the failure rate for startups in Nigeria, Africa’s biggest economy, has averaged 61 percent from 2010 to 2018. South Africa also has one of the highest failure rates for SMMEs, with five out of seven businesses failing within the first year. Why do you think small businesses fail in Africa at such high rates?
Tonye Irims: I indicated above the disillusionment experienced by African entrepreneurs, which is tantamount to catching a bullet with your teeth. African entrepreneurs are expected to give birth to mature businesses. The businesses start up all excited. But they are unable to survive and thrive, mostly because of a lack of support and the absence of critical resources.
BE: What do you think are the keys to building a successful business in Africa?
Tonye Irims: Discipline, Resilience, Knowledge, Empathy. There will be days when you will want to give it all up (and plenty do in Africa).
BE: What, in your view, are the greatest barriers to clean energy adoption in Africa?
Tonye Irims: Balancing the interests of all the stakeholders in the clean energy ecosystem.