Abu Musuuza grew up in a family of doctors, which provided him with a drive to help people. He also grew up in Kampala, Uganda regularly spending time in his family’s village in Luweero, a town with no electricity, which provided him with a clear problem to solve.
In 2010, Musuuza—a social worker and administer by training—started Village Energy, a company that assembles and installs custom solar-power units, along with batteries, lights, phone chargers, and equipment for micro-grids. The company also services existing units and trains local electricians on solar systems so that they can provide continuous customer support—a novelty in many of the areas where they operate.
Since launching, Village Energy has reached more than 400,000 homes and businesses. It is also on track to train 1,000 electricians within the next five years and has set a goal of having at least 50 percent of them be women. “We won’t go lower than 30 percent,” Musuuza says. “But we have to go head-on against a lot of cultural barriers.”
According to Musuuza, only about 10 percent of Ugandans have reliable access to the national electrical grid. The rest are left to fend for themselves, which generally means spending 15 to 20 percent of the average Ugandan income on kerosene for lighting. But Musuuza noticed that even when people were able to afford solar units, up to 60 percent of them broke within the first year, which led to the service component that has become a cornerstone of the Village Energy business.
After trying and failing with a low-cost solar system that provided only lighting (without extra power for things like mobile phones and radios, there wasn’t enough incentive to get people to switch from kerosene), Musuuza turned to the assembly and installation of traditional solar systems. It was a viable business but in a fairly competitive space, which is how Musuuza settled on after-sales service as both a competitive advantage and a way to create jobs.
Village Energy was finding that most reports of broken systems were due to user errors and that no one knew how to fix them. So Village Energy rolled out a repair service, fixing not only its own systems but competitors’ as well. “People say that there are not very good distribution models in the solar space,” Musuuza explains. “But that’s not really the truth. The reality is that what is distributed breaks and is never fixed.
“So we went into rural areas and identified young people who are self-taught radio and phone repairmen. We provided them a little extra training on solar and electricity, which only takes about a week before they can do it really well.” The electricians charge $2 to $4 dollars an hour and also sell replacement parts. It was an untapped market of up to $14 million worth of broken systems.
Village Energy is partnering with vocational programs to help it reach its five-year target of 1,000 electricians. And the company is focusing on the business sector, especially in selling to decentralized, off-grid banking and medical services.
“The way we look at solar systems, it’s not about the technology,” Musuuza says. “We approach it as ‘What is the development challenge out in the communities? Where can we have an impact?'”