Impacting lives using renewable energy technology and flake-ice production in Uganda

Global efforts towards creating and developing renewable energy are quickly gaining ground and Andrew Ssentongo, Founder of GRS Commodities is not left behind in spearheading this. GRS Commodities promotes renewable energy technology for off grid use in areas without access to electricity infrastructure in Uganda. Having provided grid connection services to 600 rural households and small businesses on Kitobo Island resulting into stable 24-hour power, GRS Commodities is dedicated to ensuring that every rural community in Uganda has access to electricity while improving the livelihoods of people in these areas.

Founded in May 2009, GRS Commodities began as a commercial bio energy spin off company. Later, the company specialised in setting up of solar off grid PV systems in rural areas. The most recent venture by GRS Commodities in January 2017, is its entry into flake-ice production with the goal of closing the wide gap of low supply of flake ice to fishermen in Ssese Islands of Lake Victoria, Uganda thus improving on the local fish value chain. To achieve this goal, GRS Commodities has recently taken over and revamped the District flake ice plants Mweena Kalangala District on Lake Victoria, Uganda.

GRS Commodities Founder, Andrew Ssentongo at the flake ice production factory

GRS Commodities was founded on the premise that majority of Ugandans live in rural off grid areas bringing into focus how it could be made possible to promote access to off grid renewable energy in these areas. The concept of developing commercial bio energy was as a result of Andrew Ssentongo’s thesis research on cut flower floriculture value chain in Uganda at Wageningen University and Research Centre in Netherlands. He was researching on the problem of energy within the cut flower value chain where Andrew Ssentongo ended up focusing on commercial bio energy as one of the solutions.

“I see ourselves scaling on how many communities we can serve, how many systems we can build and how many people we can employ.”

What makes Andrew most proud about his venture is its ability to provide access to power to rural off grid communities. The availability of power has resulted in transformation of economic activities in these rural areas leading to employment creation and improvement of existing businesses. So far, GRS Commodities has provided 600 households and small businesses with stable 24-hour power.

Within its 8 years of existence, GRS Commodities has been attributed to some unique achievements making it stand out within its industry and beyond. In 2013, GRS Commodities received the UNDP Seed Award by the United Nations (UN) for its contribution towards environmental protection, innovation in entrepreneurship and social development. In its long list of achievements, GRS Commodities co-implemented the largest stand-alone solar PV mini grid plant in East Africa on Kitobo Island mini-grid plant in 2016. GRS Commodities also stands out as the first local company to implement commercial biogas systems in Uganda and among the first local companies to implement commercial bio gasification.

Flake ice at Kalangala District ready for transportation

Licencing of solar PV mini grid plants by the government is a big industry challenge that GRS Commodities is facing so far. The licencing process eats into a lot of time before validation meaning that the company must put on hold most projects awaiting approval. To overcome this challenge, Andrew Ssentongo is considering changing the company’s business model where two concepts can run concurrently. This means that one of the concepts would not necessarily depend on licencing to allow the business to go forward. Another challenge is that acquiring solar PVs is capital intensive for GRS Commodities and it becomes difficult to consolidate all finances to get a project going.

The specific industry opportunities that GRS Commodities is addressing today in addition to off grid solar PV access is provision of flake ice used by fishermen in Uganda’s Kalangala District on Lake Victoria. Flake ice is used in the preservation and transportation of fresh fish to its final market. There is a gap in the local supply of flake ice which means that in case they can’t access flake ice the fisherman end up throwing away the fish. GRS Commodities comes in to provide flake ice locally produced in the islands to the fishermen making it readily available.

Persistence, which is Andrew Ssentongo’s strongest value as an entrepreneur, has helped him go over great hurdles and achieve his goals. He admits that if someone was to ask him for anything he would give them persistence. “I look at things more philosophically and strive to always have a strong conviction about something”, stated Andrew. He advised that as an entrepreneur one needs to keep the focus even on rainy days.

In the next three years Andrew Ssentongo hopes that GRS Commodities can build market share for producing flake ice and power twice or thrice as many communities than they have today. To achieve this, Andrew Ssentongo plans to establish strong solid partnerships, build internal capacity in terms of administration, operations and technical support and attract capital through partnerships or access to soft funds.  “I see ourselves scaling on how many communities we can serve, how many systems we can build and how many people we can employ.” Andrew stated