In 2015, Zambia was hit by a critical power shortage. Households, farms and small businesses had to go through up to 8 hour daily power cuts which were attributed to low water levels at the main reservoirs triggering a power deficit and potential economic crisis.
Left without electricity, many households and businesses resorted to gensets as an alternative source of electricity for a few hours. The increasingly popular gensets came with their own set of challenges.
They were bulky, the amount of noise pollution they produced was unbearable and the exhaust fumes did more harm to the environment. Due to the continuous fuel demand for the gensets, running them became very expensive and the fact that most of them did not have a cooling mechanism, meant they needed regular repair and maintenance to function.
Coming up with a sustainable solution
This situation prompted Moses Chulu to think of a solution. Before 2015, Moses, a civil engineer by profession worked in consultancy for a couple of years before opening Cleanpower solutions, a renewable energy company that provides solutions using products and services that are environmentally friendly.
“Gensets were an unsustainable solution of bridging the power gap that was there. I started researching on better ways of filling this gap, with a focus on environmentally friendly solutions. South Africa’s solution stood out for me. They had recently gone through a similar phase of load shedding and had adopted inverter batteries for back up and solar solutions as well,” Moses said.
He went ahead to import one of the inverter batteries which they tested and realised that the batteries were a more sustainable solution. He then contacted a close friend in South Africa who sent them a number of batteries and inverters which they distributed and marketed in Zambia as a clean power solution. That is how the business name, Clean Power Solutions’ came about.
After about 2 years of supplying inverter batteries as an alternative solution, they started having returns on batteries which needed maintenance/replacement, some of which were still within warranty.
“It was more costly and unsustainable to replace the batteries with new ones from South Africa every time a client brought back a battery. We started doing research on how we could make the battery side more sustainable and discovered that there were machines that could extend battery life. We invested in that technology and its been a learning curve but its been working for us in the past 3 years,” Moses said.
They also provide the same solution for car batteries. Instead of drivers buying brand new batteries they can have their battery life extended at a fraction of the cost of buying a new one.
With the addition of the battery Center, Clean Power Solutions portifolio also provides:
- Back- up solutions – These are energy storage solutions could be either back up solutions for institutions or residential areas where there coud be a deficit in energy due to load shedding and other reasons.
- Hybrid soulutions – These are used to supplement grid power with other energy sources like solar in areas with both grid and other energy solutions like solar. Hybrid solutions are efficient if you are looking to save or have an alternative source of energy in case one stops working.
- Full off grid solutions – This is Clean Power Solution’s main area of focus. The off grid solution targets areas where the grid has not reached yet especially in rural areas. The focus is to provide energy soluutions to schools, hospitals and other institutions that provide social services to the community.
Defining their market
Moses admits that their long term plan is to shift to a more sustainable market segment,
“At the moment we supply middle to high income households in urban areas with back up solutions because we still have problems with load shedding, power shortages and power outages. We also supply institutions, schools, hospitals and businesses in rural and peri urban areas. Farms are another unique market for us, we have in recent times gotten more business from farm owners.”
However Moses acknowledges that this market is not the most sustainable because eventually, the power issue will probably be sorted. In the long term the plan is to focus more on serving social institutions in off grid rural areas that may not have access to the Grid Power due to factors such as terrain and remoteness.
Building relationships with clients
Clean Power Solutions markets themselves as selling a solution and not a product,
“From the time we first engage a client, we walk with them through the entire life span of that product including after sale service and advise. Our process is such that we understand our clients needs then make a tailor made solution based on their needs and the budget they have. If its a case where we are not able to have an ideal solution because of budgetary constraints, we still try to work with their budget to deliver a solution that will bring them value and bridge the energy gap.,” Moses said.
They also give clients options for upgrades. A client could start with an energy option that is within their budget and eventually upgrade to better services. Putting the client’s needs first, working within the client’s budget and providing a quality service is what makes Clean Power Solutions stand out.
While most energy companies sell products, they have marketed themselves as solution providers and because of this, they have a return cycle where clients will always come back in case they need an upgrade or alternative solution. Maintaining great relationships with each client served has built loyalty which has resulted to referral based marketing. Moses attributes this word of mouth marketing as a key success for the business in gaining new clients.
As part of their work providing energy solutions to off grid areas, Clean Power Solutions was contracted to supply solar solutions to three hospitals and maternity wards located in a rural area in the Eastern province in Zambia. The situation was particularly bad in the maternity wards. Due to the power issues women used to give birth in the dark under candle light and babies could not be placed in an incubator if thats what they required.
A day after installing solar panels at one of the maternity wards, a baby was born prematurely. The facility had the incubator equipment but the only thing lacking was power to use the equipment. They were finally able to use the incubator, giving this baby a much deserved chance at life. The doctors and nurses were happy and appreciated the fact that without the recently installed panels, the baby may not have survived.
That is something Moses considers a proud moment in the business.
Impact on environment
Clean Power Solution’s major impact is environmental.
“The core of our business is in providing environmentally friendly solutions. Where we can take gensets off of the market and put a cleaner solution, that for us is doing a lot to conserve the environment. This has an impact on the environment and on people’s health. I saw a statistic that more people in Sub Saharan Afica die from inhalation of carbon gases than malaria and HIV combined,” Moses noted.
With the battery centre, they have provided informal employment. There are people who collect used batteries in neighborhoods, sell to them and they are able to refurbish the batteries and sell them back on the market.
Since they sell the refurbished batteries at half the price compared to the new ones, they help clients save money.
Most businesses are forced to make a few changes and adjsutments in response to changes or challenges in the industry. This is the case with Clean Power Solutions.
“Initially we were just providing products. Our clients would purchase and once they got home/work they would struggle to install it, do it wrong and lead to damage. Thats why we shifted from being a products provider to being a solutions provider where we not only sell the products but also provide installation and after sale services,” Moses said.
The battery centre was also something they had to adopt along the way in order to make the business more sustainable by investing in a machine that extends battery life to give more value to clients.
There has also been a shift in technology. Types of invertors have evolved from transfromer based to smart inverters that are able to plug in different power sources. Li-on Battery is also new type and more resilient battery on the market. Clean Power Solutions provides these products.
When it comes to solar and hybrid solutions, they have focused on larger scale market segment such as social institutions.
Value from the GrowthAfrica Accelerator
When Moses Chulu first interacted with the programme outline of GrowthAfrica’s Accelerator programme, he realised it would be an opportunity for him to look into each area of the business since there were some areas in the business which they did not pay attention to yet those areas affected the overall business growth and sustainability.
“Looking at the outline provided, it resonated with what we wanted to do. We had an opportunity to network and share experiences with other businesses and we got to learn from more experienced speakers and mentors,” Moses said.
Some impactful lessons they got from the programme were:
- Understanding competition and how they could focus on the problem they were addressing and refine their solutions.
- Identifying their target market and moving from a broader market offering to a more specific market.
- Understanding their customers journey, what the customers go through in a day and where their solution fits.
- Understanding their value chain to ensure that the value they deliver is equivalent to the money that the end user is paying for. Moses admits they have made certain adjustments around this based on the perspective from the acceleration programme.
Moses Chulu’s advice for entrepreneurs
- On getting into entrepreneurship
“If you want to do entrepreneurship seriously, there are certain things that have to be in place, and this requires a certain element of preparation. That’s one thing GrowthAfrica helped us with. We had a lot of gaps because we were not really prepared because we were driven by passion. Once you get into that space you realise there is a lot that has to go into setting foundations, self development and being patient you wont be an overnight success. Its important for people to invest in themselves and the people they are working with. Whenever we grow ourselves, that eventually grows the business.”
- On strategy
“Because of the fast-changing world, we live in, every entrepreneur needs to have foresight of how their industry is evolving. Have a strategy to address changes in industry to ensure sustainability and growth in the business.”
- On financing
“I believe that money is never really the issue. Once you make money the issue you limit your ideas. Money does not follow ideas, ideas follow money. If you have an idea that is good enough, eventually people are going to come on board to support. When we were starting off, we didnt have money, we advertised the products on facebook as an alternative, people got interested, we told them if they want the product they should pay sixty percent down payment and we did deliveries within a week.
My friend in South Africa would send the products, we go and install get our balance. So we started as an idea and used people’s money to finance the business. We made some reasonable profits from what we were doing. It doesnt really take capital to start. ”
What’s in the future
Moses Chulu and his team are clear on where they see the company in the near future. The focus on reaching out to social institutions in off grid areas remains a priority.
One of the challenges with Zambia is it’s a large country when it comes to land area. Populated centres are partially populated and some of them are on places like islands, which are not easily accessible. If you do a cost benefit analysis, the cost of taking the grid to only 1000 people is so high compared to the benefit you get.
Such places need isolated solutions especially in service institutions like schools, hospitals, so Clean Power Solution’s focus is to go to those partially populated places and start providing solutions to social institutions, contributing to better education, better health delivery and growth for small businesses.
On the battery centre, Moses acknowledges that batteries can be a hazard to the environment especially if they are not disposed correctly. In the next 3 years, the plan is to invest in a recycling plant where Clean Power Solutions will recycle the materials that come out of used batteries like plastic and lead then sell to companies that use these products in their production.
At the centre of all solutions is to provide safe, affordable and reliable sources of energy while conserving the environment.