Social entrepreneurs flourish in Africa



As perhaps the first-ever conference of social entrepreneurs in Africa, the Sankalp East Africa conference in Nairobi in February did not disappoint.

The conference, organized by Intellecap, a leading Indian company in social enterprise, featured twelve entrepreneurs from Africa and each venture had a social mission.  Some of the companies had a longer operating history than others but all demonstrated considerable potential.  The audience of over 400 included a number of development organizations from the region as well as individual investors and investment funds from North America, Europe and Africa.

The industries represented some common themes as well as great needs in the African continent.  About half of the finalists were engaged in waste recycling and solar power with nutrition and health care close behind.  A few of the finalists are highlighted below.

One of the companies with potentially great social impact is Claphijo Enterprises.  Led by Clara Ibihya, this Tanzanian company seeks to use solar energy in order to reduce the spoilage of fruits and vegetables.  In developing countries, it is estimated that as much as 50% of harvested crops are lost to spoilage.  The company is currently seeking funding for a pilot program in three regions of Tanzania.

Dassy Enterprise was the winner of the “Peoples’ Choice” award at the conference.  It is a retailer and installer of solar lighting and water heating equipment and based in Musanze, Rwanda.  It is raising money in order to set up franchise arrangements with rural shopkeepers.

A twist on the renewable energy theme comes from Takamoto Biogas, a start-up run by a young American engineer.  Its biogas systems are installed for essentially a small downpayment on the farms of rural families in Kenya who have at least two cows or six pigs.  The dung from the animals is fed into an anaerobic digester and gas comes out the other end and is piped to the house for cooking.  The gas is metered and the company earns its revenues by charging the family no more than they would have paid for dirty and smoky sources of cooking fuels like charcoal, kerosene or wood.

The winner of the first place award at the conference was Continental Renewable Energy, run by Dr. Aghan Oscar.  Continental makes fence posts from post-consumer recycled plastic.  At the conference Dr. Oscar showed a strong and attractive roofing tile which can be made from the same raw materials.  The company is in the process of raising capital for equipment to make a line of roofing tile products.

Edom Nutritional Services, based in Kisumu, Kenya, has already been widely recognized for its innovative creation of a nutrient-fortified porridge flour for children in order to prevent malnutrition.  Winstone Odhiambo, its founder and CEO, is a graduate of the 2012 program of the Unreasonable Institute and a recipient of awards from Echoing Green as well as Village Capital.

The only company at the Sankalp event that was not currently raising capital was Penda Health.  Penda has recently completed a capital-raising round which enabled the opening of its second medical clinic for low and moderate income Kenyans.  Its clinics are in Kitengela and Umoja, both near Nairobi, and it has plans to open a total of 100 clinics in East Africa in order to expand options for affordable, quality, outpatient care.

Karibu Solar Power is another solar lighting company but its marketing strategy may be unique.  One of the major difficulties in selling to poor families who live off the electric grid is their inability to afford the initial cost of the equipment, although the cost of solar energy is essentially zero.  Karibu seeks to solve this problem by enlisting small rural stores as microfranchisees.  The store sells a light and battery pack to a customer but keeps the solar panel.  After using the light, the customer returns to exchange a depleted battery for a recharged battery, essentially financing their purchase.  After 30 days of paying for the recharging, the customer takes ownership of the solar panel, too.

Another innovation deserves mention because of its importance to the large number of small scale farmers in Africa.  Although many of the world’s poor are engaged in agriculture, land in many areas is not productive or yields little due to a lack of rainfall.  Larger farms can afford diesel pumps but those are essentially not an option for the poor.  SunCulture sells a solar pump plus drip irrigation tape that is economically feasible for farmers with as little as one acre.

All of the twelve finalists are listed on this page.  Many of these are impressive concepts with committed and focused entrepreneurs.  However, the most encouraging news may be that the best is yet to come.  The Sankalp East Africa conference was the first of its kind and we can look forward to more numerous and creative social enteprises in the years ahead.

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