Interview with Abdul-W. Raaj, Suka Energy West Africa

Saturday October 14th, 2017 - Smart Villages

Abdul-W. Raaj, CEO, Suka Energy West Africa

Location: Tamale, Ghana

“People often ask me why we do everything – in, Africa there is no niche in solar energy”

In Ghana in the eighties, around 40 schoolchildren in one class would burn kerosene lanterns, to be able to keep on studying after dark. Lanterns, some burning oil since kerosene was not in constant supply in rural areas, were checked in individually every day. The oil caused pillars of smoke, remembers Abdul Raaj of his boarding school days. This remains the case today, particularly considering the severe power outages of the last few years, which led to a bailout from the International Monetary Fund in 2015. Although around 30% of Ghanaians are off-grid, Ghana’s reputation as a prospering Western African country is belied by energy debt and drought, most likely caused by climate change.

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Years later, as a student in Jena, East Germany, Raaj is swept along by the popularity of the green movement. With reunification, renewable energy passed into law; solar panels were strewn across the roof in an old block of flats Raaj used to live in, and biomass heating the whole flat from the cellar. In the UK, where Raaj’s family moved when he was a child, the energy system was not as decentralised as in Germany, the gas pipes running directly into homes. It was here that Raaj knew what he wanted to do with his career, “in a system which encourages you to go it on your own. Germany was so cold, with long winter days,” he remembers, “and yet Germany had enough solar energy to power Ghana five times over. I just kept asking why. I’m from Sub-Saharan Africa, I’ve worked in Germany with its very efficient engineering, I’ve worked in the UK where they know how to do the best with design and creativity, how to take the best from other people’s failures.” By 2005, he was working at Suka UK, a company inspired by Suka Germany; four years later, he launched Suka Ghana, with his experience across three different countries informing his interest in an alternative way of finding solutions.

It was important to have a support system in place – a home from his childhood days, and a car, although living in a city of 5 million with end-to-end traffic does pose its challenges, he says.. Despite his education in the sector, he does not think that a degree in the field is necessary. “You need to be prepared to take a risk, because it is not easy to run a business in Africa.” Raaj spent three of four years learning about how the market worked, specifically with smaller solar home systems; he saw that the rural population loved the products, whilst those in urban areas had bigger demands – although sometimes, the demand was reversed. “People often ask me, why are you doing everything,” he says. “In Africa, there is no niche in solar energy.” Today, Suka tailors solutions for different market segments, be it for a school with polluting lanterns, clinics, or street stalls selling bread or confectionery. Raaj has a team of 15 working out of his childhood state of Tamale (covering the north of Ghana) and an office in Accra (covering the south). Whilst Suka aims at being all-encompassing and collaborative, the company also sustains partnerships with other solution providers. If Suka doesn’t have a solution for their customers, “then at least we know where to go to get one”.

The pragmatism in Raaj’s philosophy led to educating customers directly about not wanting too much from their product. “Solar lights are modular;” he says. “The first question I get confronted with is that solar is expensive, but of course it is if you want it to do too many things for you. I draw a pyramid for my customers – we’re sitting in this room, I tell them  – if your TV goes off, or your phone goes off, what are you going to be interested in getting back first? The answer is always light, so I tell them, leave the rest out.” Suka works with microcredit companies who offer microfinance possibilities to traders, farmers or local artisans in rural areas.

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Suka Ghana has always imported products, driven from a key understanding from researching the market being that higher quality products were in demand. “Those we were buying from had to be willing to do OEM (‘Original Equipment Manufacturer’) – to stamp our name on their product.” This strategy of labelling solar paraphernalia, from batteries to charge controllers was essential in reinforcing the brand’s image, says Raaj. A two-year import contract with a company in Germany, which in turn manufactured in Thailand, was not renewed. Raaj points to the challenges of taxes on renewable energy equipment in Ghana, as well as rising exchange rates. By the times the products would reach a warehouse in Ghana, any idea of profit was thrown to the wind, and everything was sold at cost. “The products were still very expensive, and so we ended up giving more products away, to get the feedback.” One solution was to look at alternative government opportunities.

As for the wider region, Raaj hears from potential agents in neighbouring countries such as Burkina Faso. “There is a very rural community there, but they do not have the capital and we don’t deliver – the credit issue is very difficult in West Africa in general. The political context would also not help you were issues to come to court.” As for impact, Raaj relies for the moment on guesstimates – he believes around 50,000 people in families could have benefited from solar lamps, whilst another 50,000 women who would traditionally move to the south to work as head porters – carrying heavy shopping on their head – could have been lifted out of poverty. Suka could effectively be curbing the migration trend for a sector of society which is uneducated and forced to move to work, instead being able to work in the fields at home. “In northern Ghana, we installed a solar irrigation system with a farmer who employs people, so down the value chain so many other people benefit too, with the mobile solar irrigation systems moving from farm to farm. We’d say our products could have reached no less than a million people by way of impact.”

Suka has just put a bid to the US, applying for funding for a rural project for businesses using grinding mills for wheat and grains. “The machines are powered on diesel, which is expensive, and the oil comes from garages where dirty oil is drained from cars and then reused to power the grinding mill machines. The oil can mix in the flour, and the machines regularly break down. It leads to women, who are generally responsible for the food, having to walk far distances to grind their foodstuffs. Some of these mills are so low energy, that we can use solar to power them.” So far, so good, says Raaj – “but we can and want to still do more”. In the future, the company would like to manufacture their own components, rather than importing them and selling them.

Raaj speaks a lot about cultural expectations, especially in a country where a name has been coined for the crippling power cuts – dumsor (‘dum-soor’). “My aunt in a very remote community in rural Ghana will not expect a Nokia 318 from me but a smartphone,” he says. “Many people can’t read or write, but seeing pictures and sending voice messages is important to them. To the extent that they can afford it, people in the rural community want better quality items too. Cheap Chinese products no longer work, and they are aware of it.” The government meanwhile has recently announced that it will install 200,000 solar systems in Ghana, in response.

Nabeelah Shabbir, @lahnabee