Founder and CEO, Karibu Solar Power
“Acting like we could do anything pushed us to do things we didn’t think we could do”
Canadian brothers Brian and Adam Camenzuli made the post-graduation years count with their renewable energy company Karibu, which is sadly closing down this year. In Tanzania, where 40% have access to the energy grid and 80% use kerosene and candles, they created a product which could be disassembled for ease of use and affordability, at the same cost of a kerosene lamp. Karibu, which means welcome in Swahili, broke down the solar lighting system into a series of components. A lamp was separated into a battery, LED light and a solar panel; this evolved into a ‘hockey puck’ lookalike rechargable light and a solar panel.
The product was designed by Brian Camenzuli, who studied environmental engineering. “We twist a modular solar panel module onto a battery and a light, which we secured a patent for. It went from that to a larger battery, as phones have evolved in the last few years, and a larger lighting time as well. It went to a slim hockey puck where you could plug in a solar panel.”
Around 2000 lamps were bought and sold from 2011 to 2013 in Tanzania. Karibu worked mainly in the region of Kilimanjaro, such as the district of Rombo. The project started when Adam Camenzuli quit his job in banking and moved in East Africa. “The priorities were raising money, of which we gathered 250,000$. That was quite difficult,” he says, of the money which came from social impact, the Canadian government and UN SEED funding. “Then we spent six months to a year completing the final design, the plastics and engineering, until we finally made it.
There were around four to five people per lamp, says Camenzuli. “We saw the biggest impact with schools. One woman used our pay-as-you-go model,” he says, a model which has taken off far more than when the company launched. “She was able to reduce her weekly spend on energy and have light for her kids, who were not using candle or kerosene. It’s really about education, which was cool for us.” Online, there are videos of the Karibu team who often did their presentations or interviews interspersed with tidbits of the local language. Camenzuli picked up Chagga and Pare. “When I speak in dialect to an older lady in a village, she loses her mind – I started off in the tribal language, moved into broken Swahili, and it was important.”
Some of the challenges encountered along the way included issues with the Tanzanian government, who Camenzuli describes as not being receptive to social enterprise. “There are huge deterrents to making investments in the country, particularly with the new president, John Magafuli.” The new government launched a ‘one million solar homes’ initiative to widespread attention last year, whilst Tanzania is growing a competitive solar market. “My university in Canada is writing a case on Karibu, and one of the insights which clicked with me was that we were getting squished on the lower end by the really cheap, increasingly higher quality Chinese imports. The other end was by the solar home systems that were mobile enabled could bring in tens of millions of dollars, which we did less of. If we were to start again today, it would be harder, and it would have to be very tech-enabled.”
There were many mentors along the way, says Camenzuli, and it is important to get good feedback, even when times get bad. “I spoke to an investor a few days ago and apologised for losing his money, and he said, I trust you. Having people like that, who really believes in you, takes a while to build up and get.” Camenzuli has no plans for the next step, but says that Karibu has been a good experience, and will reach around 20,000 people. “We just kind of ran into it, we didn’t look into what we leaped. It was important for us, and we learnt as we went. We were so naive and really believed we could do anything we wanted, that we acted like we could, and it pushed us to do things we didn’t think we could do. Just do it, have fun, fail often, and early,” he says.
Nabeelah Shabbir @lahnabee