James is an Industrial Chemistry graduate with entrepreneurship passion leaned towards renewable energy adoption among low income communities, energy management and environmental conservation. He is an alumnus of Cambridge Development Initiative, a program sponsored by Smart Villages. He is also recognized as Smart Village Ambassador by IEE Smart Village. James is the Co-founder of Chemolex Ltd, an enterprise providing lighting and phone charging solutions to off-grid households, clean transport solutions using rechargeable motorcycles and currently piloting powering agricultural activities by smallholder farmers & agro-industry (animal feed manufacture) using renewable solar energy and modeling low cost biogas digesters from recycled polymers.
He is currently pursuing masters in environmental Chemistry and consults in energy and environmental sectors.
What is your off-grid energy business? Can you give a brief overview? How long have you been working on this business?
Chemolex Ltd through Solarvil as an enterprise is providing off-grid solar solutions to its target consumers by harnessing solar energy through solar power stations and storing in rechargeable batteries. The enterprise utilizes a unique model where it distributes valve regulated lead acid batteries to households through designated agents, The batteries provides the off-grid households with lighting and phone charging services. Local businesses such as video shows and barber shops are supported by powering their operations using large capacity battery units. Chemolex has gone further to introduce clean and affordable transport solutions for transport of farm produce and passengers using rechargeable electric motorcycles. The enterprise has run steadily since its inception in September, 2015 upon winning seed capital through an energy competition of US$3000 courtesy of Smart Villages. https://e4sv.org/competition/challenge/
What inspired you to start working in off-grid energy? Are there any key people who inspired you to work in this area?
I love the environment and this bond drove my ambitions towards being champion of the earth, I read articles, journals and surfed internet on energy trends elsewhere and this lead me to identifying the gaps which I saw as opportunities for social entrepreneurship. I was inspired by the Nobel Laureate, the Late Wangari Mathaai towards championing for environmental conservation; I was also inspired by Gerhard Knothe for his work in bio-energy which got me into persuing my dreams towards championing for renewable energy among low income households.
Have you lived in a off-grid community? What is something you want people with reliable energy to know about growing up off-grid?
Yes. Having being raised in a rural, off-grid setup made me observe how poor families in these communities cooked and light up their homes using unclean sources of fuels that include; firewood, kerosene and charcoal. I saw this situation as not only harmful and costly to the users but harmful to the environment through carbon emissions and deforestation. They light their homes on kerosene lamps which are dim, emit fumes causing lung and eye disease and school going children are affected as they can only study for an hour leading to poor performance compared to their counterparts in areas connected to the grid. I believed I could change the status quo. It requires an investment of US$35 to see a household have access to clean lighting solution.
What are the main things you have learned while working as an entrepreneur in off-grid energy? Your biggest success and biggest failure? Key epiphanies or turning points?
One must really understand their target customers in terms of what they need and their willingness and ability to pay considering the low income levels of rural households who comprise the majority of off-grid regions in any country. Quality of service is also a key factor to consider as this differentiates from your competitors. This requires you to adopt an innovative model to tailor quality services at affordable costs for mass adoption by the households.
Biggest success has been great demand for the services through high market penetration as a result of referrals from existing clients. One failure has been low quality of some batteries which arises from local suppliers who give non-genuine products. We hope to overcome this challenge when we start to import the batteries directly from manufacturers.
Key emphasis is thus having the right business model and quality products to provide quality services
What has surprised you most about working as an off-grid energy entrepreneur?
It not just surprises me alone but to my peers and the community to reveal to them that I have background in Industrial Chemistry and not Electrical Engineering as many think; I have come to believe that an entrepreneur can fit anywhere as long as they have the vision which sets the path and act to create the desired change
What has been most difficult/most rewarding?
Just like making a movie, the team has it all. For a startup with limited finance to hire experts and experienced staff, getting a team has been an uphill task, they have to be committed and passionate individuals working more of as volunteers. Being a social entrepreneur I am rewarded by the impacts I make as a change agent, I get motivated through traction of the enterprise. This has made me to visualize where the enterprise will be in future
If you could share some wisdom with yourself 3 years ago, what would it be?
No regrets and turning back- believe in the future and hope for the best, if it feels dark midway of the tunnel just believe there is light at the end of it.
Where do you hope to be 3 years from now?
I see myself as a champion of the earth. I see impacting on millions of poor families across Africa, providing them with clean and affordable off-grid solutions, biogas plants, and powering their activities through renewable energy for improved productivity and increased profits, I see transformation of rural communities and an end to hunger and poverty in the rural communities. I foresee Smart Villages just like Cities.