Solar energy entrepreneur with keen eye for opportunity

The small rural town of Mwelani in north-western Tanzania is abuzz with activity as residents engage in numerous commercial fishing ventures. The village centre, located on the shores of Lake Victoria, hosts a number of fish traders who come from all corners of the country to buy fish from small-scale fishermen in the area. The shops blend with surrounding homesteads to form a well-ordered lake front.  A small fish landing site remains the major economic landmark in the area.
However, lack of main grid electricity has been a major challenge in the area, forcing innovative entrepreneurs like Meliki Zakaria Kadashi to adopt the use of solar power. Thanks to solar, Zakaria’s business stays open late into the night, translating into more returns.
Since fish trading activities – like most commercial activities – rely heavily on mobile communications, many fishmongers in the village faced challenges with keeping their phones charged.
“Most people here have mobile phones but can’t charge them. People often travel long distances in search of a charging facility.  This makes solar phone charging a viable business in most rural areas in Tanzania”, says GVEP’s Tanzania Country Manager Adam Mbwambo.
Zakaria pondered on how to make the most of the growing clientele that the fledgling fish business was bringing to the area. He thought of the communication frustrations fishmongers went through by remaining in a communication blackout for several hours when their phones went off. Initially starting off with two car batteries to charge phones, Zakaria would travel to Mganza, six kilometres away, to charge the batteries at $0.1 (TZS 200). His business could not sustain the high costs.
From his savings, Zakaria bought a 75 Watts solar panel at the end of 2013 to power his business. He however did not have any knowledge on effective utilisation of solar power, including on the right accessories to use for optimum power generation and utilisation. Moreover, he never had records of his business and hence could not clearly assess its performance.
His enrolment in a GVEP enterprise support programme a year later transformed his business. Besides providing him with business mentorship and support, GVEP linked Zakaria to the Tanzania Postal Bank, where he was able to acquire a $ 617 (TZS 1, 500,000) loan that he used to expand his solar phone charging venture.
“GVEP operates a small loan guarantee programme to support lending by local financial institutions to small businesses. These loans facilitate the purchase of solar equipment supplied by partners working with GVEP in Tanzania. Through solar power, the entrepreneurs are able to expand and diversify their businesses”, says Adam.
Following GVEP’s team’s advice, Zakaria diversified into a number of activities including selling of airtime top up scratch cards and mobile money transfer services. Zakaria also set up a pool table playing facility to tap onto the growing number of young people and fish mongers who didn’t have much to do with their free time.
“Initially, I would charge between 10 and 15 mobile phones per day, but that number has now doubled. I am also able to light up to four bulbs in my house, as well as the pool business”, he says.
The pool business with two playing tables attracts clientele up to late in the evening. It also provides employment for one young man who manages the business. On average, Zakaria makes $2.5 (TZS 6, 000) per day from the phone charging business and an average of $7.2 (TZS 17,500) from the pool business. This is a leap from the previous $4 (TZS 10,000) that he used to make. The improved income saw him clear his loan repayments in August this year.
Besides providing essential services like phone charging for businessmen during their stay in the area, Zakaria is currently building a guest house, enabling him to gain more income.
“Many fish traders who come here from distant places have no place to stay when they travel here. I saw a business opportunity in that”, he says.
Zakaria hopes to complete the venture by the end of this year. To date, he is comfortably paying school fees for his two children in elementary school.
Zakaria says the solar-powered business has brought life to the rural centre as both locals and fish buyers spend their spare time at the pool playing centre.
“In fact, safety has also increased here as most people stay up late into the night playing pool, as they listen to music both from the record player as well as from their phones”, he says.

Jerry Abuga is the Communications & Knowledge Management Officer, East Africa at GVEP International.


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