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Generation Empowered: UBC Social Entrepreneur Lighting Up Rural Tanzania

Published on Thursday, April 16, 2015

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This article originally appeared on the Spring 2015 issue of Viewpoints magazine from the Sauder School of Business.

When Naeem Mawji, M.Eng 2015, and founder of Jamii Power, talks about bringing sustainable, profitable electricity to rural Tanzania, you hear the words not of a dreamer, but those of a problem solver.

His message has resonated with audiences at last year’s UBC President’s Installation Panel Discussion, “Generation Empowered,” and five years ago at TEDxTerryTalks 2010.

“We are not doing this because we are doing something good. We are doing this because we think we can. It’s a massive challenge. We want to be the ones to resolve it, and we believe we are the ones who can resolve it.”

Mawji grew up the son of a civil engineer in Tanzania. He and his younger brother, Aleem (co-founder of Jamii and now a UBC mechanical engineering student), spent their school breaks in rural villages with their father, Anil, a builder of schools, community centre and dams.

“Unlike people from cities, we spent a lot of our childhood in the villages. We speak Swahili and could absorb the culture. That’s how we were exposed to the challenges these communities face.

“And, coming from a family of entrepreneurs, we saw opportunities in these areas, and saw ways to open up possibilities,” says Mawji.

Mawji was also inspired by his Ismaili faith, and particularly the words of the Aga Khan, who urges the fortunate to touch the less fortunate “with the spark which ignites the spirit of individual enterprise and determination.” While an undergrad in chemical engineering at UBC, Mawji started an electrification project in the village of Masurura, near his home town of Musoma. The project, called “Kuwasha” (“to ignite” in Swahili), was a collaboration between the Masurura village, the Musoma District Council, and the UBC Centre for International Health.

“I grew up during power rationing, and have seen how people in rural areas use kerosene to illuminate their homes and some of the dangers associated with that,” says Mawji. “So Aleem and I started Kuwasha to address the lack of electricity and lighting in small Tanzanian villages.”

Mawji and his brother wanted to prompt interactivity in the village by using solar power to illuminate the village’s community gathering places. The project helped “open up time,” in Mawji’s words, so that villagers could interact outside the working day.

While a success, the project illustrated the limitations of small electrification projects. Private solar generators only replace one source of illumination (kerosene) with another. Moreover, they are difficult and expensive to maintain. Worst, because they are DC-power systems, useful appliances cannot be hooked to them without more investment.

“We needed a new approach that would give them the same sort of system any urban person would have,” says Mawji. “We wanted them to just be able to plug in to have broadly useable electricity.”

The Mawji brothers came up with Jamii Power, a concept built around a central 33kWp solar plant sufficient to supply 230V AC power to 150–200 village homes. The power plant is modular and can be installed in just two weeks.

“We build the grid the week before the container [containing the power plant and solar panels] shows up, using locally sourced wires, poles, etc.,” says Mawji. “Once the container arrives, we set up the plant, and then use the container as housing for the plant.”

The Jamii Power model addresses all the challenges raised in Mawji’s Kuwasha project.

“First, we supply AC power, so they can use appliances. Second, we make the necessary investments in the plant, depending on demand. And third, our team handles maintenance, which we can do far more cheaply than an individual could.”

But the success of the first Jamii Power project raised scaling issues, which kept the idea from being a sustainable business. So Mawji turned to UBC and Sauder for help.

“The issues were not technical so much as they were social,” says Mawji. “For example, the community does not have access to banks or credit, so collecting revenue is a nightmare once you expand from a few units to a whole village or many villages.”

Load management was also an issue. Solar power can only be generated in daytime and can only be stored in batteries. There is no way to import power from another village with a surplus.

“To solve the capacity problem, I wanted to look at other sources of electricity. So I joined the UBC Engineering’s Clean Energy program to learn more about technologies, such as bio-mass and micro-hydro power, I could incorporate into the project.

“And I wanted to use the entrepreneurship track to learn more about the business side. That’s where Sauder came in,” says Mawji.

In September 2013, Mawji joined UBC’s Lean LaunchPad accelerator program: an intense eight weeks where the ideas of budding entrepreneurs are ruthlessly picked apart from every angle.

“[Instructor] Paul Cubbon and [entrepreneur] Blair Simonite helped us narrow down to the four key ‘pains’ so we could explain it to people who are unfamiliar with Africa and rural electricity.

“The semester after that, I got into the Technology Entrepreneurship course taught by Cubbon and [Professor] Thomas Hellman. And that is where we took the idea further, getting into the details of what the Jamii business model would look like,” says Mawji.

Armed with his education from UBC, Mawji, 28, now works full-time at Jamii Power in Tanzania, using the firm to also complete his masters project. Brother Aleem, who is 21, divides his time between his UBC engineering co-op work for Teck Highland Valley Copper in Logan Lake, and working at a distance on the Jamii project.

Cubbon continues to follow Mawji and Jamii Power with interest: “Naeem is a UBC entrepreneur that put his company front and centre to help solve a major global societal problem. Sauder and e@UBC continue to stay in contact with Naeem and Jamii to support him where possible.

”Naeem is still developing Jamii Power’s business model, but he is determined to bring sustainable electrification to the villages in a way that all parties, not least Jamii Power, profit and develop. He sees it as an obligation.”

Mawji reflects: “I believe people shouldn’t do things because they feel good about it. They should do it because they can. Because once you have the ability, you have the responsibility. If you don’t, you have denied yourself and the world. Simple as that.”