Zim innovation beats the world

…company scoops UK climate change award

Chris Mahove, EDITOR

What started as a quest by a Chivi born engineer to address the country’s rural energy poverty has turned out to be the best innovation on affordable clean energy in the world.

Renewable energy has been identified as one of the most effective tools that can be used in the fight against climate change, saving money while at the same time displacing emissions from fossil fuels.

Zonful Energy, a brainchild of William Ponella, last week won the Ashden Award in the United Kingdom, which is the most prestigious award in the energy sector.

The Zimbabwean company came tops in the category of Energy Skill Access, where people would provide both the product as well as the training aspect in the provision of affordable green energy which helps mitigate against the effects of climate change.

“We came out as the best company in the world at the moment in terms of articulating the required kind of strategy to train people and also provide them with employment, ”Ponella told Review & Mail in an exclusive interview Friday.

Ponella said despite that the award comes with a prize money, the most important thing was the international recognition that there were Zimbabwean companies which could be very innovative and come up with solutions towards Climate Change.

“I can tell you straight away that our model is being replicated by quite a number of countries including India, I have received a lot of calls from people, India and other countries who would also want to replicate the kind of model which we have implemented and I think as a nation it’s a clear signal to the world that Zimbabwe is doing something right towards climate change, especially considering the COP 27. Some people are just talking about what they need to do, but for Zimbabwe Zonful is a very good case study of what can be done in a small way in terms of emitting CO2 emissions,” he said.

Zonful Energy is involved in the manufacture and distribution of affordable solar energy products for lighting and powering electrical gadgets and distributes its products mostly in rural areas where there is energy poverty.

But how did this all begin and what was the inspiration behind this project?

Ponella said the company was a direct result of his desire to solve the energy poverty that existed in Chivi District, in rural Masvingo South of the country where he grew up.

He said he grew up drinking water from unprotected water sources because the nearest borehole which was there had broken down and they  had no mechanism to extract water from the borehole.

This, he said, prompted him to think of a way to solve the problem, having been the first person, on completion of his engineering training to put up a make shift solar pumped borehole in the rural areas which up to now was still working.

“It’s a company which I started with the sole objective of providing clean and affordable solar energy solutions to rural areas, but we have since grown into also covering urban and peri-urban markets. The company actually operates on a business model known as Pay As You Go. This is an arrangement where people will be making progressive payments after they would have paid a small deposit,” Ponella explained, adding although he knew very well that the people needed the services,  the challenge was on how they were going to pay for the services.

He said they then came up with a business model such that almost everyone would be in a position to afford a solar product and move away from using kerosene and candles, where upon the completion of the agreed amounts in terms of payments, the people own the assets permanently.

In terms of the product portfolio, the company has since grown from solar home systems and has now diversified into smart phones, irrigation pumps and pre-fabricated bio-digesters for green cooking.

“How the idea came about is basically from my childhood experience when I was growing in the rural areas. I realized that we were really subjected to a lot of energy poverty,” he said.

Besides the emission of toxic gases into the air, Ponella noted, the use of kerosene and other carbon based sources of energy  had also led to too many cases of accidental fires in Chivi.

“Some of them involved people who we were actually learning with at school but then they perished in fires. All of these things prompted me to come up with a solution for these problems.

Financing, he said was difficult at the beginning as he had to initially fund the project from his own pocket so he could kick start the project.

“But as you know capital always follows good ideas; so we raised our first funding from ACF (it’s an institution which comprises of so many donors. UK AID were the leading donors in that organisation. So these are the guys who gave us our first finance and then we went on and raised other funding from other institutions like EEP, GSMA; it’s a British organisation as well. And then we raised what is called the Convertible Note from an organisation called PEC (Persistent Energy Capital), an Irish organisation. Then we raised also another Convertible Note from a company called EAV, which was about $800 000,” he said.

Convertible Note is a loan which can be later on converted into liquid.

And that marked the beginning of a journey of innovation that saw the company raise the country’s flag high on the international arena in the area of Climate Change.

The company’s products include very affordable lanterns, which are the cheapest and are sold for as little as $5.

At the entry level, their solar systems start from a three lighting system which costs $150 and people are required to pay $20 deposit then monthly installments of $5 to $10 for a period of 24 months.

They range up to $1000 and more depending on the size and the number of gadgets it can power.

And Zonful does not only provide affordable clean energy, it has also created 80 000 jobs for the country’s youths in all the eight rural provinces and is targeting to employ 600 000 in the next three years, including those in peri-urban and urban areas.

“Universal energy access can only be a success by just making sure that you have got the right skills and there is a diverse need of skills both technical and soft skills. So what we do is depending on the level of the individual we want to employ, basically we train technicians, sales agents, marketing people. The entry level is basically depending on the kind of training the person requires; there are some people whom we train as skilled personnel, who have diplomas, then we have got people who have no skills who we train as straight school leavers with at least three O’ Levels.

“They are identified within the communities where they stay. We have gone through the eight rural provinces but there are obviously areas where we have really penetrated almost 80%; areas like Mhondoro Ngezi where we started from, Mashonaland East generally. Areas like Mhondoro Ngezi, Chegutu, Sanyati these are some of the areas where we have reached 80% of the people but we have gone through all the districts,” he said.

The youths do not pay for the training skills as the products that they make during their practical lessons are sold by the company while they are also employed either as full time or freelancers.

The Ashden Awards for Sustainable Energy are an annual competition to identify and reward organizations which carry out excellent, practical, and innovative schemes of sustainable energy at a local level in the UK and in the developing world.

Ashden provides UK awards separately from the international awards.

The awards are for a specific project, program, product, or service and can also refer to the entire work of an organization.

Past winners of Ashden Awards include projects in solar, wind, hydro, biomass, biogas, fuel-efficient stoves, and energy efficiency.

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