What does it take to become a social entrepreneur in Kenya?
After you have talked to Catrine Shroff, I think most people would agree: it takes determination, skill, cooperation between professions and sectors as well as the ability to find opportunities, even where there are only few.
Catrine is a Dane who found a husband in Kenya and ended up living here, raising a family. She holds a PhD. in anthropology, is specialized in religion and development, and has a 15+ years career in consultancy on issues related to health, youth, gender, and civil society in Africa.
Catrine is now also the Managing Director at Mwangaza Light, a company with the mission of making high quality solar products within customers reach to improve economy, education, health and safety in both urban and rural areas in East Africa.
At here we are Kenya’s network meeting in December, Catrine was invited to share her story, a story about her journey from a PhD research on the role of churches in rural development to a social entrepreneur selling solar solutions.
As you can probably imagine, it’s an interesting story with many twists, turns and obstacles but it is also about capturing emergent opportunities.
Combining business idea and impact opportunity
Catrine did not wake up one morning thinking: I want to improve people’s life by providing light in the dark. On the contrary, she was struggling to get her own professional feet on the ground after finishing her PhD. and a maternity leave and trying to find her new role in the job market as a full-time consultant in development aid.
Catrine’s cousin had won a design competition in Norway to design the world’s best solar lantern and the price was to pilot the prototype and put it into production. He contacted his cousin in Kenya to pilot the solar lantern. This opened her eyes to renewable energy.
The idea of solar energy solutions as a new business opportunity came from Catrine’s sister-in-law, Meenaz Kurji, who had run an IT business in East Africa for close to 30 years. Although the Kenyan government is making progress in its national electrification program, most rural and the urban poor population still uses mainly fuel and firewood, so utilizing new and affordable solar technology as an energy source seemed like an excellent business idea.
Meenaz’s suggestion presented a new way to change rural lives and create the social impact Catrine had studied and worked for during her professional career. So Mwangaza Light was born in June 2014.
The sisters-in-law however still had a long way to walk before they could start seeing the positive impact and business results.
Finding the right mentality and motivation
Getting all the paperwork done and register a legally run business took more than a year. Then came all the business startup challenges, from setting up distribution channels, navigating the local competitive market with many local and national players, developing a realistic business plan, hiring the right staff and of course, getting to know an entirely new sector.
At the same time, Catrine was struggling with something else: her self-image. Her life as a social entrepreneur had become focused on the business side of things and less so on the social impact of green energy. She found herself surrounded by business-oriented people and she was not comfortable in the for-profit mentality without a strong social dimension.
At the same time she was challenged by low motivation to properly learn about the technological part of solar energy. To make things worse, business wasn’t going well. Everybody loved the product, but sales were low.
Back to church
Catrine decided to return to her roots to turn it all around, for herself and for the business. She created a linkage between the green energy solutions and the churches – a notion of ‘Green Churches’ i.e. churches that lead a turn to green energy. She approached the renowned alliance of the Protestant churches in Kenya; the National Council of Churches of Kenya.
The church council turned out to see the light, so to speak. It had worked with environment issues for many years but it had not embarked on renewable energy as a new source of energy and of livelihood. And here Catrine had a great advantage. Her PhD thesis focused on churches and rural development, she spoke their language, she knew how various churches operate and, perhaps most importantly, she knows that the churches are powerful change agents.
A MoU with the church council was signed in 2016, with an agreement to pilot in the Rift Valley before scaling up to the national level. Since then, Catrine has worked closely with NCCK to develop baseline information about the churches’ energy use, needs, and interests; develop an approach to set up solar entrepreneurs within the churches, and write grant applications to roll-out the program.
Catrine met with off-grid pastors to learn about their energy needs, and as it turned out that off-grid churches need power to run their music instruments and speakers during praise and worship, and microphones during the sermons, Mwangaza Light invented the world’s first solar public address together with a supplier.
The Evangelist Choice – as it is marketed – is marketed through the church channels and it has become a key solar solution in the Green Churches program as well as in the further establishment of Mwangaza Light on the Kenyan market.
Now onwards to form a new movement
And Mwangaza Light does not stop here. While developing a sustainable solar business, Catrine has become passionate about plastic recycling as a way to create a clean environment. From her perspective, the promotion of solar energy and a clean environment go hand-in-hand, and both solar technology and plastic waste management can easily be linked to entrepreneurship – the three Es that Mwangaza Light is working on: Energy, Environment, and Entrepreneurship.
So what is next? Well Catrine’s ‘to do’ list is still long and includes: setting up an office, growing sales, starting to work towards normal work hours, feeling in control, make six months and annual plans, grow the team, access external capital and – oh yes: Find the time to go on vacation, sometime soon.
Story by: Strategic Communication Focal Point Mette Lindgaard Seligmann and here we are Kenya. If you would like to know more about here we are Kenya, please contact our Country Managers at firstname.lastname@example.org.