Today is International Women's Day, celebrating women's economic, political and social achievements worldwide. So, it seems fitting to single out Nigerian entrepreneur Habiba Ali, CEO and managing director of Sosai Renewable Energies. This company, which was founded in 2010 as a for-profit, is one of Nigeria's largest distributors of renewable energy, providing solar lamps, water purifiers, solar panels and more to communities and urban areas. Its energy-consulting service offers market analysis, feasibility studies, advisory services and strategic guidance.
Ali's mission is none less than to bridge the energy gap and bring clean, renewable energy solutions to her nation's disadvantaged communities, Despite that aery goal, Ali began at the street level, handing out solar lamps to women in her neighborhood, to replace their kerosene lamps, dangerous to their lungs.
With grit and smarts, she eventually founded her company, taking advantage of mentoring and training she received from VV GROW Fellowship, a one-year accelerator for women owners of small and medium businesses in Latin America and the Caribbean, the Middle East and North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa.
Today, her Kaduna, Nigeria-based company is thriving, with 20 employees. Ali wants to empower other women entrepreneurs by teaching them to sell renewable energy products in their communities and to "pay it forward" in the process. In her own words:
I never planned on starting a business. My husband and I had originally founded a non-governmental organization focused on renewable energies. In this role, I was invited in 2009 to Uganda for the Partnership for Clean Indoor Air (PCIA) Forum. Did you know that using a kerosene lamp for just three hours can create fumes equivalent to smoking two packs of cigarettes? I didn’t, and it scared me -- I passed women street vendors in my neighborhood who sold their products by a kerosene lamp for no less than five hours a day.
I was buying bread from women whose lungs were going black with fumes. One day I bought 10 solar lamps and loaned them to the women in my neighborhood to use in place of the kerosene lamps.
A month later, they did not want to give them up. This was the beginning of Sosai Renewable Energies. Today, we provide renewable energy products and sustainable energy consulting to communities across Nigeria. As we celebrate International Women’s Day, I wanted to share my story and advice I’ve learned as an entrepreneur for women looking to find their voices and improve their lives through entrepreneurship.
Here, too, are the lessons Ali says she's learned:
1. Identify a critical need and know your customer.
In Nigeria, we have a huge energy problem. Many communities are not connected to the grid, and families have to use generators and kerosene lamps to light their lives. At the same time, many Nigerians are very poor. While our lamps are cheaper than kerosene or battery-powered lamps in the long run, they can be a big investment for Nigerians with very little income.
To succeed as a company, we had to balance this critical energy need with the realities of our customers’ lives. We have worked hard to bridge that gap by securing enough financing to provide customers with rent-to-own and other payment options for renewable products.
2. Get smart.
Over the years, I have faced numerous barriers in building my business. In 2015, I participated in a one-year accelerator program called the Vital Voices GROW Fellowship. The program allowed me to explore my capabilities as a leader and provided me with the training to successfully grow my business. The most important thing an entrepreneur can do is to find training and a mentor who can help set her business up for success.
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3. Build a strong network.
As a woman entrepreneur in Nigeria, building a community of mentors and support has been very important to my career. Last year, the VV GROW Fellowship connected me to a global network of women entrepreneurs. It has been amazing to see the growth and success that these women have accomplished since our training, and know that I was there with them from the start. We are now a group of friends and sisters, holding each other’s hands through hurdles and growing together without any animosity.
4. Don’t listen to naysayers.
I have been in business long enough to know that the journey, especially for a woman in northern Nigeria, is filled with challenges and frustrations every step of the way. Many did not approve of me working so hard outside the home and it was difficult to obtain funding for my business when I first started. But business also changed my life. It enabled me to discover the “me within me,” my driving force and my strength. I believe any woman can start a business, if she really sets her mind to it.
5. Pay it forward.
It had always been a dream of mine to involve women in the sale of renewable energy products. Renewable energy is not a very “girly” business, and for that reason, I think that women really need to show their prowess in this field. That’s why I launched the “Matan Arewan Sosai” energy entrepreneurship initiative, which aims to help women become energy entrepreneurs and use clean energy technologies like solar refrigerators, kiosks and milling for income generating activities.
So far, we have recruited about 30 women and are working to source additional funds so that we can extend more income-generating activities to women. By doing so, I’m paying it forward and helping more women stand on their own financially.
The Vital Voices GROW Fellowship is a one-year accelerator program for women owners of small and medium businesses in Latin America and the Caribbean, the Middle East and North Africa, and sub-Saharan Africa. In partnership with the ExxonMobil Foundation, the VV GROW Fellowship provides customized business skills training, technical assistance, leadership development and access to networks to help women grow their businesses and increase their leadership impact.