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Nigeria: Where solar power meets agricultural markets

In 2015, Habiba Ali, the founder and MD-CEO of Sosai Renewable Energies Company based in Kaduna, Nigeria, had a trying time convincing the C&I market that renewables was the way to go. Often, she was met with a “don’t come with your environmental talk” sentiment. Today things are very different.

The article appeared in ESI Africa Issue 1-2021.
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The change has seen the C&I market boom and most banks are now investing in solar installations. “It’s been so exciting to witness this change, which has been sudden and fast, because it means that all of my groundwork in previous years has not been in vain.”

Habiba Ali, founder and MD-CEO of Sosai Renewable Energies Company, Nigeria

Habiba’s passion is infectious and her drive to promote renewable energy in budding communities and urban areas – executing solar installations and drive product adoption and improving cook stoves for rural communities – has made her a respected voice in the green energy space in West Africa. However, the statistics that reflect the reality of the many millions that still do not have access to energy, keep her feet planted firmly on the ground.

However, she cautions that if the statistics are not changing then the work has not been fruitful: “Some of the research we did in 2010, indicated a rise in the energy ladder. The energy pyramid, where you had a lot more people at the bottom using firewood, charcoal and kerosene, showed movement up the pyramid to use of gas and electricity. Now the dream is to turn that pyramid upside down, and get more people using electricity or gas. If we’re still churning out that same data, it means all of the work we’ve put in is really wasted and that really hurts. It’s really frustrating.”

USTDA grant for feasibility studies

The mother of two is rightly very proud of a recent success for Sosai in the form of a research grant by the United States Trade and Development Agency (USTDA). She explains: “We’ve been able to identify thousands of communities in Nigeria that need renewable energy solutions deployed to them. To reach even more people, we need more data. The USTDA do feasibility studies which they fund 100%. We were able to present to them about 100 communities across three states in Nigeria (Kogi, Kaduna and Plateau states). We were granted over $900,000 to implement these feasibility studies, which will help us to identify the communities that are viable for a project rollout.”

According to Ali, with such data and information, investors will take them more seriously. “One of the things you will find, especially in this sector, is that it takes a lot for a woman-owned business to be taken seriously. I’ve been in this industry for over 14 years and know that to be well-regarded means to tick all the boxes and work twice as hard just to make yourself relevant.”

It’s now an exciting time to be a woman in energy: “We signed the award agreement in February where the ambassador of the US and the new head of USTDA, both women, were present among other leading figureheads.”

COVID-19 challenges

Being a woman-owned business also has its advantages, she has discovered: “You know, starting out as a woman is different; it is difficult. You need to learn all the ropes and grow your network while your health, your family suffer. But then with time, once you’ve got the hang of it, people start realising that you’re not going anywhere, you’re there.”

That moment of realisation is when the benefits of being a woman start coming through. “For example, the first USADF award we received had 25% of the overall score allocated to being a female-owned company. So yes, we’ve got some very good value for being female-owned.”

According to Ali, a direct result of the pandemic has been the inability to do installations in communities, which has postponed revenue and adoption by the local residents, particularly as a lot of people are cash-strapped. “If I’ve lived for 15 to 20 years without any electricity, what makes you think delaying another one or two years would make any difference to my lifestyle?”

This setback will not discourage Ali: “I’m one of the advocates of ‘we cannot stop our lives because of COVID’. We can just learn to live around it, live together somehow. It’s just like living with malaria as we’ve done so for years.”

Finding inspiration in agribusiness

Sosai has started installing solar drying systems at agri projects, such as for pineapple and mango farming communities. Ali finds the agricultural sector particularly inspiring and complementary to their work.

“People can do without energy, but no one can do without food, right? And every day you find out that in the agricultural sector, there’s always more innovation and that’s very exciting. In Nigeria, people doing extension services are helping to improve farmers’ practices, ensuring they farm regularly over the years. In the same way, our solar drying project will benefit farmers. Yes, people already had practices but we’re just offering a better way now.”

The agribusiness sector is constantly innovating, constantly doing things that will improve it, make it better. “Looking at it from an investment point of view, it is a sure banker for revenue. It’s an exciting market for me where energy for services based in agriculture will have a huge impact. Solar drying systems are just the beginning and we hope to extend this into processing and irrigation. These are the solutions we are thinking to tie into the 100 communities coming up.”

Knowing your onions

For the Sosai Renewable Energies founder, finding partners and working together for a common cause has become a natural way of doing business and promoting a healthier way of living. Being a member of the Enlit Africa advisory board is also beneficial for everyone, she says.

Having ‘people of repute’ on your advisory board isn’t enough anymore, advises Ali. “Having people on board who are practitioners, who are hands on, constantly innovating, is more practical. We must do our utmost to ensure that acceptance of a variety of solutions is widely spread and more sustainable”

According to Ali, having announced her involvement as an advisory board member to Enlit Africa on LinkedIn has already gained mileage: “People are asking, ‘Oh, really, who is she?’ and they are taking notice, asking questions and it adds to our credibility. So it’s quite exciting to be listed as an Enlit Africa advisory board member.” ESI

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Nicolette Pombo-van Zyl
Nicolette is the Editor of ESI Africa print journal, ESI-Africa.com and the annual African Power & Energy Elites. She is passionate about placing African countries on the international stage and is driven by the motto "The only way to predict the future is to create it". Join her in creating a sustainable future through articles and multimedia content.