Founder diaries – setting off on an African startup ‘rollercoaster ride’
Founder diaries – setting off on an African startup ‘rollercoaster ride’
Former International Relations student Andreas Ostrovsky-Pereira is writing a new startup adventure in Africa as he helps the night fishing community become safer and more sustainable with his solar powered fishing lamps. He has joined the Anza accelerator in Tanzania and will be posting updates for the Future Worlds network as his international experience develops over the coming months.
In this first entry, he shares how his journey has taken him from the United Nations to the Future Worlds Dragons’ Den stage, and explains some of the challenges of being an entrepreneur in East Africa.
Our story started right here in Southampton.
The idea for our startup was born out of the Enactus Southampton society. One of their flagship projects was called Right Light and it used an entrepreneurial network to distribute solar lamps to communities in East Africa. I was part of the team and, while visiting one of the project’s research sites in Kisumu, Kenya, we quickly realised that not only were the people using kerosene to light candles to brighten up their homes, but it was also a main component of their daily work – night fishing.
As we asked questions, we found out that the amount of kerosene they were using was daunting. If a general household was using approximately one litre to light three to four candles in their homes, these fishermen were using about 20 litres per boat to light kerosene lanterns every single night. As we saw the positive impact we were having in the homes, we knew we had to do something to tackle this huge problem in the night fishing industry.
What is Sagar?
This leads me to our startup. Sagar Energy Solutions is an access to energy business aiming to transition niche and artisanal businesses in developing countries away from their reliance on fossil fuels.
Essentially, we help small yet productive enterprises in countries like Tanzania, who rely on fossil fuels to operate their daily activities. At the core of our business is solar technology, which embodies the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 7 – to ensure access to affordable and clean energy for all.
We are currently working with the fishing community of Lake Victoria in East Africa. It’s one of the region’s most productive industries, providing food and jobs for millions of people. However, the industry is also one of the biggest contributors to an unsustainable practice.
Over 50% of the lake’s total yearly catch is a type of sardine called dagaa, which is caught at night using kerosene lanterns for attraction. There are over 75,000 boats engaged in this activity every night, emitting over 440,000 tonnes of CO2 every year and posing a serious threat on multiple levels. We have therefore designed a solar alternative to improve the efficiency of this activity and the lifestyle of our end users, and their communities by extension, as well as combatting the huge negative effects it has on the environment.
How it took shape
Post our student research visit in Kenya, we brainstormed ideas and got to work to find a potential solution. We designed several different prototypes through the University of Southampton’s facilities, such as 3D printing and laser cutting, and brought the designs to life.
Subsequently, we applied to new funding opportunities popping up on campus. We secured funding from TakeOff Competition and the University’s SEED Fund, as well as additional help from the Faculty of Human, Social and Mathematical Sciences. This enabled us to venture out to Tanzania to test our prototypes.
Tanzania was the obvious choice as over half of the night fishing activity of East Africa happens there. And slowly but steadily, we built the foundation for a potential business opportunity.
And then the graduation
After winning the prestigious Enactus World Cup in Johannesburg 2015, it was time to take the project to the next step.
Already involved with several social entrepreneurship-focused initiatives at University, starting a venture came naturally to me. After graduation, I was given the opportunity to join World Merit – a global youth organisation dedicated to tackling the United Nations’ Development Goals. I secured a place in their flagship programme, Merit360, which was all about building projects and strategies to tackle the individual SDGs.
I was part of SDG 7, and my fishing lamp project was put forward as a potential project to be outlined in Action Plan 001, which was to be submitted to the United Nations (UN). It got selected and together with 11 fantastic young individuals from different backgrounds worked on developing an action plan for the project to be implemented and scaled. The programme brought us together in New York to work on it. It was shortlisted and eventually presented the project at the United Nations General Assembly in New York to a room full of young change makers, policy makers, social impact investors and UN representatives.
The best part of the whole programme and experience was meeting my co-founder, Shashank, who hailed from India. It was so valuable to meet like-minded young individuals to share experiences and develop these incredible projects. After putting in such hard work, and really clicking with him, we immediately knew we both had to take the project forward. We complemented each other seamlessly and made a great tag-team to fully take the idea from a project to a business.
Making this commitment was crucial, as it laid out the foundation for what was to come. We founded the startup, and worked on it remotely from India and Southampton. We secured initial funding from Climate-KIC UK at Imperial College to build our minimum viable product (MVP).
During this period, we also had the privilege to join Future Worlds and experienced their commitment to develop a startup ecosystem at the University of Southampton. After continued mentoring and guidance from the Future Worlds team, it became evident that we were a strong contender for their annual Dragons’ Den event.
It was a great experience to put our startup to the test in front of the dragon investors. Although we did not receive the investment we were looking for on the day, the dragons were kind enough to light the way with some valuable contacts and guidance. Post the event, we got the opportunity to connect with the Future Worlds mentor network, which also led to incredible opportunities.
Where on earth are we now?
We have been in Tanzania since January experiencing the rollercoaster ride of entrepreneurship in full force. As much as we had planned our arrival and our operations for the next few months, what we quickly realised is that plans will always deviate. We have had to significantly adapt to every curveball thrown at us at each step from the manufacturing delays to logistical nightmares – mishandling of the product and so many power cuts. Adaptability and perseverance in these testing times have been the key attributes we had to nurture to succeed in this initial phase. So never give up.
Nevertheless, as some say, there is order in chaos, and despite all the challenges, we managed to successfully test our products on the islands, formalise relationships with our local and international partners, and, more importantly, started to fall for this country and all its quirks.
On another note, my co-founder and I are still sharing the same dinner table, although at times on opposite ends. However, as with any union of sorts, we are in it for the good and for the bad!
Stay tuned to hear more about our turmoil, and hopefully some stories of changing lives…
Andreas will continue his guest blog series in May. Check out the Sagar Energy Solutions Discover profile to find out more about his startup’s technology and global ambitions.