Habiba Ali: When vengeance inspires purpose
For many people, the decision to start a business was the result of a carefully planned process. The birth of a business idea, feasibility studies, consultations and the drawing up of business plans. For Kaduna-based Habiba Ali, it was the product of vengeance.
“I got the idea to start a business of my own after being practically thrown out of a business I helped set up and I thought to show them I could do it again and even better. I set out mainly to prove that I could also succeed without the help of a man,” said Ali Ali started with Developmental Association for Renewable Energies (DARE) as a National Coordinator and left to start Sosai in 2010. Years later, it didn’t matter whether the seed of the business was sown to prove a point, because it helped her find her purpose.
“I was at a conference where I learned of the harm that much smoke did to women who used kerosene lamps and the thought just would not leave me, of how the women were suffering,” she said. According to the World Health Organisation, over 1.6 million deaths occur yearly from indoor air pollution. The entrepreneur then conceived a project that will in the long run reduce greenhouse gas emissions while improving maternal health and ensuring basic education as longer study hours will be ensured.
Ali began by selling small solar lamps to women who sold on street sides at night using polluting kerosene lamps. These women would face the lamps directly for upwards of three hours inhaling as much smoke as someone who had smoked 3 packs of cigarettes. “Being, also, from a family where we had to help our mother cook and sell in her ‘Mama put’ food stall, I knew I had to do something and this coming just at the heel of being sent out of my former organisation it was a good time to start.
“So I got a large number of the solar lamps from the conference then and took it back home and at night I would go and encourage the women who sold wares by the roadside using these kerosene lamps to try out the solar lamps and after a few days, we went back to check how they were doing. Then we agreed to a repayment plan that was daily and easy for them,” she said.
From this humble beginning, Ali’s Sosai Renewable Energies Company has grown to hire 15 staff, ten of whom are men. Set up in the year 2004 with the idea of using market-based strategies to address the issues of poverty and rural/community development as regards access to energy, clean water and ensure positive livelihoods, the company is on the cusp of remarkable growth.
Sosai provides clean cookstoves, water filters, solar refrigerators, solar lamps and solar dryers through a lease-to-own model. These products and services are distributed through community centre solar kiosks that are run by women entrepreneurs.
This structure allows Sosai to increase the incomes of both their products’ consumers and women entrepreneurs. For farmers, Sosai offers solar dryers, refrigerators and other services that enable them to preserve and package their product. This allows farmers to sell at a premium by taking advantage of off-season sales of preserved fruit. To scale her business, in 2010 Habiba secured a loan of $22,955.
The impact of her business is massive. “Baawa and Kadabo communities (in Kaduna) have over 500 able-bodied men and they all have as their major economic activity farming. Pepper farming is the key crop in this region that the people depend on for cash so over three-quarters of these farmers farm peppers. This will be about 400 farmers who benefit from the dryer as each and everyone wants to dry their peppers on the dryer even if it’s just a little of it.
Habiba’s business is having an impact beyond just making cash. “First and quite importantly is that these dryers save time-saving them 2.5 days of the 5days it would normally take to dry the peppers. This has ensured that they get their peppers on time to get to the market and they do a better bid because they now have cleaner peppers ensuring they sell at a 20% premium now.
However, the community are not bound by constraints of modesty as Ali. The rural folks interviewed said their lives have taken a different turn on account of her projects. The solar lamps help their children read at night, the dryers improve their profit margins, and they could understand what happens in Abuja on their solar-powered radios.
“It is a blessing. She is a blessing,” said Fatima, a middle-aged mother of three.
Habiba tells BusinessDay that it costs 12,000 euros to install the two dryers. The community do not have to pay upfront for it. “The dryer was procured through grants gotten from United States of America Development Foundation (USADF) and they will pay Sosai back over time while the Matan Arewan Sosai Women who are the custodians of the dryer pay and agreed on the amount every month,” she explains.
Apart from these dryers, the company has Solar Pay as You go products in Kaduna, Niger and Kano states. “We also have installed units to support people who charge phones and women who sell ice blocks.”
Happily married with two children, Ali speaks about the satisfaction she derives from her work. “Sincerely, simply because it makes me happy, you need to understand the joy I feel whenever I go into my communities and how the people are willing to listen and adapt to our suggestions. Or is it when they follow one around asking what else can you do for us? What other eye-opener do you have that we can benefit from? The truth is these people want to help themselves but they don’t know how and it is my utmost pleasure that I can help bridge this gap.
Ali believes that with the energy problems in the country, renewable energy is the way to go. If only our leaders and other stakeholders could come on board to build on the growth of the industry, it will ensure sustainable development globally.
“There is so much required of government ranging from tax breaks to waivers and all sorts but will they be involved and make it happen?”