Awosika: Nigeria’s Power Sector Challenge Creates Huge Market Opportunities
Ibukun Awosika is the board chairman of d.light, one of the leading innovators in the distribution of solar energy. Awosika is an African entrepreneur, author, international leader and global culture shaper.
She is also the Chairman and Founder of The Chair Centre Group, a leading furniture and security
systems provider in Nigeria. With an undergraduate degree in Chemistry from University of Ife and advanced degrees from various global institutions, including Lagos Business School, IESE Business School, Wharton and China European International Business School (CEIBS), Ibukun is both a student and leader of the world. She serves as Chairman or Board member on various Corporate and non-profit boards around the world, cutting across Education (IESE Business School, Imperial Gate Schools, Pan Atlantic University), IT (Digital Jewels Limited), Manufacturing (Cadbury Nigeria
Plc), Retail (House of Tara International), Financial Services (Alitheia IDF Fund LP, Nigeria
Advisory Board for Impact Investing), Corporate Governance (Convention on Business Integrity),
Advocacy (Women in Management, Business and Public Service, IFVI International Foundation
for Valuing Impacts), among others. Awosika is also a former Chairperson of First Bank Nigeria Limited. In this interview, she spoke about expectations from d.light, which would be officially launched in Nigeria tomorrow. Obinna Chima brings the excerpts:
Can you speak to us about d.light and what the company seeks to achieve in Nigeria?
d.light is a global company involved in transformation of lives. That is the vision of the company – to invest its resources, its talents and its entire capital into developing solutions that would enhance the lives of people, especially people at the lower end of the pyramid. It was founded by two young men who met at Stanford Business School. One is a Canadian and the other an American. Both of them realised that they had passion and commitment to see how they could change lives. Fast forward, it’s been a long story of building and finding solutions that would change lives of people.
Now, solar is just one of the resources they use to try to solve problems. Why solar?
The reason being that in a lot of areas or in the lives of many people, energy resource is a challenge. It’s a scarce item. Let’s take our country for instance: we have power issues; how do we survive? Huge investments in generators. Well, we have the “I- better-pass- my-neighbour- generators” which is small, but at the end of the day, you still need to fuel it! If you’re using diesel, you have an idea of the cost of diesel; if you’re using kerosene, you know that half the time, kerosene is scarce and is expensive, apart from the fact that it is environmentally unfriendly – actually, none of them are environmental-friendly. So as a company, part of what d.light does is to create solutions that are sustainable and earth-friendly, but also enhance the lives of the people. Now, one other leg of what we do at d.light is to make the solutions that are provided affordable for the people at that level. So, it’s not even just that you’ve invested in producing the solutions, it is that you then find how people can afford it. Hence our pay-as-you-go system; so there is a financial aspect of the business where the people who are then users or buyers of the resource get to pay a little at a time in the way they can afford over a period of time until the items are fully paid for and they can graduate from one item to the other. Two of the most developed markets for d.light products are East Africa and India. I became the global Chair of d.light in October 2019, by then, the company had existed for so many years and the investors in the vision of d.light are global, from Shell Energy; to Norfund, which is known as Norway’s National Fund; Proparco, which is a French government investment company; to private entity funds of different types. So, it is a company that has sustainability in its growth and its vision. As at last year 2021, we hit the 125 million impacts number weighing against the way companies impact lives are calculated globally. Now, one great part of the d.light model which when I became chair in 2019, became very attractive to me is its job creation model. If you go into most of the East African countries – Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania etc you would see the extensive job creation impact of d.light. First, you have the agents who are dealers for the products. Then you have loads of people involved in maintenance and repairs, which means you are an independent business running a store that has possibility of service and d.light empowers you, trains you, keeps you and certifies you as a maintenance partner for the product and all of that. Then you have a massive sales team selling the products, those that sell on commission, branded stores owned by agents and dealers. So, there is a whole pipeline. The value chain is rich and we have already built some of the structure in Nigeria.
So, the attraction to Nigeria now is because of the size of its market?
The market is big but there are many other things that are unattractive about the way our market operates as well. Our power challenge is a market opportunity for a company like d.light. That is because obviously it means that you have enough people who have the need for part of the product that you supply. Interestingly, one of the major products that d.light sells are smartphones. The d.light branded smartphones are part of our future products. We have partnerships across many of the major branded phones – Samsung and Nokia in particular. But the phones are configured in a way that we use it as a transformation product to solve problems for the people at that level of the market.
How do you think government can incentivise operators like d.light and others in the renewable energy space?
I think they are already doing some of it in some ways to be fair to government. Until recently, the kind of duty requirements on solar-based products and all of alternative solution items was not commercially viable at all and we didn’t have the right approach. But they’ve started making adjustments. They’ve reduced the position on that. There are also quite a few initiatives from the World Bank and all of that. There are some clear initiatives from the global perspective to help countries like Nigeria in order to reach people at the bottom of the pyramid for alternative energy and for sustainability. So, some of the things this government is doing in that space and some of the global rules created some level of mitigation that help to make it a lot easier.
What other policies would you like to see from government to increase the shift to renewable energy there is a huge gap in that sub-sector?
You know when you talk about solar, there are different levels in terms of how they work. There are those who produce commercial solar that can then be distributed; so that means you have a lot of panels and all that. Now, what we do at d.light are individual solutions. We are not waiting for someone to create a solar grid in the communities, we are creating a solution that you can buy for your entire village one by one. So that makes it easier to reach the last man. We are not waiting for the big project; our products are personal. You can buy – like is said, I bought solar TV, as long as there is network or service, you can buy a solar TV or fan and take to your village and give to your parents and the sun is free and available.
So your target is the rural communities?
Our target is lower income individuals. There is sun in the village and the cities, so when we just say a rural market, it is not. The guy who lives in Lagos, but doesn’t have a generator shouldn’t even use a generator if he can have a solar solution. Why? Because of environmental sustainability. So, when you think about all the ESG matters, you will encourage more people to use alternate sources of energy rather than polluting sources of energy and that helps everywhere; whether you are in the city or in the village. It is about lower income. What we’ve done is to think of the entire problem chain. Firstly, innovate the product. Two, how do you deliver it? Deliver it to them at the most reasonable price. Thirdly, make sure it’s affordable for them. How is it affordable? It is pay-as-you-go. They don’t have to look for the capital to buy. They look for signing-up, proving they have the ability to be able to pay every week – they have different system: every week, every month, every day – are different options that are available and as you increase your credibility ratio in terms of your performance, you then have opportunity to get into more.
Do you see this solution taking away the ‘I pass my neighbour’ generators?
Yes, it replaces it. But you know that’s for energy. But as you provide the energy for them, you are also then providing them with products that they don’t even need that energy and power.
In the next five years, what do you envisage the market share for d.light would be and what’s is your strategy to make more Nigerians accept your products?
Our goal would be to be the leading brand in the market because we know exactly what we are doing. We are good at what we do and the company has established processes, plants and value chain, we can do the same in Nigeria. When you think in terms of reliable solar product that is dependable anywhere in the world, you look up to d.light. We are a company with integrity and character. And everything that we do, we can be held accountable. I have given you an idea of who all our shareholders are and as a company, we are responsible.
If you look at the energy sector, having studied that market as the chairman of d.light, where are we in that journey towards full adoption of renewable energy?
The reality is that we are still so far from where we need to be in terms of our population and our needs. And no matter how much our government positions that this is what they’d like to do, private sector would have to drive in by getting involved in that sector. First providing the service, providing the product and its value. There are a lot of small businesses everywhere that are providing different solutions. Many houses right now are trying to have solar as a solution. There is a demand for renewable energy and we also know that some of the problems that are hindering us right now, they won’t be there forever. Business is driven by opportunities that exist created by gaps. The bottom line is that Nigeria does not have enough power generated as at now. And even if we have it, we do not have extensive distribution network to take power to the last man.
You’ve talked about Kenya, Uganda, and some other Eastern countries; beyond Nigeria, are you in other West African countries?
We have what we call partners in some of the other countries who are responsible for selling our products under different arrangements. So, we go into some countries directly; in some countries we go in as partnerships. We allow existing companies within the country who have the capacity to distribute and run the financial bother to sell our products in the partnership. So that’s a major part of our business. There is a massive job value chain created for the sale workforce that sells across different communities across the country. And then, there’s partnerships for maintenance and repair and all of that, and so there is knowledge that is created in training people. And we are long-term players, we are not short-term players. Like I said, we are an impact company, so for us our measures are not purely commercial. We must be commercially viable and sustainable and return value to all our investments; but beyond that is that we have a responsibility and our track record shows that of measuring the value we create in the lives of all the communities that we work with. Which is why if you look at all our shareholders, there are not companies that are driven just by money.
What fuels your passion, especially as Chairman of d.light?
In the past five years of my life, I made a decision that a lot of the boards I will serve on fall into what I call my developmental board season. So, I’m deliberate about choosing the organisations I work with. I was chairman of GEMS Africa. GEMS Africa is owned by GEMS Dubai and CDC. Why did I accept to do that? Education. They had a vision to be able to deliver world class education at a low cost even as they had expensive high-value schools. If you go to Dubai, GEMS is the biggest education company in the world. So when I accepted to Chair d.light, it was because I saw the impact that the availability and the affordability of energy in a highly entrepreneurial country will make. Look, if you run a salon, your customers come and can’t watch TV, that keeps you disadvantaged. So, if you have a solar TV, that’s a product that services your business can help you in one way or the other. If you have a shop as a retailer, instead of looking for lantern, buy any of our light solutions, then you will have light in your shop. Our goal is to transform the lives of people by using every resource that can make that happen. So, solar is safe, it’s clean, it’s cheap and how do we use it to develop different types of products that changes the lives of people who otherwise would be disadvantaged. That’s why solar plays a major role. Smartphone is useful because healthcare, education, and so many things. Our goal is about what products can we deliver that will transform the lives of people. Whether it’s solar, whether it’s smartphone, whether it’s something else like a few new products that you will see at the launch in Lagos tomorrow. The vision of d.light is to continuously innovate solutions that would transform the lives of the people at the bottom of the pyramid and everybody else in between and across the world.