Harnessing Solar Energy in Rwanda

Published by Hoffmann Global Institute for Business and Society on 11 Nov 2020

The 2020 INSEAD Alumni Force for Good Award winner, Bart Hartman (MBA ‘87J), shares his entrepreneurial journey of providing solar energy to low-incomes households in Africa.   

“Why should you become a force for good? Because it brings you a level of satisfaction that you cannot experience solely as a profit-seeking entrepreneur.”

Speaking to INSEAD’s MBA class of July 2021 in Fontainebleau, Bart Hartman (MBA'87J) shared his all-encompassing journey of starting out as a strategy consultant at McKinsey, to his eventual (and current) involvement as the Founder and CEO of NOTS Solar Lamps. Chosen as the recipient for the 2020 INSEAD Alumni Force for Good Award by the INSEAD Alumni Recognition Awards committee, Hartman has created a social impact by providing low-income households in Africa with affordable solar energy. His social enterprise provides households a solar home system (SHS) that consists of a solar panel, battery, 3 lamps and a charger for a mobile phone and radio.

An estimated 600 million people in Africa lack access to electricity, which adversely affects their daily livelihoods. However, with increasing urbanisation and industrialisation, the vast opportunities of the continent are undeniable, especially for entrepreneurs looking to conduct sustainable businesses, while resolving global issues. But like any entrepreneur keen to start a venture in an unfamiliar country, Hartman faced his fair share of challenges – from moving the efforts from Mali to Rwanda after four years of operations, due to the coup d’état in 2012, to encountering cultural differences that created some unforeseen obstacles. 

Bart Hartman (MBA'87J) speaking to INSEAD’s MBA class of July 2021 in Fontainebleau,

Reflecting on this, Hartman explained, “In the past 9 years I spent about 20% of my time in Africa. Looking back, I was quite slow to realise how different the two cultures are - the Dutch culture versus the Rwandan culture - and the hurdles this creates. Culture is at the core of a person, and is therefore very hard to change.”

On the other hand, Hartman explains his drive to overcome the challenges was fueled by the acceptance and appreciation of the communities he was partnering with. From villagers expressing gratitude, to reports about the positive impact of the SHS, Hartman was deeply moved by the openness and geniality of the communities, stating it provided him with an unparalleled sense of joy.

Using this joy to adapt and overcome the initial teething issues, NOTS successfully managed to develop a business model for selling their SHS on credit in a pilot with 5,500 households. Aiming to raise $3 to $5 million, they are also the first solar company in Africa that is close to getting an IPO approval.

While collaborating with various parties has been important for progression, involvement from the Rwandan government has been instrumental in furthering the NOTS mission. “Electricity is still a government affair in most African countries, since electricity production and distribution has not been privatised,” said Hartman. In order to raise awareness about solar products, Hartman and the government partnered on a campaign to encourage adoption of solar energy, as opposed to the unsafe option of kerosene. Through product demonstrations, on-ground interactions, and community outreach, the government is playing an essential role in supporting NOTS’ mission for sustainable and clean energy.

In addition, Hartman is also working closely with government on the construction of a local plant for the assembly of solar systems. Impressed with how the Rwandan government has developed the state after a tumultuous past, Hartman feels it is a valuable learning point for many other countries. “In my view, the frequent community meetings and the performance contracts for government officials at all levels have been, and are, instrumental for Rwanda’s development.”

While solar energy is the answer to various problems, Hartman highlighted that various other global issues like climate change, poverty, inequality, racism, covid-19 and more, still exist. In order to tackle them, collective actions from businesses, societies and governments are required more than ever. “For a long time, we thought and hoped that global organisations and NGOs would solve the world’s problems. Unfortunately, that did not happen,” stated Hartman.

Explaining how businesses can do their part alongside governments and societies to drive sustainability, Hartman shared some options, “There are two routes to become a force for good: you become a social entrepreneur, or an intrapreneur and convince your CEO to replace profit maximisation with an impact goal instead. Convert profit from a goal into a means to an end.”

 

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