Power Of A Good Defense: Solar Entrepreneur Debunks Myths About Doing Business In Zimbabwe

By Ann Brown AFKI Original Published: December 28, 2016, 2:52 pm
Zimbabwean solar entrepreneur debunks mythsPhoto provided by Simbarashe Mhuriro

The African Development Bank-managed Sustainable Energy Fund for Africa (SEFA) has awarded a US$965,000 grant to Oxygen Energy Private Limited to support the development of a 20MW off-grid solar PV rooftop project on buildings owned and managed by Old Mutual Property Group Zimbabwe countrywide. The joint Oxygen and Old Mutual Zimbabwe project will provide reliable electricity to hundreds of Small and Medium Enterprises.

Concerned about the need for renewable energy in Africa, particularly Zimbabwe, Simbarashe Mhuriro founded Oxygen Africa in 2009 as an investment advisory company to help facilitate foreign investors in Zimbabwe.

To date, Oxygen Africa has raised $7 million and is developing two grid-connected solar plants in Zimbabwe.

Mhuriro, 32, was born in Marondera, Zimbabwe. After high school, he tried out various jobs including disc jockey and primary school teacher, as well as working full time in the central reservations department at Meikles Hotel, Harare, in 2003.

Mhuriro moved to Dubai in 2007 for seven years, working with Tsogo Sun Hotels before returning home in 2013 to focus solely on Oxygen Africa.

In 2016 Mhuriro was named one of Africa’s 30 most promising and inspirational young entrepreneurs by Forbes Magazine. In 2016 Africa Youth Awards recognized him as one of the 100 most Influential Young Africans for 2016.

Mhuriro told AFKInsider how he got started and what he plans for the future.

AFKInsider: How and why did you get into the energy sector?

Simbarashe Mhuriro: I looked for a product that fit the following description: It is consumed where it is produced, required by all aspects of our lives, there is a clear need or deficit, it provides constant predictable income and its raw materials are easily accessible. Solar in particular provided all of the above including minimum operations and maintenance. The (solar) plants have no moving parts. And it is very flexible as the plants can be deployed anywhere, in different sizes and relatively quickly.

AFKInsider: Who inspired you and what prompted you to launch Oxygen Africa?

Simbarashe Mhuriro: A desire to build a homegrown Zimbabwean company like Innscor Africa (a manufacturing group that produces iconic Zimbabwean products) that may one day have a pan-African footprint like Old Mutual, Standard Bank, Remgro, or Tsogo Sun Group. But in this case in renewable energy like Globeleq (a power and electricity generation company) owned by the CDC Group.

AFKInsider: Explain what Oxygen Africa does.

Simbarashe Mhuriro: We are an independent power producer and renewable energy development company specializing in both utility scale power plants and commercial scale rooftop projects.

AFKInsider: How did you fund the startup?

Simbarashe Mhuriro: Funding a startup is always a challenge. (Even more so) I soon learned, in energy and infrastructure due to the fact that there is a very long gestation period from inception to financial closure and construction of a project. So we funded the startup through a combination of savings which very soon ran out. Then I had to dispose of personal assets (property, vehicle, etc.) to continue to fund the business. But fortunately I had friends and colleagues with businesses that assisted with infrastructure such as office space, back of the house, until we were able to get our own.

AFKInsider: What are some of the other companies you have started?

Simbarashe Mhuriro: I have tried out a number of ideas which failed due to various reasons including a lingerie brand called Gillian Intimate Apparel, which folded after I couldn’t secure funding to service an order from a large retail chain. That business was fun though, and inspired by Theo Paphitis, the British retail magnate who then owned La Senza (now a Canadian fashion retailer that sells lingerie and intimate apparel). Outside of that, Oxygen it is the only company that I have started and now energy is our only focus.

AFKInsider: What do you enjoy the most about being an entrepreneur?

Simbarashe Mhuriro: Apart from the usual benefits of being an entrepreneur — like making money, doing what you love, being your own boss, the hours — in my journey I found five benefits in particular that I enjoy.

First, standing up for what I believe in. I love my country and I believe I am a patriot. Being an entrepreneur I find myself constantly standing up against negative perceptions of Zimbabwe, debunking myths and spreading the word how great it is and the opportunities she has. Every time I step in front of a panel of investors, potential partners or international financing institutions it’s like stepping into an arena or ring and fighting for your country.
Second, being the bravest of the brave. Try being an entrepreneur in a challenging economy like Zimbabwe with sporadic, little or no income, no security. Should you succeed, the rewards will be indescribably spectacular.
Third, having better relationships. It’s easy to build fake relationships. It’s easy to lose them, too, because as soon as you step outside your comfort zone and encounter the risks I have highlighted above people will leave you and those that stay are the real relationships you need.
Fourth, faster adaptation. Have you ever gone to a meeting with five to 10-or-more people? Some like your idea, some don’t understand it, some want to kill it or give you a hard time. You constantly have to think on your feet, adapt and move fast midway during the meeting. What I lack in size as a small company we make up for in mobility and creativity.
Fifth, I create my own opportunities and destiny, and in the process, solve problems and hopefully make a difference. With renewable energy you also get to effect change in people’s thoughts and actions.

AFKInsider: Why is renewable energy so vital to Africa?

Simbarashe Mhuriro: This is also why I got into renewable energy. According to IRENA (The International Renewable Energy Agency), Africa is undergoing unprecedented and sustained growth. By 2050, the continent will be home to at least 2 billion people – twice as many as today – with 40 percent living in rural areas.  In 2010, about 590 million African people (57 percent of the population) had no access to electricity, and 700 million (68 percent of the population) were living without clean cooking facilities. If these current energy access trends continue, in 2030 there will still be 655 million people in Africa (42 percent of the population) without access to power, and 866 million (56 percent of the population) without clean cooking facilities, depriving the majority of the population of the opportunity to pursue a healthy and productive life.

Research by the African Development Bank shows that Africa is rich in renewable resources and could benefit from the increasing use of renewable energy, such as hydropower and geothermal energy. These energy sources offer a clean alternative to traditional sources of energy, particularly fossil fuels, thus a massive opportunity as a business.

AFKInsider: What are some of the challenges of doing business in your country?

Simbarashe Mhuriro:  Zimbabwe has its challenges but the biggest of all is very negative perceptions and often exaggerated perceived political risks which make long-term financing difficult. And when you do manage to secure it, (it’s) very expensive. This then translates to higher tariffs that make it difficult for independent power producers like ourselves to compete with the national utility tariffs.

AFKInsider: What’s ahead for Oxygen Africa?

Simbarashe Mhuriro:  We are in the process of being acquired by a large institutional investor after which will transform more from an independent power producer to a financing and asset management company for renewable energy projects — a fund of some sort.

AFKInsider: Please tell us more about being honored by Awards Africa?

Simbarashe Mhuriro: Honestly, I do not know what to say. I am truly humbled by the recognition and it was totally unexpected. It’s fantastic that we young Africans … have taken the step to promote, highlight and celebrate youth across the continent that excel in their various fields. I’m confident Awards Africa will grow and I pray they get more recognition globally for the work that they do.

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