Leading light

Patrick Ngowi, 29, has built a multimillion-dollar business in Tanzania providing solar products to companies and individuals

LeadingLightPatrick Ngowi has always had an eye for an opportunity. When he was only 15 years old and still a high school student, Ngowi took a Tsh50,000 (US$30) loan from his mother and started trading in mobile phone top-up vouchers in Arusha, a small commercial city in Tanzania’s northern region. The year was 2001 and international mobile phone companies had only started penetrating Tanzania.

“At the time, it was very difficult for us to buy recharge card vouchers unless you went to the town centre,” Ngowi said during a recent interview in Dar es Salaam. “I knew I had to do something about it.”

Since he was still a student and had to spend most of his time at school, Ngowi employed fuel station pump attendants and freelance marketers to peddle his recharge vouchers on streets and at gas stations, sharing whatever profits he made with them. Mobile phones were still a recent phenomenon in Tanzania, and many young people were eager to own a phone but were unable to afford most of the models available at the time.

During a trip to China, Ngowi stumbled across inexpensive phones. He immediately started importing these to Tanzania, selling them to urban youngsters and poor people in rural areas. His phones sold out fast, and Ngowi, barely 20 at the time, was already raking in thousands of dollars in profits. But while he was savouring his success in business, Ngowi learnt of another problem. Many of his customers, especially those in the rural areas, were finding it difficult to charge their phones when batteries ran out of power. Tanzania has always had a severe electricity deficit and Ngowi knew at once that there was an opportunity for an alternative energy source – solar.

During his frequent Asian trips, where he went to source for mobile phones, Ngowi used the opportunity to learn as much as he could about solar power and other alternative energy sources. He soon became so fascinated with the subject that he put his savings together and enrolled in Denzhou University to study renewable and alternative energy.
When he finished his studies, Ngowi bought solar and thermal equipment in bulk from China, loaded them on a ship to Tanzania and then headed back home to start his business. Helvetic Solar Contractors was born. The company began by installing small rooftop solar systems in homes and offices in Arusha. As the local media began to inform Tanzanians of the importance of using alternative energy sources, demand for solar products grew. Helvetic was the only company providing solar products in Arusha and the greater Northern Circuit. With word-of-mouth marketing, before long, everyone from corporate organisations to government agencies approached Ngowi for solar products.

It’s been an upward journey since then, and Ngowi’s story is legendary in Tanzania. In 2011 Helvetic Solar achieves US$2.8 million in revenue, then US$6.8 million in 2012.  Last year, the company generated US$11 million. Helvetic now sells and distributes its own brand of solar products – including panels, batteries, street lights and mini generators – through 78 agents in Tanzania, Uganda and Rwanda. The company’s products are manufactured in China, but Ngowi is discussing with investors the possibility of setting up an assembly line in Tanzania. But it’s not all about making money; Ngowi is giving back. In 2012, he founded the Light For Life Foundation, which has distributed more than 1000 solar lamps to rural women in Tanzania.

What lies in the future? “We’re forging strategic relationships with our partners to scale up and reach more people in rural Tanzania,” says Ngowi. “In five years or so, I hope we’ll be so big we’ll actually list on the Dar Stock Exchange.”