By Isabelle Strauss
During the summer of 2009, I spent one night in Singapore, which was the closest I had come to crossing south of the equator – until last week. On our way to Lyantonde, the heart of the smallsolutions energy enterprise solution (SEED) program, we took a short tourism break to stop at the equator for some fun pictures and a demonstration of that age-old question about whether the water really spins in the other direction on the opposite side of the equator. Whether it was true physics, or a cool trick to get a hold of our 10,000 shillings (4USD), we had fun watching the water spin counter-clockwise on the south side, then clockwise on the north side, and then not at all right on the equatorial line.
But the reason for our travels was not to celebrate crossing the equator or to conduct physics experiments, but rather to gain valuable insight into the lives, successes, and challenges of SEED entrepreneurs in rural south-western Uganda. During our two day visit we met with five entrepreneurs, a local savings and credit cooperative organization, and two customers. Curious about the program’s progress in the field, we asked many exploratory questions about how the entrepreneurs first became involved in the SEED program, the training they received, their sales processes and customer relations, and details about their main challenges. We met some amazing people during our travels, each with their own story to tell, some which I would like to share with you.
A star entrepreneur, George Ssegawa now owns a small business specializing in all things solar, from small lamps to entire home systems. Over the years he has gained the technical training and expertise needed to install and repair these products as well as business acumen to manage his store and three employees. George is the source of many best practices for the SEED program when it comes to sales strategies and marketing ideas. The highlight of our visit with George included a great story he tells customers about using the portable Sun King lamp to fix his rooftop antenna during the last world cup games and although the lamp fell out of his hands, off the roof, and into the street, his son was able to safely retrieve it still in perfect working condition.
We met Lydia Twebingye as she was finishing a local government meeting. Lydia is a SEED entrepreneur with a talent for community leadership and was recently elected to the Mpumudde sub-county government. We believe that entrepreneurs like Lydia, who are influential leaders in their community, are key to the success of the program. She will be able to utilize her position to teach the community about the benefits of solar lighting compared to traditional methods such as kerosene lamps and may even encourage others to become SEED entrepreneurs.
A farmer by trade, Tugume “Mulefu” Emmy is an example of someone with a strong entrepreneurial spirit. He lives in a small village, far from the electricity grid, with his wife and three adorable children, and works hard to find ways to expand his opportunities. As a SEED entrepreneur, Mulefu has become the highest selling individual in the program by conducting many sensitization meetings where he presents renewable energy products to the communities of most of the nearby villages. Because he does not own his own vehicle, Mulefu struggles between the rising cost of transportation to remote villages and the challenge of keeping product prices at affordable levels.
When we first began our TEM Lab experience, still in Arizona, we were all enthusiastic about the challenge of working on the implementation and expansion of the SEED program. As I look back at our trip, I feel that we are now even more motivated to find the best way for the program to become a sustainable model in rural Ugandan communities and abroad. We now have stories, people, faces we carry with us and want to make sure we can make a positive difference in their lives.