It’s easy to like Washikala and Iongwa. They are young, bright and ambitious and make a good team with Washikala providing the energy and commercial drive and Iongwa the operational organisation. They were born in South Kivu during troubled times and grew up in a refugee camp across the border in Tanzania. NGO’s in the camp schooled them and their progress led to university places in Dar es Salaam.
Now they have returned to Kivu and started a business called Altech that sells solar lamps. They are helping to address the fact that 90% of Congolese have no access to electricity and those that are connected to the grid face power black-outs for hours, days and even weeks. People resort to kerosene lamps and candles, which can damage health and lead to injuries and sometimes death.
All over Africa new ideas are being tested in response to this problem, and in time these new solutions will be introduced into DRC. For now the primary response is a solar lamp that is bright enough to light a small room all night if necessary and costs only $12 -$15.
We met in August 2014. The business had been operating for two years and had sold 7,000 such lamps - plus they had put down deep roots, learned how the market works and developed an effective approach to sales and payment collection.
They put forward a business plan to us that made a lot of sense and we collaborated with Luminosity to provide a first loan to significantly expand the volume and geographic reach.
PROGRESS SO FAR
The first loan was given to enable an order of 15,000 lamps, but Washikala and Iongwa leveraged the agreement to successfully argue for a credit arrangement with the importer that allowed them to order a full container of 32,000 lamps. The order stretched Altech’s logistical capacity and required new hands to set up distribution points in North Kivu, but it worked and the full shipment was distributed and sold and the loan repaid.
Since then we have facilitated an increased loan, this time provided by two UK philanthropists, Harriet Hall and Nigel Langstaff.
This second loan has also been repaid, recycled and repaid again with the result that Altech have now profitably distributed a total of 103,000 lamps.
They have a work force of seventy people and with our help they have introduced smart phones that enable sales people to use an open source mobile app (see https://opendatakit.org) for recording sales and uploading the data to head office.
In addition Altech have recently begun a collaboration with ELAN RDC to explore the adoption of pay-as-you-go business models. Ensemble is also a collaborator in this project and is providing advice on new product testing as well as an on-going loan facility.
It seems that momentum is building across the continent to bypass the electricity grid and generate power for lighting, heating and cooking from solar, which is surely a good thing and in DRC, Altech are stepping forward to lead.