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From rural Zimbabwe to running an internationally recognised startup
The off-grid solar startup Zonful Energy has powered over 30,000 homes and currently has a subsidiary company in Mozambique as part of its regional expansion strategy.
ZONFUL Energy staff installing solar panels in zimbabwe. Photo Courtesy : ZONFUL Energy
By Alois Vinga, bird story agency
As a boy, William Ponela always hated being stuck in the dark after the paraffin-powered lamps in the family's home ran dry.
Raised by his grandparents in rural Chivi, a district in southern Zimbabwe, the homestead could not afford a regular lighting source. This forced him to miss hours of study time, particularly when cloudy skies blocked even the faint light from the moon .
"During the rainy season, we would sleep very early because the whole place would be dark, since there was no moonlight. So I kept thinking and asking myself: 'how can people get access to uninterrupted electricity?'".
After graduating as an engineer from the University of Zimbabwe, Ponela worked for several companies before going it alone and forming the a company that specialised in solar systems. He spent half a decade on research and plenty of trial-and-error experience, before getting where he wanted with his company, Zonful Energy.
"We are customer-centric, so the five years was to listen to the customer and fine-tuning our product to suit the customers' requirements. So by the time we launched in 2016, we had gone through a process where we had tried a number of products," he said.
His initial startup capital was US$50,000, raised through crowdfunding with the assistance of Kiva, an international non-profit that crowdfunds and lends to underserved communities. The funding came after Ponela travelled to Dubai to pitch his idea at an energy conference.
He also got funding from Persistent Energy - a Swiss-based company which initially provided a convertible loan of US$410 000 and then chose to convert the loan into equity.
Ponela also won a business competition, the Africa Enterprise Challenge Fund, where his idea was awarded US$1 million. Part of that award required him to match funds for every dollar received, which is how Persistent Energy, and another company, Energy Access Ventures (now E3) became involved. Of the US$1 million he received from the companies, US$400,000 was extended as a non-repayable grant; the rest is a non-interest-bearing loan. The funds have allowed the company to scale in a market that is hungry for services.
"The company has grown significantly, with 70 direct jobs and over 2,000 (indirect) jobs. Our solar products have powered over 30,000 homes around the country, with 80% of the total being rural homes that either pay through the use of direct cash or pay as you go after a small initial deposit is made and the balance payable over 18 to 24 months as the client enjoys the use of the product," he said.
The company has received widespread acclaim locally and internationally. In 2018, just one year after it started operating, the London Stock Exchange (LSE) listed Zonful Energy among Africa's top 360 inspiring companies.
The LSE Inspire Africa 2019 report identified Africa's most inspirational and dynamic private, high-growth companies to a global market and grouped the entity alongside the continent's influential firms.
Back home in 2020, the Chartered Institute of Project Managers showered the company with four prestigious awards: Economic Impact Project of the year, Transformation project of the year, Renewable Energy project of the year, and Covid-19 Health care Project of the year.
Last year, Zonful Energy returned to the international radar after being nominated for the Ashden Awards 2022 as a finalist in recognition for delivering innovative climate solutions. Out of 203 applicants, the company became one of the two finalists.
One of Zonful's customers, Forbes Vela, hails the company's products for managing to meet the energy's needs.
"My family has benefited a lot from these products since my family now has access to good lighting for home study. My children are able to study at night and enjoy home entertainment by watching TV. We no longer have hardships in charging cell phones," said Forbes Vela, a Zonful customer. Vela had bought two of the company's solar for the home products.
Currently, the company is working on a regional expansion strategy and has a subsidiary in Mozambique.
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