Patrick Ngowi is the Chief Executive Officer of Helvetic Solar and has successfully built an 8-million-USD business selling solar panels in Tanzania.
Helvetic Solar Contractors (HSC) is a Tanzanian company that supplies, installs and maintains solar systems throughout the northern circuit of Tanzania. The company sells everything solar from photovoltaic (a.k.a. “solar”) panels and water heaters to battery banks, generators and back-up units.
This young Tanzanian who is still in his prime, less than 30 years of age, is an inspiring story of business success that should get every young African and Scandinavian to their feet that if you can dream it and work at it, you can achieve it. Beyond that, his story shows that to be wealthy, if you are not fortunate to have inherited it, then you might have to become an entrepreneur or investor.
In the interview he granted Mfonobong Nsehe, a prolific and creative writer for Forbes, Ngowi demonstrated the trademarks of visionary millionaires. Born to an academic father and mother, especially a mother who supports and inspires him, Ngowi started his business selling top-up mobile phone recharge cards. He noticed that with the establishment of mobile phone companies like Vodacom, Tigo and others in Tanzania had the time, recharge card vouchers could only be bought at shopping malls and exclusive phone shops with very few distributors in Arusha, where he lives.
Most people in his neighbourhood who wanted to top-up their phones had to travel long distances to buy airtime. Seeing this as a business opportunity, Ngowi raised Tsh 50,000 (about $50) from his mother to start his top-up voucher business. Since he was still in high school and had little time for the business, Ngowi raised his own team of marketers from some fuel station pump attendants in the local community to sell the vouchers for him and was content with the small margin he made on each sale.
He was in this business for the next two years and was content with the money he was making and the independence this gave him. He learned about profit and loss, margins, marketing and hiring the right people. When he was done with high school, Ngowi spotted another business opportunity in the retail phone market. The mobile phone revolution was still in its infant stages in Tanzania and phones were relatively expensive. Many young Tanzanians, who wanted to own a mobile phone like himself but couldn’t afford it were without phones.
His leisure trip to Asia made him discover trendy but inexpensive phones which prompted him to take a loan of $1,800 from his mother.He started making regular trips between Tanzania and Hong Kong, buying mobile phones and accessories from low-cost manufacturers and selling them to Tanzanians. In a little while, his annual turnover was about $150,000. He discovered solar panels and learned about renewable energy for the first time during his frequent trips to Hong Kong and China.
He saw this as an opportunity to address Tanzania’s critical energy deficiencies because at the time, the national power grid coverage in the country was only about 10%. Most companies, government agencies and wealthy families depended heavily on generators.
Although he wanted to quickly delve into the business, his parents who are lecturers insisted he should first of all get a degree. Already fascinated with China and solar energy, he enrolled and having accumulated some money from his business, he enrolled at the Denzhou University in China where he studied renewable energy. He was curious about renewable energy and the prospects it offered in his native home. His entrepreneurial instinct kept him busy at Denzhou where he continued an informal exporting business, servicing the needs of firms in construction industry back home who needed everything from tiles to building materials on the cheap.
From the proceeds he made from this business, he built up capital for his solar panel business. On completing his studies, Ngowi loaded his own consignment of solar and thermal equipment, and armed with his bachelor’s degree in renewable energy, he returned to Arusha to start his own business. Although business wasn’t too good as he expected when he started in spite of the aggressive marketing he and his team put into it, and because solar was a relatively new energy source to the vast majority of Tanzanians, gradually business began to pick up as word of mouth spread. Discouraged and crestfallen, the mother continued to encourage him.
However, Ngowi kept marketing his business, sending proposals to everyone he could think of and as the Tanzanian media championed the cause for alternative energy sources, business began to pick up for Ngowi. He also had a first-comer’s advantage in the solar business in Arusha as other competitors were in Dar Es Salaam, a distance away from Arusha.
Today, his customers are A-list organisations such as the United Nations, the Tanzanian Army, WorldVision, government agencies, non-governmental organisations, multinational corporations, small businesses, faith organisations and smaller individual and business clients. The company has been on a growth trajectory ever since.
In 2011, the company did $2.8 million in revenues, $6.8 million in 2012 and about $10 million in 2013. Ngowi’s company now supplies solar to a number of government institutions in Rwanda.
Not only an entrepreneur but an investor, Ngowi is reinvesting his estimated $5 million fortune in real estate and tourism in his country. He owns stakes in a couple of hotel lodges in Arusha, and he’s expanding his property portfolio. His success has earned him a number of accolades. KPMG East Africa named Helvetic Solar Contractors the Fastest Growing and Number One Company in a survey of the Top 100 Mid-Sized Companies in Tanzania for the year 2012–2013.
Ngowi was recently nominated for Africa’s Young Person of the Year award by The Future Awards – a popular annual award that has been referred to as the ‘Nobel prize for young Africans’.
Ngowi has his gaze far more on the bigger picture as he plans to make Helvetic Solar a $100 million company within the next five years.
The story can’t be this better. Dreams plus responsibility plus passion and education can make all the difference.
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