Christopher J. Onwuasoanya, a former JP Morgan senior employee who resides in the USA, now the founder and President of Atlantic Waste and Power System writes regularly for Africa Business Jumpstart about his entrepreneurial journey to becoming a solar power entrepreneur in Nigeria, which he started in 2013. In his very first article, ‘Africa Entrepreneur Insights – Nigeria: The Steps I Took To Start A Solar Power Business’, Christopher described the early steps and challenges he faced setting up a new business in Nigeria. In June we received Letter 2 with more updates and impressions regarding his business start up, and Letter 3 From a Solar Power Engineer followed in October. Today, Christopher has summarized the key lessons of his entrepreneurial journey in a new letter for all of you at Africa Business Jumpstart. As always, I am very grateful that Christopher allows us to follow his entrepreneurial journey, so others can learn and feel inspired. Here are amazing personal insights into what the start-up journey looked like in 2014:
January 18, 2015.
I sit behind my lap top and I am thinking about how I can possibly recount my journey so far. Should I only mention the successes and omit the failures? Should I tell you about the ease with which you can break into a market and omit the challenges that are thrown your way at every turn?
As I write this story it will come to me.
In January of 2014 we selected a manufacturer in China who would manufacture the solar systems we would install for our customers. The decision was based on the fact that they could provide us with everything we needed to install a complete system for our clients. They gave us cables, batteries, racks, panels, control systems and allowed us to be OEM. Knowing very little about solar power, I interviewed and hired someone who was already in Africa but had trained in the United States. I verified his references.
We started to sell our wonderful new system and we were fortunate enough to make some sales pretty early on. I also made the fortunate decision to install the systems in my parent’s homes. The systems finally arrived in Nigeria on May 14, 2014, but after they spent two months at sea arriving late, we did not get the delivery at Lagos Port until June 21. I had people I was paying salaries to, who were basically sitting around waiting until the systems would clear at the port. When we finally received the delivery, we started our own installation that night at our home in Lagos. My baby had hatched. We turned it on, but all it could power were lights. It could not power the refrigerator. My expert burnt the charge controller on the system, because he did not believe in reading manuals. Our second installation went even worse. The charge controller actually caught fire. The third installation worked briefly and blew up the next day. The fourth one worked but we had to keep sending people back to visit. The fifth one was installed in an empty home and the sixth was an entirely different system (a test project) that served perfectly during the day. It was an expensive testing period to say the least.
In the end, we had installed 6 systems in Nigeria in less than 10 days across two states and under the most challenging conditions. I had spent the months of May, June and July in Nigeria. Spent every dime I had, missed my family and lost more weight than I could afford to. During my last few days in Nigeria, my health deteriorated due to fatigue and poor eating habits. I was a shivering mess battling malaria. When I went back to the United States, I was so tired, I could not climb up the stairs without my legs shaking. I returned to New Jersey on the morning of my 50th birthday. I was broke, tired, and seriously underweight. My pictures on Facebook caused panic among my family and friends.But very soon after I made plan to return to Nigeria for a couple of months and do things better. I borrowed more money and went back to work. Today i want to share with you the most important lessons I learned:
Lesson 1: If you are not bringing in a container don’t use the ports. Clearing agents in Nigeria are ruthless and have no morals. They know they have you by the proverbial nuts and will squeeze till you yield. My pain threshold was tested. Customs will eat you alive you if you have no Form M.
Lesson 2: The nuts and bolts – your products. It is good to bring in an expert, but it is much better to quickly get to know your products inside out yourself.So I came back and took NABCEP approved training on how to install solar. I watched as many YouTube videos as I could. The errors in our installations became so obvious. In addition to a horrible system, our wiring and connections were poorly done. Now I had become the expert. A supplier that sells you all your systems can never be ideal. Almost all the systems except one failed. We went to different suppliers to find the best components we needed.
Lesson 3: Take care of your health. The importance of rest and eating properly is huge. I am yet to recover from the weight I lost. I weighed about 180 lbs when I left in May. Today I weigh about 165. I am 6’2 tall. My pants fall off. The reserve I had in fat was gone, I lost muscle mass and I can’t build it back in a year. Eat well and rest. Sounds easy but when you are like me who is constantly on the move it becomes critical to your business efficiency.
Lesson 4: Use the product you sell yourself. All that could go wrong – did go wrong with the first products. I experienced firsthand the limitations of the old system. We replaced them free of charge for our clients because our experience in our own home was just as bad. The new systems were a planet away from the old in terms of performance. The smallest system was able to power fridges and pump water. We also found out that what works well in the East does not work as well in Lagos. Better to find this out with our system than with a client’s. Our new batteries required charging before use.
Video shot by Christopher in September 2014
Lesson 5: Logistics and having a place to stay. Traveling in the cities is not much of a challenge but traveling in rural areas can be a nightmare. You wind up renting vehicles that are past their use date at exorbitant prices, vehicles that are unsafe or simply not very road worthy. Breakdowns are common. Expect it and plan for it. Budget and increase your budget by 100% just for the logistics. Having a place to stay is a welcomed relief. My family has provided me with homes, cars, drivers and so much that I can’t list here. Hotels in Nigeria are ridiculously expensive. At one occasion we have paid as much as N50,000 for a night (US$ 266!) and I can tell you that Motel 6 is better. Don’t expect Western standard for what you are paying for. If you are squeamish your are in for a rude shock. The roads are a challenge, the police check points are designed to extract money from you. Always have a bill of lading or receipts with you. They will ask for it. Even if you can show these documents, expect to pay anyway. Have police inspectors, commissioners on your speed dial. They will come in handy.
Lesson 6: Source local. I purchase my batteries in Nigeria and I will be purchasing my panels in Nigeria as well. I spent $3600 to get panels delivered to the office. The panels came into MMA (the airport warehouse) November 14, 2014 and I still don’t have them. I have to pay another $4100 just to to get them delivered. The quality of locally sourced systems can be as good if you do your homework – and you save yourself a lot of headache. The customs officials and agents will kill you faster than you can die. I went to Alaba Market where you can buy everything you need but it is not the kind of business climate that is conducive. Someone told me upon seeing me: “I will chop your money today. I will feed my children with your money”. Such is the atmosphere at this very dynamic market.
Lesson 7: Employees. Hire and fire at will. The schools are graduating some unqualified personnel. I met an engineer who had never used a multi meter. I met another young man that had a certificate saying he had trained in solar and he did not know what a charge controller or what a parallel and serial connection was. Many employees who have some experience are sloppy and take short cuts. They believe the way they do stuff is the correct way. The results have been a couple of blown inverters, blown fuses and blown battery chargers. I have had employees drill holes in Solar panels because they wouldn’t fit the place they wanted to place them. Recruiting is a constant function. Never stop hiring. You MUST SUPERVISE THE WORK THEY DO. Walk away and come back in tears. Stay there all through, till they have done that function at least ten times. Customer service is a foreign concept to most of them. Repeat it, until they grasp it. Some of the younger ones feel a sense of entitlement. Their sense of knowledge is over inflated. Prepare to train your employees every day. The young driver I hired drove the car I purchased with a broken belt. The result was a burnt head gasket. The response you get for each time they do damage is “Sorry sir”. You pay.
Lesson 8: Burn the bridge. If you think you can go back, you will. I have borrowed everything I can; I have maxed out my credit. I missed Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year, my family depends 100% on my succeeding at this. I have no choice but to succeed, so I continue.
Lesson 9: Focus on one trade. One thing I realizes is that many tend to dabble in this and that. When you ask them what they do, they say this and that. Pick what you do and focus on that thing. People will know you for that one thing.
Lesson 10: Be passionate and have fun. I thoroughly enjoy what I do – despite the set backs. The running joke is that to befriend Christopher you have to talk solar. I come alive talking about it. It is a miracle watching the sun restore the batteries you depleted the night before. I won a sale in Nigeria with an important client, although I quoted him a 50% higher price. The reason he gave me the job was according to him because I “spoke so authoritatively on solar”. I am not the best at my craft yet, but I keep getting better and I am having fun with it. So you need to be passionate, or the obstacles will stop you from continuing and succeeding.
Lesson 11: Be Present. Since May 2014, I have been in Nigeria every month except August. People want to see you. They want to make sure you have staying power. They see you and they buy from you. Until you become established your presence is critical to your success.
I will stop at 11. I am sure there are many more experiences that I can share. We will have a total of 18 systems running by the end of January. That will make us one of the larger installers of complete residential and non-governmental business systems in the country. Last month I got a phone call at 2.30 am Nigerian time. The caller had been at the home of a client who had uninterrupted electricity. He asked him if he was using a generator and he said no. He asked if it was NEPA (National Electric Power Authority), he said no. He asked him what it was and his response “Christopher’s light”. At another function at the country home of a mogul the power had failed as expected and his generator for the first time in 15 years had failed too. The meeting had a senator, members of the house and other important dignitaries present. He then told them that the power they were experiencing was provided by Christopher. My father has saved people around his compounds hundreds of Naira in phone recharge costs. How? They charge their phones in his compound for free – with the solar power. Now a running joke is that NEPA staff are charging their phones in the solar power house in Lagos when they come to read the meter.
Anecdotes and things like this have made the challenge worth it. I hope you got some value out of my letter and I wish you a successful 2015. Don’t stop your dream.
Thank you so much, Christopher, for such wonderful insights on your road to success in Africa. Amazing how much will power you have, exactly why some fail and others keep on marching, they say. We wish you much success and please everyone, share your comments below!
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