Habiba Ali and I both live in Nigeria but may never have connected were it not for the WE Empower SDGs Challenge. Whilst we were both educated and employed in different fields, we identified the commonality in our industries. We found that there were serious challenges faced by women in Nigeria to ensure the health, education and economic well-being of their families and in accessing sustainable livelihoods. We represent only two of the millions of female business leaders contributing to the success of women in our communities, many of whom could further scale their businesses and transform societies if they had greater access to capital, business support, networks, sponsors and mentors.

Meeting entrepreneurs like Habiba inspires me to help unlock these opportunities for women around the world. It’s why I, as a Member of The B Team Africa, decided to serve as the African regional judge for this competition, helping to encourage and uplift female, purpose-driven entrepreneurs across the continent. WE Empower is the very first global business competition designed to recognize women entrepreneurs who are leading SMEs that are addressing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) — helping demonstrate the valuable contribution women entrepreneurs are making toward the economy and society.

Habiba Ali made the African business community proud when she won the competition. Habiba’s pitch was so powerful, Diane von Furstenberg, a fellow competition judge, doubled her prize money on the spot. Habiba is a pioneer in the energy field, and one of the largest distributors of renewable energy in Nigeria. She is the Founder, Managing Director and CEO of Sosai Renewable Energies, a distributor that has provided more than 500,000 Nigerians, especially those in most need, with sustainable energy solutions and products.

I sat down with Habiba to talk about what’s needed to be a female leader in the energy industry, how to scale renewable energy, promote sustainably-driven business models and achieve gender equality.

Amy: Congratulations on winning the WE EMPOWER SDGs Challenge! Why did you decide to enter this competition? How did it help you as a leader?

Habiba: To be honest, at first, I had my reservations about entering the competition. I knew it would provide great exposure for my business, but I doubted whether I had what it took to win. I had given up on the prospect of entering until someone from my network at Vital Voices sent an email encouraging me to apply — everyone kept advising that they thought I was a good fit. So, I told my daughter, who promised to be my lucky charm; with her encouragement and help in creating the video, I finally applied!

Amy: How do you think the Challenge will encourage other women entrepreneurs and what does winning mean for you?

Habiba: I think this Challenge enables women who are making a positive impact throughout the world to be recognized for their talents and achievements. Winning the competition helped me instill greater belief in myself and my capabilities and has inspired me to go further and continue to innovate through my business.

Amy: Could you tell me about how you started your business and how you built a purpose-centric business model?

Habiba: My business started at a time of need, when I desperately wanted to improve my financial and emotional well-being. I went to a forum and discovered that every woman who cooked around an open fire or stayed around a kerosene lantern for upwards of two hours had smoked the equivalent of two packs of cigarettes a day. This scared me, especially because this had been the lifestyle that I, and many members of my family had lived for as long as I can remember. It led me to develop safer lanterns for women who were cold at night, whilst encouraging the use of improved cooking stoves, and that’s how the business started.

We use a purpose-centric model because I have seen first-hand, examples where people bought or were given new technologies with the potential to change their lives, but because it was so alien to them, they could not imagine using it. This has led to the technology being kept at home like a trophy and never being used. As such, I felt that this would be the best way to get people to actually use the items they bought and to ensure a positive impact is fully realised.

Amy: How do you see your venture transforming the energy industry and leading a just transition toward clean energy?

Habiba: Now that we are at the launch pad of growth, I see that my venture can build upon its past successes, including winning the WE Empower Challenge, to develop a business model that encourages people even in urban areas to transition away from unclean to clean energy sources. We started this crusade by changing the energy source of a school, which in turn allowed it to dramatically reduce its energy spending. The idea central to my vision is that people should not have to pay an arm and a leg to get clean energy and should have the opportunity to enjoy the best technologies at an affordable price. The Sosai team will remain by the people’s side promulgating better solutions and optimized lifestyles through the use of clean tech.

Amy: How is your business impacting communities and people, particularly women?

Habiba: My business positively impacts communities with life-changing technologies. Imagine a community without water that can only farm for one season a year; where women support their husbands without any income of their own; where farm produce rots before going to market, forcing farmers to sell at painfully low rates; and where cooking is done in poorly ventilated kitchens and stark darkness as soon as the sun sets. These are the issues my business is addressing.

Our purpose-driven model recognizes that not every community has the same requirements, so we approach them on a case by case basis. We supply some communities with solar dryers to limit post-harvest losses, some communities get the solar powered mini grids for total community lighting and others opt for individual solar home systems. In communities that want post-season farming, we install solar irrigation systems. Each of these solutions benefits the community as a whole.

To help women specifically, we support the creation of cooperatives within the communities we serve. The women pay into these cooperatives twice weekly and then take it in turns to receive the entire pot. This has led to women starting all kinds of businesses, from producing groundnut oil and groundnut cakes to knitting and local spaghetti-making. Others have become part of the salesforce through which we channel our products.

Amy: What are the current challenges you’re facing as you scale your business?

Habiba: Importing goods has been a huge challenge for me, as we always suffer at the hands of Nigerian Customs. Goods spend an inordinate amount of time in port and when we finally get them out, we have to pay exorbitant fees to clear them. Simply because the classification on the HSCode for solar products is 0 percent and the Nigerian Customs insists on having one that is 5 percent Duty and 5 percent VAT. These charges exist alongside all the other charges that could amount to around 8 percent of the total costs. Additionally, components like batteries and lighting are not considered as solar at all, meaning they could attract as much as 20 percent Duty and 5 percent VAT alongside the other 8 percent in other charges. The shipping line costs also increase every day. I have had a container at Port for five months and now time to clear it has grown to N10,000,000. Further to this, the products were on loan and the repayments should start in another 3 months, but this constrains our cash flow, and puts us in the ‘bad debts’ books of our loan partners. This has been a hugely limiting challenge for us this year, as we suffered considerable impediments to months of cash flow, in all we have spent over N35 Million on 4 containers this year.

Another challenge we face is sourcing patient capital that would allow us scale effectively. So much is involved in accessing communities in need, and the right kind of investment would go a long way to ensuring we can move to the next level. This is a problem that female entrepreneurs across the world will recognise. We need all the help we can get.

Amy: What do you think is holding other social entrepreneurs, especially women, back? What recommendations do you have for governments and investors to enable your business to grow and continue to improve lives?

Habiba: Fear of the unknown is a big one. People find it very difficult to take risks. For women, especially in emerging markets, there is a lot to consider. Is my husband going to support me? Is my family going to like this? Will my children be okay if I am not there frequently? These are just a few of the concerns held by women entrepreneurs. I also had these concerns when I started. I worried about how I would make myself known in the space and even how to run a business. I questioned whether a social enterprise would pay the bills.

I would recommend that governments and investors look out for organisations who have held their own over the years and find ways to help grow these businesses. Governments should also have programs that support social entrepreneurship as it’s the only form of business that can ensure that the existence of humanity is protected in a sustainable fashion.

Amy: Where do you see yourself and female entrepreneurs around the world in 10 years?

Habiba: In 10 years, I see myself as the reason why over 15,000 communities have come out of energy poverty in Nigeria and are on their way to sustainable development. I would also like to be at the highest level of renewable energy business globally or at least working my way there! With the right support, I see more women entrepreneurs also enjoying this privilege.

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Habiba Ali speaks at the Vital Voices We Empower event.

VITAL VOICES WE EMPOWER

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