International award-winning energy micro-entrepreneurship in Ikakeng, Potchefstroom
Ken Fullerton, a field specialist at PlaNet Finance and based in Johannesburg, South Africa, works in the field of sustainable development. He recently caught up with Sarah Soloane, a social entrepreneur, EnerGcare Independent Distributor, promoter of off-grid renewable energy solutions and winner of the Renewable Energy Prize at the International Micro Entrepreneurship Awards held in Paris, France in December 2014 to learn more about what has made her successful and how others can learn from her experiences and lessons.
What does your role as an EnerGcare Independent Distributor entail?
My role involves helping people in my community to have reliable access to energy, help overcome unemployment and other social problems. The EnerGcare products are affordable to many people. I am responsible for marketing and selling off-grid clean energy products and I use many different approaches to do this.
When you first started what were your expectations?
When I first started I wanted to grow myself and help people in my community. One day I want to have my own shop where I sell my products and continue to serve my community. I also wanted my people to learn about energy saving products and why they should buy and use them.
Why do you consider yourself to be a social entrepreneur?
I particularly wish to serve the youth and women in my community and help to uplift their lives so that they can stand for themselves and do something for a better life. Many of my people live in bad conditions in shacks and do not have basic services. By helping them with such products I want people to learn from me, improve their knowledge and encourage them to work for themselves and be ambitious.
Tell us a bit more about the range of products you promote. Why are they socially beneficial to others?
There are a wide range of EnerGcare products. There are products for lighting, cooking and for charging your cell phone. The product that I have been the most successful at promoting is the EcoZoom efficient cook stove. All the products are easy and safe to use, help the user save money because they are efficient, they are healthier than many of the products currently being used (such as candles, paraffin/kerosene and brazier cook stoves) and they are reliable. They are socially beneficial because they are helping people overcome many of the energy challenges being faced in South Africa such as no electricity connection, high electricity, paraffin and oil costs and power cuts.
What strategies and techniques do you use to market and sell these energy efficient products to potential customers?
I use a variety of different strategies and I understand that sometimes different ones are more likely to use than others. In order to market and sell my products I make use of a wide range of marketing materials provided to me (such as EnerGcare branded banners, clothing, flyers and posters) and I use demonstration products to explain to people how a product actually works and what its benefits are. I market products in different locations such as through my church network, by going house to house and door knocking, by distributing marketing materials and through family and friends. Because of the hard work I have already put in and the efforts I have made, I am now starting to get referrals where potential new customers phone me after having heard about me from an existing customer. This shows that interest is growing and people are looking for affordable new solutions to the energy challenges they face.
Are there any key features, techniques or aspects that you believe define you as a social entrepreneur rather than just a ‘regular’ one?
My personality and who I am today has been largely influenced by my background. I grew up in a rural village and saw first-hand how hard my parents had to work to look after me. My mother regularly had to walk long distances to fetch water and collect firewood, it was difficult for me to learn due to a lack of electricity and my family had very little money to purchase candles. Since my youth I have always maintained a strong desire to help other people particularly because many families are still living in the dark.
How does your community feel about what you are doing and the products you are providing? Have you had positive reactions from them?
I feel that my community thinks that they are very lucky to have me as I share knowledge and information with them and bring them solutions to their energy problems. Women, in particular, appreciate the role I play because I am sharing history with them and together we can turn the old history into the new future. After returning from Paris with my International Micro Entrepreneurships Award many of the ladies in my church group took me out to lunch to congratulate me. I found that very special.
What would your advice be to other aspiring social entrepreneurs looking to make a positive impact on their communities?
People must do something to support and stand up for themselves if they are unable to find a job. They should not just wait for the government to do something for them as this sets a bad example to others and might not ever happen. The South African government is currently overwhelmed trying to rectify many socio-economic development challenges. I am willing to give further advice and support if people contact me like I did when I was a panel speaker at the recently held Citi Micro Entrepreneurship Awards event in Johannesburg. People can sell anything that can help them in life as they must want to support themselves and their families properly.
How was the experience of attending the International Micro Entrepreneurship Awards ceremony in Paris? It must have been amazing!
It was excellent, it was wonderful! Never in a million years did I ever think that I would be invited abroad and get to go to Paris to receive an award at an international ceremony. I thank God for the chance to be selected as an entrepreneur and to show everyone the potential I have to grow and continue succeeding by helping others. I will never forgot the memory.
Sarah, do you have any final advice or thoughts to share?
My advice is that to be an entrepreneur you don’t always need to have a formal education. You need to have the desire to help yourself and others around you. You also need to be persistent and believe in yourself as you are likely to have challenges along the way.
- Ken Fullerton is a field specialist at PlaNet Finance, based in Johannesburg. This interview first appeared on the Energy Blog.