From small things, big things grow: Martin’s Story

Nothing is born from diamonds

Some people are born with a gift: seeing challenges as opportunities. Martin Masiya, the protagonist of today's story, belongs to this rank of visionaries. He grew up in Lilongwe, Malawi, and he coupled a mixed set of childhood dreams (becoming a pilot, an actor, a bishop), with a rock-hard quality that would soon become his secret ingredient: "a talent of leadership, a love for reading and seeking knowledge".

Some of us could frown, and ask a simple question: is being an avid reader or an enthusiast of leadership an automatic synonym of success, or ability to create a tangible impact? Definitely not, in most of the cases. Martin's story, however, is different. He was born in a country where 94% of the energy comes from burning of charcoal or wood fuel, and where the electrification rate floats around a discouraging 10%. For many decision makers and operators, these are just digits, not able to faithfully depict how much human drama dwells behind them

But not for Martin. When he was 15, he "Volunteered for a local waste management charity that was working with semi-urban women to establish waste recycling clubs […]" . Through this first experience, he was able to "Interact with community leaders and members": an intense and eye-opening experience, which provided him with a sense of urgency and awareness about the hazards faced in the daily life by the majority of Malawi's population.

This turning point represented, for Martin, way more than a learning experience. It was an initiation in the perilous world of changemakers, a sudden glimpse into the dark facets of energy poverty. And, despite his young age, he already knew his life was meant to change forever: "I got to see the challenges I had only read about during our school work, and learned about different approaches that were being used to solve them. This is also the time I learned more about Agenda 2030 and the SDGs […]".

Just like the first rays of morning sunshine break through the morning's sky, Martin's idea was about to shed a hopeful light in his community.

Impact, no matter what

Since some years, we've been spending a great deal of flattering words, about renewable energy and its undeniable benefits. Studies, white papers and reports have been created and published, and some of the world's most prestigious institutions never fail to make flamboyant declarations about how necessary and beneficial the energy transition is, for Africa and for the rest of the world.  However, as the dire events of the last years are demonstrating, there's many a slip twixt cup and lip…but not for Martin.

His approach is a practical and straightforward one, not based on pompous announcements or a glossy brand identity. In 2019, while studying at the University of Malawi, he realised that his country was in desperate need for a change, a revolution able, at once, to improve the living conditions of its inhabitants, and to inflict a heavy blow to the hard-to-abate fossil fuels industry.

On these pillars, he created Sollys Energy, with the explicit goal to "Increase quality and affordable solar lighting for households in the semi-urban and rural areas of Malawi". Once again, we can witness the complex and mysterious ways of the energy transition: it surely needs wide-scoped policies and international agreements, in order to take shape…but at the end of the day, it is on the small scale that it makes a true difference.

A difference that Martin is perfectly able to outline and quantify: "Since our launch, we have provided over 350 households with solar lanterns and solar home systems on flexible payment schemes, enabling an approximate 2,000 people to have first-time access to a quality, affordable solar intervention. In the process, we have created 3 full-time and 11 part-time jobs, and a number of strategic partnerships with local and international organizations".

Martin's venture, however, isn't special just because. As a matter of fact, Sollys Energy started its operations in the very middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, when a lot of other newborn enterprises succumbed, or remained just on the spreadsheets of their creators. Martin's creature was not spared from the challenges of the pandemic either; as he recalls, " Job and Income losses for many people all over Malawi meant that most of our potential customers in semi-urban areas could no longer afford a solar home system […], and travel restrictions meant that we could not travel as often to conduct sales promotions and support our agents".

In spite of the difficulties however, Martin was able to transform a crisis into a unique opportunity to achieve customers' experience, build a market basis and a solid network of contacts: " [During the COVID-19 pandemic] I learned the importance of establishing […] good partnerships with suppliers, service providers and funders […]. I believe that honest and open communication is key to good partnerships, and this has resulted in our raising of capital to sustain our operations during the pandemic".

The outcome? Sollys Energy achieved several international prestigious recognitions, such as the 2020 Distribution Prize, and it was included among the Top 100 Youth-Led Projects advancing Sustainable Development worldwide.

Surely a great satisfaction, for Martin and his collaborators. Nevertheless, there's something else we are quite sure about: serving his community and seeing the tangible results of his daily crusade for sustainability is, and will always be, his primary motivation of pride and joy…emotions that no prize, award or recognition will be able to replicate.

Raising the stakes

Young, full of energy and already CEO of one of Africa's most promising realities. Most of us would probably tell Martin: "Man, you already got it all, why don't you just stop for a while and enjoy the fruits of your hard work?". But, as he tells us, there's still an unaddressed matter: an insufficient representation of young changemakers. Despite some promising glimmers of involvement, African youth is still chronically overshadowed and under-represented, in the decision-making layers guiding the continent's energy transition.

Once again, Martin decided to grasp the nettle, lining up personally for this crucial battle. That's why he got "Interested in the Youth Task Force because it […] focuses on the challenges facing young people in sustainable energy […]”. Personal initiatives, startups and business ideas are crucial to make the energy transition thrive, but one crucial piece of the puzzle is missing: “Cultivating a fruitful discussion is a first and essential step in ensuring that different public and private bodies, that can build an enabling environment for meaningful youth participation […] are able to hear directly from young people in the field […]”.

The real core of Martin’s reflection appears now in all its clarity: providing Africa’s youth with visibility, decision power, funding and capacity building opportunities is not just an ethical or social matter; it’s actually the only way to ensure a hopeful future to the energy transition, otherwise doomed to be just another will-o'-the-wisp.

A tomorrow full of opportunities

“Access to finance remains one of the largest problems facing entrepreneurs in Africa, and young entrepreneurs in the clean energy sector in particular”. 

Martin’s final reflection has the sound of a vigorous reminder. Not only a newborn business must face the structural, unavoidable hazards of a free market (building a customers’ base, becoming profitable in the shortest time possible, etc.). Countless African startups must ride through what Martin, with a touch of gloomy poetry, calls the “valley of death”: it’s the delicate period “between the time when youth-led businesses have been piloted (early-stage), to when they are commercially viable and can secure commercial capital”.

Needless to say that proper financial incentives could transform such a dicey ride in a challenging but fruitful path, maximising the possibilities of success and, ultimately, exponentially increasing the numbers of sustainable initiative able to create a tangible and long-lasting impact on Africa’s energy transition.

Martin’s closing remarks are full of positivity and entrepreneurial mindset. Malawi’s complex hazards call for “Multiple applications of clean energy in the agriculture, healthcare and education sectors […] while creating jobs and additional incomes for the people involved in our supply chain”.

This widely unexploited market sectors represent a unique opportunity for many young Africans, who will “be able to make meaningful living because access to electricity has potential to improve access to technology, introducing new careers and better ways of living”.

A whole world of opportunities, hopes and perspectives.  Let’s not forget, however, who they belong to: Africa’s youth.

Keep it up, Martin: we are all looking up to you.

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Africa is a continent in continuous transformation, with a sustained economic and population growth, a fast-paced urbanization and a young generation of talents who is leading its business revolution. This transformation requires energy and will require it even more in the next decades.
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