FREEING ENERGY

Podcast 058: Samir Ibrahim – The story behind an affordable solar-powered irrigation system that is changing the lives of smallholder farmers in Africa

Advocates, Innovators and Entrepreneurs, here is a discussion you don’t want to miss. Listen in as Samir Ibrahim, CEO and Co-Founder of SunCulture, shares how his vision for the first affordable, widely available solar powered irrigation system in East Africa took shape, the impact that system is having on lives there and the business challenges he has faced along the way. 

Here are a few of the insights from Samir…

“…we really quickly realized by looking at that, that in order to help improve and protect the productivity of smallholder farmers who make up the largest percentage of people living in poverty, we have to first fix the water problem. So that’s how we started Africa’s first solar irrigation company. And so you can see the first principle is really understanding the problem with our customers, designing a solution for them, with them.”


“We’re working in West Africa right now, but in order for us to expand sort of unconditionally in West Africa, we need to change the chemistry of our battery to be able to sustain the heat that the temperatures that are reached in West Africa. So right now, lithium-ion, but exploring other chemistries.”


“I think energy, poverty is important because it causes economic poverty. And while I very much believe and value and appreciate all of the work being done in the off-grid space to provide people with lighting services, entertainment services, I think if we’re going to solve some of these really big problems in the world, like climate change, like food insecurity, like just billions of people living in poverty. I think we need to think about energy as a pathway towards providing services that help increase the productivity of low-income rural farmers while at the same time protecting them against the climate.”


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Transcript

Bill Nussey:

Hello Freeing Energy podcast listeners, Bill Nussey here. I’ll be your host today, and we have a very special treat for you. Some of you may remember the reasons that I got into this industry. Let me reiterate them just real quick. The first reason was that the planet really needs our help and that’s important. Second of all, it’s one of the biggest business opportunities in the history of business. Third, it’s a chance to make a huge difference in a billion lives who have no electricity. Our guest today is someone who is hitting on all three of those like few other people we’ve ever had the privilege of talking to. I first met Samir when I was actually in Africa, we were driving outside of Kenya to go visit some rural Kenyan villagers. On the bus walks this young guy who has a story about irrigating some of the poorest farms in Africa. I was amazed at him and his story was incredible, and we have since become friends and we have conversations all over the world and I am super excited to welcome you today Samir to our podcast.

Samir Ibrahim:

Thank you so much Bill I am equally, if not more excited to be here.

Bill Nussey:

We always like to start these things off with some background stories, and you have some amazing background stories. Let’s just start off with some coordinates, six degrees nine minutes 16.31 seconds South and 39 degrees 11 minutes 34.08 seconds East. What is this story?

Samir Ibrahim:

I have that tattooed on my left forearm, and it’s the coordinates of the port of Zanzibar where my family entered East Africa in 1850 as traders. A few years into the SunCulture journey I was just reflecting on why I’m doing this. I’m doing this for all of the reasons that you mentioned in the introduction, but also I have a huge emotional attachment to this region because my family’s from here. I was probably itching for another tattoo as well, and to honor my family and while I was in Kenya I got those coordinates tattooed on the inside of my left forearm. You can see that right here.

Bill Nussey:

Nice. There you go I see it, we’re on a video he and I can see each other. I should have mentioned by the way, it looks like you’re in a tent. I’m guessing you’re someplace incredibly exotic. Where are you right now?

Samir Ibrahim:

I am in a place called Naivasha, it’s about two and a half hours, well today it took a little bit longer because there was a little bit of traffic. But about two and a half hours north of Nairobi. There’s a lake here, there’s a lot of nice animals. I’m out here for the weekend.

Bill Nussey:

Man, living the dream, I love it. It looks very romantic and very spiritual like your tattoo. You and I have gotten to know each other over the last couple of years, and I continue to be amazed at your personal story.

Samir Ibrahim:

My family, like I said, is from East Africa. In the 1970s there was a lot of East Africans of Indian origin that left. They immigrated to Canada where I was born. Then when I was two, I think my parents missed the weather so they moved us to Florida, so I grew up in Florida.

Bill Nussey:

One of the neat stories I heard about you and you have to confirm that it’s true, is that your parents gave you annual plane tickets to travel around the world. Is that true? If so, tell me about it.

Samir Ibrahim:

That is true.

Bill Nussey:

Wow.

Samir Ibrahim:

Growing up I suppose as a child of immigrants, there’s a few things that stick with you and a few things that I guess my parents wanted to do differently. They never got the chance to travel. They didn’t grow up with the financial means to be able to travel the world. They came to Florida and started a dry cleaners. They interacted with a lot of people who got to travel the world. They very quickly realized that there was a lot of value in being able to understand different cultures, different people, experience different foods, and I think more importantly understand that we’re all the same deep down. When I turned 16 for my birthday was the first time they gave me a plane ticket. They sent me to the UK to go visit some friends.

Samir Ibrahim:

That became a tradition where they would send me places. They would give me experiences rather than things. That completely shaped the way that I view the world. One it helped me become less materialistic. Because as the kid of immigrants you’re often enamored by at least I was enamored by money, and this helped teach me that experiences are more valuable. It also helped me experience just people. I love people, I love being able to talk to folks about their experiences, where they live. I think it really helped me deep down to understand that we’re all the same, we’re all fighting the same fights just in our own ways. It is one of the things that looking back has really shaped my life in the most positive way.

Bill Nussey:

Let’s talk a little bit about your education. Now I’ve known you for many years, we talk regularly, but I did not realize how well and diversely educated you are. It’s interesting to mention. You went to NYU and the Stern Business School, you studied finance and international business. While you were there, you spent many semesters around the globe Argentina, Peru, India, Shanghai, but you also attended schools in London and China. In London along with studying for EU financial markets and operations management, you studied British art. In China you studied international law and the Chinese language. This is incredibly diverse, I’m feeling intimidated just talking to you. Why finance, why art, why Chinese language? What was the goal here?

Samir Ibrahim:

My parents really helped me understand that I value being able to understand different cultures, or at least try to immerse myself in different cultures. Because I think it’s very hard to understand cultures unless you live them. That drove my desire to study abroad. I love art, I think art is so interesting for a couple of reasons. One, I think it tells a particular story by a particular group of people at a particular time. Art is really a window into what people with capital wanted you to think at a particular time, so it’s an insight to history. I also think that the way people place value on art is fascinating. How people attribute value to things is very interesting to me. Learning about art is a study of human behaviors I suppose, or behavioral economics, and starting to pull back the peel or the different layers of the onion on why people value certain things and certain ways, has just been very interesting for me. I actually wanted to be an art dealer. That was something I was thinking about because of that understanding how people attributed value to things.

Bill Nussey:

Well, when we started planning for this I was thinking of you as a global child, someone who grew up with a global mindset. But now I think I’m going to rebrand you as a renaissance thinker. Maybe those two are the same thing. It’s certainly inspiring to hear the way you look at the world. It helps I think me and the people listening to this will help create color on how it is that someone can make the decisions that you’ve made, and have an opportunity to go pursue the visions and the missions that you are. We’re going to dive into that and let’s start with a quick primer on agriculture in the low-income parts of the world, and particularly in Kenya. Agriculture as it turns out is one of Kenya’s main industries. It provides about 26% of its GDP, and employs about 80% of its rural population. This is when I met you, when we were going to visit some of your customers who are living exactly this, they are the folks that these numbers talk about that are so much more than these statistics.

Bill Nussey:

Yet 80% of the country’s landmass suffers from unpredictable rainfalls and arid soils. Providing continuous job and food security for Kenyans is a big, big challenge, and this is what you guys are doing at SunCulture. Now most of this farming is done on small farms. The ones that we met when I was with you were one and two acres, it was amazing. Kenya doesn’t have the most reliable and resilient power infrastructure, and in fact the places that we visited with you had none, they had no grids. So the most common method for powering these arid irrigation systems was using very expensive diesel generators and expensive diesel fuel. This is a particularly large expense for these very low-income farmers. How did you identify of all the things with this great global perspective as a child and this diverse education, how did you end up deciding that this agriculture mission was the one that you would lead with in SunCulture?

Samir Ibrahim:

I didn’t know that these problems fully existed. When I went to undergraduate business school they taught us how to forecast, and I had this ten-year plan. My ten-year plan ended with me in East Africa doing infrastructure projects. So roads, bridges, ports, that kind of stuff. That’s why I started working at PWC’s real estate advisory group, because I wanted to understand how people attributed value and capital towards physical assets. I thought that would be my pathway to that infrastructure. I knew that this part of the world and broadly emerging markets was something that I was going to spend my life, places I’ll spend my life in and engaging with. That also goes back to growing up as a child of immigrants. My parents always reminded me that I had more opportunities than them, and they always showed me the value of using those opportunities to help others.

Samir Ibrahim:

So community service and volunteerism was really big in my family and my community. My ten-year plan had that in the mix, but I didn’t understand the challenges that small farmers faced around the world, I’d never lived those challenges myself. My co-founder Charlie was reading about these challenges and brought them to my attention and we started exploring them. The numbers they’re just too big to ignore. You’re talking about the combination of food insecurity, you’re talking about how that intersects with global poverty and how that intersects with climate change. All of the numbers that you mentioned and that we talk about those sit in the center of all of these really big macro problems. It was just too big of a problem to ignore. When I learned about it, it just hit me in the head.

Bill Nussey:

I guess when you realized that agriculture was an area you wanted to go after given your family, going out to Africa was the place to do it.

Samir Ibrahim:

Yeah. The thing with agriculture, the folks that we’re talking about these small farmers, they grow most of the food that we eat on a daily basis, and they contribute the least amount to climate change yet they suffer the most from climate change. These are the folks that are supporting the world. You hear statistics about we need to double food production by 2050 in order to feed the world. No one’s going to do that except for small holder farmers, or small holder farmers are going to be a large part of that is a better way to say it. They’re the ones that are getting hammered by climate change right now. They grow food by waiting for the rain. With the changing climate, the rain is becoming even more unpredictable and even more unreliable. In order to start solving these very macro problems that we’re all going to face like food shortages, we need to figure out how to empower the small farmer to grow the food that we need when we need it.

Samir Ibrahim:

All of these challenges are really, really interlinked. I didn’t know that when I started, but you start from the big numbers. We got to grow twice as much food by 2050. Well, where can we do that? Outside of vertical farming, really Africa is the only place that has the most unused farmable land. About 60% of all the unused farmable land in the world is in Africa. Then you think about what resources do you need? You need water. Africa is one of the very few places in the world that has a economic water shortage, not a physical water shortage. There’s actually a lot of groundwater in Africa that is just untapped because small farmers can’t afford to pull that water.

Samir Ibrahim:

Then you think about who’s going to farm? Two thirds of the folks that are in the workforce in Africa are small farmers. Africa has this really interesting mix of all of the resources you need in order to grow food to feed the world, but those resources are just not really put together. The technology isn’t there, the finance isn’t there, but the people are there and all the natural resources are there. When you think about the global problems of food security, you are almost led towards Sub-Saharan Africa because that’s where the resources lie.

Bill Nussey:

That’s a hell of a vision Samir, I love it. It’s I think helps explain why SunCulture’s had so much success in the first years of its life, because it’s clearly pointing towards the North Star that you can articulate better than most CEOs I’ve ever talked to about their company and its mission. It helps that it’s an awesome mission that changes the world and makes it a better place. But even then on top of that I give you major props for the clarity of the description and the North Star you’re chasing.

Samir Ibrahim:

Thank you.

Bill Nussey:

Let’s talk a little bit about products, because I’m a product person, I spent my whole life building products. Mostly software, but just in general I love taking concepts and turning them and molding them and working with engineers and customers to create something that actually is a unit that can change people’s lives, or change their businesses depending on what you’re doing. How did you guys go about conceptualizing the products that would address this grand challenge you’ve described?

Samir Ibrahim:

My co-founder and I did not grow up as small farmers in emerging markets. It would be a lie for us to say that we fully understood the problems that the folks that we want to work with face. We’ve never believed in building solutions in isolation of the communities you want to affect or work with. We always thought about building products with our customers for our customers. First we said let’s get to the field and figure out what do farmers need? When you meet farmers, you realize that they make money in one of three ways. They either sell crops, they sell animals or they sell byproducts of those animals. All three of these things require water. The way that farmers got water was either they wait for the rain, which is inconsistent and unreliable, they pay for diesel to power diesel pumps which is really expensive, or they physically moved water. They would take a bucket and lower it down into a hand dug well, that could be up to 300 feet deep, and they would manually spend three to four hours every day physically moving water first to meet their domestic needs, so cooking, cleaning, bathing, drinking, and then their agriculture needs.

Bill Nussey:

Wait a minute, how do you dig a 20 foot well let alone a 300? How do you dig a well like that?

Samir Ibrahim:

It’s insane. So they have specific folks called the well diggers. It’s such a dangerous job. We’ve always wanted to get someone to make a documentary on this, to highlight the dangers that people go through to grow food for all of us. They sit on a bucket and they go down and they dig for a month. They bring banana leaves down with them because banana leaves supposedly oxidize faster, to make sure that they don’t suffocate when they’re going really deep. Oftentimes walls collapse, oftentimes people die because of lack of oxygen. But there are people who physically go down to dig wells because it’s about between one sixth and one tenth cheaper than getting a machine to dig your well.

Bill Nussey:

When we were at visiting that farm that was I think the father’s name was Joseph if I recall. I remember peering over the edge of the well, and it was very deep and it was clearly hand cut. It was dirt, and I could barely see the bottom. I wondered if someone had physically dug that out and now I know wow.

Samir Ibrahim:

I had visited a farmer before and asked how deep the well was really deep. This was like a 78 meter, so 240 foot deep or so well, super deep. We asked about the well digger and they said the well digger died on the next well, which is really sad. It’s a super dangerous job. Farmers will lower a bucket down, fill it up with water in those wells. Fill it up with about 45 tons of water, which I always relate to the big weight plates in the gym. I know we haven’t gone to gyms because of the global pandemic, but if you remember those big weight plates in the gym, it’s the big 45 pound weights. They physical-

Bill Nussey:

I’m going to take your word for it.

Samir Ibrahim:

We really quickly realized by looking at that, that in order to help improve and protect the productivity of small holder farmers, who make up the largest percentage of people living in poverty, we had to first solve for the water problem. That’s how we started Africa’s first solar irrigation company. You can see the first principle is really understanding the problem with our customers, designing a solution for them with them. Then the principle that we adopted early on, we ended up calling the iterative design for eventual affordability IDEA. We started with an expensive product $5,000 dollars, super expensive. Over time we reduced that price by about 90%. We said that instead of building products that don’t work for customers, we need to build products that work. We need to understand the surrounding operations that are needed to scale that product. Over time with operational or manufacturing efficiencies or financial innovation, we’ll be able to bring the price of those products down which we did.

Bill Nussey:

Your products are now four or $500 US some of them is that right?

Samir Ibrahim:

Yeah our lowest entry point product is about $500 US, which farmers pay for over time.

Bill Nussey:

Let’s talk about that a little bit, because in that part of the world $500, $1,000 is an extraordinary amount of money. It’s difficult to get financing, most of these people are unbanked, they’re not part of traditional banking systems. How do you guys close that gap? How do you make it available to them?

Samir Ibrahim:

Affordability is by far the biggest hindrance to the uptake of any technologies in emerging markets that help people improve their livelihoods. For us, we will never sacrifice product quality for hitting a lower price point. A lot of times in the development space, people will try to lead their product development with a number. I need to reach a product that is X dollars. We say, we need to develop products that meet the specifications that farmers need, and we’ll figure out the math afterwards. What we’ve done to figure out the math is we’ve financed our products. We not only started selling solar irrigation, we started financing them as well. Our farmers will pay us in monthly installments over 30 months. Now the magic of what we do when it comes to solar is that we’re powering products that increase the incomes of small holder farmers.

Samir Ibrahim:

All of our farmers practice mixed farming. They grow low value crops like maize or potatoes, they often have animals like cows or goats or chickens, and they also grow these high value vegetables, the stuff that we eat in salads. The reason they practice mixed farming is because the cash flows from each of those types of agricultural activities are different. Sometimes they’ll get cash flows on their milk every week. Some of the high value crops they’ll harvest every two or three months, some of the low value crops they’ll harvest every six months. They’re in effect managing their cash flows by farming or practicing different agriculture activities that bring them cash at different times in the year. We help them increase their incomes across all of those ways of practicing agriculture, which means that when farmers pay us their monthly installments, they’re only paying us out of the increase in income that they’re getting, which is where the magic is.

Bill Nussey:

As I recall, correct me if I don’t get this right, but in Africa that without irrigation of some kind, without a well and water, there’s only really two rainy seasons a year. Prior to these kinds of systems, diesel run or from SunCulture solar-powered there was only really two chances to farm. Is that how it worked prior to these technologies?

Samir Ibrahim:

Yeah and a lot of places there’s only a couple of rainy seasons, one short often one long. You’re only able to grow these low value crops, again like maize and potatoes. Which is why farmers make up the largest percentage of those living in poverty. The cycle that that creates is really difficult for them, because they then don’t have any disposable income, which means they can’t go get a loan from a bank, which means they can’t invest in assets that increase their incomes in the medium or long-term, which means they don’t have any disposable income to invest in the consumer market. This cycle continues where there’s a large group of people that one can’t participate in the consumer market, but more importantly can’t really help lift themselves out of poverty. Just by creating a financial product that allows them to pay over time, we’ve now unlocked the market for so many more people.

Bill Nussey:

Some of the solar home systems which are more lighting and television oriented I’ve noticed that they have little keypads and they are able to pay for the electricity in small increments by using the very prevalent mobile banking that Africans have access on their telephones. Do you guys use some kind of mobile banking to facilitate those payments?

Samir Ibrahim:

Yes we do. Mobile money has been such an amazing way to help distributed energy leapfrog in these markets. Because the operational complexity of moving money around with very disparate customers was removed. Mobile banking has been an amazing bit of product

Bill Nussey:

This is an amazing context for the market need the people whose lives it’s impacting, and frankly the business model that makes it work. Let’s talk about the product itself. What exactly do these systems do?

Samir Ibrahim:

Our system is a distributed small solar system that powers appliances. What it looks like is we have a solar panel that goes on the roof of our customers’ houses, solar panels as big as me. No one can see me right now, but it’s a human-sized solar panel that goes on the roof-

Bill Nussey:

Which is much larger than some of the smaller home systems those might be two or three feet.

Samir Ibrahim:

This is a 300 watt solar panel. It goes and it connects to a battery, and our battery system is the most powerful off-grid energy management system for rural customers right now in the continent.

Bill Nussey:

Wow.

Samir Ibrahim:

We had to build a battery system to power water pumps, which requires a lot of power. Just by nature of having to design it for high powered appliances, we just happened to have a very strong battery. Now the interesting thing about it-

Bill Nussey:

People call me battery Bill, so the battery nerd in me I just have to ask are you guys using lead acid or lithium-ion? Sorry for the digression.

Samir Ibrahim:

Lithium-ion and we’re exploring changing chemistries because in West Africa temperatures get really hot and our battery works and we’re working in West Africa right now, but in order for us to expand unconditionally in West Africa, we need to change the chemistry of our battery to be able to sustain the heat, the temperatures that are reached in West Africa. Right now lithium-ion but exploring other chemistries. Now by nature-

Bill Nussey:

Thank you for that quick digression from saving the world into battery chemistry, but back to saving the world.

Samir Ibrahim:

Battery Bill I didn’t know, that I’m going to call you battery Bill that’s amazing. That battery you then plug in appliances into. Similar to how we plug appliances into our wall, this battery serves as the main power source for our farmers’ households. Now, because we have such a strong battery we’re able to for the first time in the off-grid solar space in Africa, power appliances both for the farm and the household from the same system. Now, historically customers would have to buy one battery system for their lights and their TVs, and another system for their water pumps for example. With our system we can plug in our water pump, which we install down into a well and that comes with all of the piping and cables and sprinklers and drip irrigation needed to help them flourish from an agriculture perspective.

Samir Ibrahim:

But it also comes with four lights, comes with two phone charging ports, and we can add on a 32 inch TV, and that can all be powered at the same time. We really look at our system is being able to help improve the quality of life, not only from an agricultural income and productivity perspective, but also quality of life at home. What we have found is that by bundling these products it’s been a much easier way to sell to people. Because like you and me, we don’t want two separate things, we’d rather have one thing to be able to do it all. I think that’s where the magic of the iPhone came into play. We’re trying to take a similar approach of how do we design a core product, core infrastructure that we can then build on versus having disparate infrastructure for our customers.

Speaker 1:

Which would you rather have? A home lit by kerosene lamps that fill the air with smoke, or lit by electricity from a clean source like solar and batteries? For some 770 million people living in Sub-Saharan Africa, access to affordable, reliable electricity is a challenge. But thanks to the work of companies like SunCulture, more and more people are realizing the benefit of clean, local, small scale off-grid solar energy systems, and the dramatic impact on their lives may surprise you. Yet the off-grid solar sector is often asked whether the energy it provides is powerful enough, or if the product itself create meaningful change. In a fascinating three-year study published in late 2020, the Global Off-Grid Lighting Association or GOGLA set out to quantify the impact that small-scale local off-grid solar-powered systems are having on individuals, families and communities.

Speaker 1:

We’ve provided a link to the study in our show notes on freeingenergy.com, but here are some highlights that should raise an eyebrow. 28% of households in East Africa report generating additional income thanks to their solar home system. 64% of customers in East Africa and 75% in West Africa report they feel they have more money available since purchasing their home solar system. Nearly all study participants in East and West Africa report an overall improvement in the quality of their lives and a similar number say they feel safer. These small-scale solar systems are doing more than just providing light. Sales of solar-powered TVs, fans, refrigerators and water pumps have reached record highs in the regions studied. As we are learning today, SunCulture is helping to transform the lives of small holder farmers, increasing economic activity and helping end economic poverty by addressing energy poverty. Now back to Bill and Samir to learn even more about the work SunCulture is doing, and how the company took shape.

Samir Ibrahim:

Energy poverty is important because it causes economic poverty. While I very much believe and value and appreciate all of the work being done in the off-grid space to provide people with lighting services and entertainment services, I think if we’re going to solve some of these really big problems in the world like climate change, like food insecurity, like just billions of people living in poverty, I think we need to think about energy as a pathway towards providing services that help increase the productivity of low-income rural farmers, while at the same time protecting them against climate shocks.

Samir Ibrahim:

Because those two things, like I said they go hand in hand. So yes, productive use has become a very much more well-known term right now. Productive use for anyone who’s listening and curious it defines energy used to make or help people become more productive, so whether that’s making more money or saving time or doing more work. That often translates into the intersection of energy and agriculture, because most folks living in emerging markets who are living in the rural areas who need these distributed solar systems work in farming. Productive use has been used very often in the intersection of energy and agriculture.

Bill Nussey:

There’s an amazing story in US history in the 1930s, and I’m reading a book called High Tension, which talks about the politics and also the impact is American electrification occurred. It’s a really interesting book. They went after… The stories about President Roosevelt championing these rural farmers in America who had no electricity, and were living in many ways not unlike some of the folks out where you live. The difference electrification made to their lives and ultimately to the country was really profound. I think you are in a very entirely new and better set of technologies, in a much more entrepreneurial and fast-moving way are bringing that same promise to parts of the world that desperately need it.

Samir Ibrahim:

You know what’s interesting about the US in the 1930s is that within two decades you went from 10% of farms being electrified in the Us to 90%. A big part of that was subsidies. It becomes really interesting that we’re not necessarily reinventing the whole wheel with what we’re doing, we’re applying it and with the new technology in a new geography with a lot more stories. It’s our job to adapt that to the time and geography that we’re in.

Bill Nussey:

Well said sir, well said.

Samir Ibrahim:

Thank you.

Bill Nussey:

What’s one of the biggest lessons that you’ve learned as an entrepreneur?

Samir Ibrahim:

One of the biggest challenges that I have faced, and I know a lot of entrepreneurs face, a lot of my friends have faced, is looking at awards and media and what you see as the tip of the iceberg for so many other businesses, and judging yourself based off of that. Man, that is hard. Intellectually you know that that’s just the tip of the iceberg because if those sort of statistics came out about your own company, you know that there’s so much going on beneath that no one would be able to understand. Yet I’ve almost compared myself and SunCulture to just the tip of the iceberg of so many companies before, that you just one never know what’s going on beneath, and two, I’ve seen time and time again companies and entrepreneurs that I have put on such high pedestals completely tumble.

Samir Ibrahim:

What I thought I knew about them I really didn’t know. What’s becoming a skill that I’m trying to develop, and you’re helping me develop this, is to put things into perspective and just really focus on what I’m doing. It’s almost sort of you need to know what’s going on, but there’s a value in having blinders on as well. Because a lot of what you’ll see is just bullshit, it’s not really what’s going on. I think the lesson is that what you see is never everything, and these journeys are so long. I think the phrase is it’s never over till the fat lady sings. Not that this is a competition, but just comparing yourself and where you are as a company versus what you read in a newspaper, in a blog post or online or something is just never right because this journey is so much longer and has more depth than just what you read in the media.

Bill Nussey:

I like to say that it’s a black hole to compare yourself to your competitor’s press releases.

Samir Ibrahim:

Yes.

Bill Nussey:

I’ve said that for years, and it’s very easy like you said, to get caught up in the glitz. Sadly I think it’s a slight digression, but to comment society as a whole I think social media has allowed not just businesses to suffer that vicious cycle you’ve described, but individuals who they look at the theoretical lives of people on Instagram. It’s nothing like that at all. I think that your insights on focusing on your own journey, learning where you can from others, but staying away from that comparison black hole man, I think that’s a great piece of advice. One that I think we can all me included could really focus on. Thank you for sharing.

Samir Ibrahim:

No, thank you. I brought this to you a few months ago and I was talking about the challenges I had with this particular issue. You said something like, “Samir, do you really know a lot of people that are doing X, Y, or Z,” whatever I was saying, “Or are you just looking at the media?” I was like, “I think I’m just looking at the media.” You were like, “Well, that’s the problem.” It’s a hard one, and I think the earlier people can figure that out, and I haven’t figured it out yet, but that’s a huge saving grace later on.

Bill Nussey:

So one of the hardest parts about being an entrepreneur, well there’s actually a lot of really hard parts, but one of the hard parts is raising money, and it’s the one that appears most mystical and daunting to folks that haven’t done it yet. I’ve raised a lot of money, and I know many people that have. You’ve not only raised a lot of money, but you’ve done it by not necessarily tapping the Sand Hill crowd that so many people typically think of as investors. Tell us about how you’ve raised money and what have you shared, particularly as you’re going after funders who are interested in the broader missions like SunCulture is going after?

Samir Ibrahim:

Raising money in emerging markets takes a lot longer than in some of the more mature venture markets. You have a lot of first-time venture investors, you have a lot of first-time entrepreneurs, you have a lot of first-time markets being addressed. A lot of firsts, and that combines into longtime fundraising. I have friends in the US who will send out an email saying they’re raising money and they’ll get a term sheet in three weeks, and they’ll close around funding within two months kind of thing. For us it’ll take-

Bill Nussey:

By the way it’s not always been like that but it’s crazy.

Samir Ibrahim:

Yeah I’ve heard. Right now in emerging markets it’ll take months, a year more to raise money. We’ve had to sort of… I really want that to change and I think that will change and we can talk about the ways and why it needs to change, but it just takes a lot longer. You just start your process really early. You need to make sure that you’re keeping in touch with investors regularly sharing what’s going on, but really understand, this is for all entrepreneurs, what you need money for and why. We’ve raised money from donors, from lenders, from equity investors. We will always need money from donors, lenders and equity investors throughout SunCulture’s life.

Samir Ibrahim:

But we need different types of money for different things at different times. Having a really good understanding of what money we need when has helped us raise money from the type of people that we need to. It’s just really understanding this not only your company story, but the story around why you need what. It’s just a whole mix of people. Maybe we don’t have access to a Sand Hill crowd yet, but we have access to so many different types of funders that we have a really interesting puzzle to put together of who has what money for what, and how do we put that together? That’s been a really interesting difference in raising money where we work than maybe in the US for example.

Bill Nussey:

One of the things I take away from that, when I say this you and I were talking about the Sand Hill crowd, we mean Sand Hill Road where most of the Silicon Valley venture capitalists are based, just for folks that didn’t know that reference. But I think one of the things that I’m hearing as a theme through our conversation today Samir, is that you have an uncanny awareness of what your business is doing, where it fits in with your customers and where it is in its life cycle. That self-awareness as a business, as a leader in your business unlocks so many things. It unlocks better products, it unlocks access to capital.

Bill Nussey:

I think that instead of the let’s build it and they will come, you have a very first principles bottoms up approach that enables every part of your business. That’s probably, as I hear you talk about it, one of the reasons I so enjoy listening to you and learning from you, because you have even though I don’t think of you as a pure engineeringly minded person, but you have a structured way of thinking about what you’re doing that has huge dividends which are not always obvious, and maybe not the most common skillset out there, and certainly one that’s not heralded for the success I think it can create.

Samir Ibrahim:

Thank you.

Bill Nussey:

You’re a great testament to that. Let’s wrap up with what we put all of our esteemed guests through, the four lightning round questions. These are fun, get your timer ready. We had a recent guest answered the questions each one with two words. That’s a high bar, low bar but here we go. What excites you most about being in the clean energy industry?

Samir Ibrahim:

I think it’s the entry point and gateway to a more equitable and more sustainable and more prosperous and happier future.

Bill Nussey:

Bingo. If you could wave a magic wand and see one thing changed on the transition to clean renewable energy, what would it be?

Samir Ibrahim:

Better coordination of capital. Fewer small checks, much more large checks coordinated with funders.

Bill Nussey:

Bingo. What do you think will be the single most important change in how we generate, store and distribute electricity in the next five years?

Samir Ibrahim:

I’ll speak from an emerging markets perspective, and from specifically right now a Sub-Saharan Africa perspective. I think it’s going to be all in the operations. How do companies get to scale? I think that there is a lot of money waiting to enter the types of businesses that SunCulture is, but we need to prove that we can efficiently allocate that money. I think in the next five years the biggest shift in that capital allocation is going to be can companies prove they could scale operationally and with the right back-end infrastructure to manage that scale? I think that’ll change the entire game for emerging markets and rural folks in those emerging markets.

Bill Nussey:

Final question, when someone comes to you and says I’m inspired by what you’re doing, using electrification to fundamentally change people’s lives across emerging parts of the world. They say they want to do something, what do you tell them?

Samir Ibrahim:

First thing to do is figure out how to get a hands-on experience. If you can afford to get to the field do that, if you can’t talk to people about their experience in the field. Try to talk to small farmers for example, because you need to fully understand what’s going on before you take a step in a direction. There are a million different ways you can go. You will have choice fatigue very quickly. But by fully understanding what’s going on getting into the field, that’ll give you the answers you’re looking for.

Bill Nussey:

Thank you so much Samir. Thank you for being my friend and thank you for sharing your story today.

Samir Ibrahim:

Thank you for your friendship and your mentorship, I very much appreciate it and value it.

Speaker 1:

Thank you for joining us today. You have been listening to the Freeing Energy podcast, personal stories from the clean energy movement. To learn more about the Freeing Energy Project, visit our website freeingenergy.com. Subscribe to the Freeing Energy podcast on Apple podcast, Spotify, Google podcast and anywhere podcasts are found. Make sure more people learn about clean local energy by rating and reviewing the show on Apple podcast.

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