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Patrick Ngowi: Helvetic Group

Patrick Ngowi: Helvetic Group

Patrick Ngowi tells Queen’s Young Leaders about recognising opportunity and giving back

It’s not every day that you hear of an African youth running a business with revenues of $7 million a year.

On a continent with all but one of the world’s youngest countries by population, seeing young people take the lead in economic activities makes it possible to hope for a more prosperous society. The number of such entrepreneurs is increasing and diversifying into various sectors including agriculture, ICT, science and solar energy.

Patrick Ngowi is a Tanzanian entrepreneur who started his first business when he was 15 because he “just wasn’t satisfied with only studying”.

“I longed to apply myself. I was restless. I got inspired by stories of entrepreneurs that made a difference. This drove me to ask my parents give me a chance at entrepreneurship and they did. I come from a very humble background but my mother was able to spare $50, which I had to manage well.”

Recognising opportunity

At that time, the year 2000, most people in Patrick’s neighbourhood had to travel a long way to top up the credit on their mobile phones. So – recognising an opportunity – Patrick invested his mother’s $50 in phone top-up vouchers. As a school boy, still “glued to his studies”, he didn’t have time to sell the vouchers himself, so he recruited fuel pump attendants in local garages to sell them for him, and made about $5 a day.

Of all the world’s continents, Africa has the longest supply of sunlight because so much of it is equatorial. This means about 75% of Africa gets on average 325 days of sunlight each year. Capitalising on this natural and renewable resource, Patrick started Helvetic Solar in 2007, aged 22, with another loan from his mother.

“Being a teacher from rural Tanzania she could only afford to give me US$1,800 as startup capital but this was crucial and life changing.”

Patrick worked alone, climbing up onto roof tops to install one solar panel at a time.

“I made sure every client got value for their investment and, most importantly, was satisfied.”

This commitment to customer satisfaction worked in Patrick’s favour and would prove key to his later success. He didn’t have a budget for marketing, but satisfied clients became “ambassadors” for the company.

“You should start small,” Patrick advises, “with lean operations, and scale up as you go along.”

Being ready for opportunity

Word of mouth is often said to be the best form of marketing and in 2010, when another opportunity presented itself, Helvetic Solar already had a good track record and plenty of former clients to recommend it.

“We saw the demand for service sky-rocket and that was purely because there was power rationing in Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda.”

Looking back now, Patrick says he can see how his “ambassadors” worked in his favour. “More and more walk-in clients came. We got the high-end clients coming to us. We got the rural clients. So as a model, we adapted a method of dealing with all parts of the pyramid.”

To date, Helvetic Solar Contractors has installed more than 3,000 solar water heating systems in government institutions and UN projects including schools, hospitals and hotels. This is in addition to solar power contracts the company is executing in other East African countries such as Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda.

At 30 years old, Patrick is Group Chairman of Helvetic Solar Contractors (HSC), Light for Life Foundation (L4Lf) and owns a controlling stake in other companies that are part of the Helvetic Group (HG).

“As an entrepreneur,” he says, “I have had to learn many things. I think the game changer was learning how to diversify and getting the right people to manage our various ventures.”

Light for Life

Patrick credits much of his success to his family, especially his mother, who is now the chairperson of the Light for Life Foundation (L4Lf) – a non-profit initiative by Helvetic Solar that “aims to give back”.

Light for Life Foundation

Six hundred million Africans have no access to electricity – 200 million in urban areas and 400 million in rural areas.

HSC has designed and produces a portable solar kit for people in remote areas who have no access to electricity. The solar kit provides basic lighting for homes as well as phone charging capability.

Patrick says, “If properly adapted it has the ability of changing rural Africa when it comes to lighting. It’s a quick solution. And it’s long lasting.”

HSC installs these without charge, targeting mainly rural women along with primary and secondary schools.

“Our Light for Life Foundation has taught me a lot, helping youth and women in improvised communities is priceless. I am inspired and humbled.”

Women with solar panels

Learning from failure

However, as well as learning from his success, Patrick says it’s important to learn from failure.

“Many societies look down upon failure and those going through challenges. I see it as an opportunity to evolve. I started early, failed many times but had to learn to get back up.”

His message for Queen’s Young Leaders?

“Be ready to learn, even if it’s through failure or what may appear to be endless challenges.”

In 2013, Patrick Ngowi was listed by New African Magazine as one of 100 most influential Africans. He was named by Forbes Magazine as one of the “30 Most Promising Young Entrepreneurs in Africa” in both 2013 and 2014, and in 2014 was included on CNN’s list of Africa’s top entrepreneurs,

Very few young people of his age have achieved this success. But Patrick stays humble and committed to his work. He attributes his achievements to “discipline, trustworthiness, focus, working hard but smart” and the strength of his faith. With young leaders such as Patrick Ngowi, it is safe to say that young people are the leaders of today, not tomorrow.

Article by Given Edward