Thomas Huth, an Entrepreneurs' Organization (EO) member in Zurich, Switzerland, is founder and CEO of Village Power, which provides off-grid power solutions to improve lives in sub-Saharan Africa. We asked him how his business supports sustainability while still being profitable. Here's what he shared.

If you're reading these words, you're likely doing so on a laptop, tablet or smartphone, and therefore have access to electricity to power your device. So it's shocking to realize that there are more than one billion people worldwide without access to electricity--more than 13 percent of our planet's population.

That's just one reason that the United Nations adopted its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), an ambitious framework of actions to transform our world by 2030. EO partnered with the UN in 2017 to help achieve these goals. But EO helped to inspire my business idea years before.

What inspired you to dedicate yourself to this work?

1.    In 2010, I attended an EO Global University learning event in Cape Town, which exposed me to the vibrant South African business community and inspired me to look for business opportunities in Africa. My decision that this new venture must create positive impact in the world was reinforced at the EO Global University in Amsterdam a year later--my signed copy of "The Amsterdam Entrepreneurs' Manifesto for Change" still hangs in my office.

2.    At the Amsterdam event, I had the opportunity to listen to and chat with Muhammad Yunus, who received the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on microfinancing concepts. We now leverage his powerful idea in our business model.

3.    I believe that every person has the right to a better life and that electricity is a crucial driver in advancing human development and economic growth.

How do you address the lack of electricity in sub-Saharan Africa from an entrepreneurial approach?

In 2014, I founded Village Power Ltd., a for-profit social enterprise with the goal to empower people--by bringing electric power to people--to improve their standard of living. We build last-mile distribution and service networks for solar home systems and energy efficient appliances with a target of empowering 30 million people by 2030.

With headquarters in Switzerland, our main operations are in Uganda, where we operate 13 centers for sales outreach and awareness campaigns, installations and after-sales services. Our broad range of solar home systems addresses the different energy needs of our customers and supports their climb up the energy ladder. We offer flexible payment options to overcome the affordability barrier plus full Mobile Money integration to support our "micro-credit" offering.

Our technicians install the systems, which are backed by a warranty. We employ about 100 local staff members and have electrified 10,000 households and small businesses, providing 60,000 people with direct access to clean, affordable solar energy.

How can supporting the UN SDGs help to transform our world?

Supporting the UN SDGs aligns with my commitment as a social entrepreneur. Our primary focus is around SDG No. 7: Providing affordable and clean energy, but we also create significant impact toward at least seven other goals:

  • SDG No. 1: No poverty 
    From the day our solar systems are installed, clients no longer require kerosene, candles or batteries. Money once spent on fossil fuels is converted into an investment in solar. Once the system is paid off, the customer has available household income. In many cases, this is the first step out of poverty.
  • SDG No. 3: Good health and well-being
    Open flames and fumes from kerosene lamps used in millions of off-grid homes cause eyesight damage, respiratory and cardiovascular diseases and burns. Families fear using mosquito nets near open flames because they catch fire easily--exposing them to mosquito-borne diseases including malaria.
  • SDG No. 4: Quality education
    Reliable, electric light increases studying hours in schools as well as in homes. In rural Africa, children go to school in the morning, help their families in the fields in the afternoon, and get home around 6:30 pm when it is pitch dark. A recent survey showed that our clients' children gain 11 additional studying hours per week due to solar-powered lights, with  84 percent improving their grades significantly. Communities with a solar-powered computer or smartphone with internet access also gain online learning opportunities.
  • SDG No. 5: Gender equality
    Women and girls are especially affected by the negative health effects of kerosene lamps because they spend most of their time indoors. They are also typically responsible for making the long walk to purchase kerosene or charge the family's mobile phone. Solar power provides additional productive hours after sunset, often used for income-generating activities, making women financially more independent. Within Village Power, more than 50 percent of our management are women, which positively impacts families and communities.
  • SDG No. 8: Decent work and economic growth
    The 100 full-time jobs we've created are paid above local market rates and include social security, health insurance, further education and career development opportunities. For our customers, access to electricity can lead to becoming a micro-entrepreneur or starting a small business.
  • SDG No. 11: Sustainable cities and communities
    In addition to private homes and small businesses, we power schools, health centers and other community buildings. We recently installed solar systems in an SOS children's village, which provides homes to orphaned children and those whose families can't provide basic needs.
  • SDG No. 13: Climate action
    Our systems produce 100 percent clean, renewable solar energy  in areas with abundant sunshine. We thereby are reducing global CO2 emissions and helping to slow deforestation.

How does this work impact you as an entrepreneur?

Our challenging, complex venture offers significant opportunity for personal as well as business growth. I am very happy to have found such a fulfilling way to apply my knowledge and experience as an entrepreneur in creating a positive impact.

Supporting the UN SDGs aligns with my core values. I feel it's one of the most important goals a business owner can support: Entrepreneurs are doers, problem-solvers and achievers. If we support this effort wholeheartedly, nothing can stop us from transforming our world!

Published on: Oct 23, 2018
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