BY ALLAN JENKINS
When Naeem Mawji, M.Eng 2015, and founder of Jamii Power, talks about bringing sustainable, profitable electricity to rural Tanzania, you
hear the words not of a dreamer, but those of a problem solver.
His message has resonated with audiences at last year’s UBC President’s
Installation Panel Discussion, “Generation Empowered,” and five years ago at
“We are not doing this because we are doing something good. We are
doing this because we think we can. It’s a massive challenge. We want to be
the ones to resolve it, and we believe we are the ones who can resolve it.”
Mawji grew up the son of a civil engineer in Tanzania. He and his younger
brother, Aleem (co-founder of Jamii and now a UBC mechanical engineering
student), spent their school breaks in rural villages with their father, Anil, a
builder of schools, community centre and dams.
“Unlike people from cities, we spent a lot of our childhood in the villages.
We speak Swahili and could absorb the culture. That’s how we were exposed
to the challenges these communities face.
“And, coming from a family of entrepreneurs, we saw opportunities in
these areas, and saw ways to open up possibilities,” says Mawji.
Mawji was also inspired by his Ismaili faith, and particularly the words of
the Aga Khan, who urges the fortunate to touch the less fortunate “with the
spark which ignites the spirit of individual enterprise and determination.”
While an undergrad in chemical engineering at UBC, Mawji started
an electrification project in the village of Masurura, near his home town
of Musoma. The project, called “Kuwasha” (“to ignite” in Swahili), was a
collaboration between the Masurura village, the Musoma District Council,
and the UBC Centre for International Health.
“I grew up during power rationing, and have seen how people in rural
areas use kerosene to illuminate their homes and some of the dangers
associated with that,” says Mawji. “So Aleem and I started Kuwasha to
address the lack of electricity and lighting in small Tanzanian villages.”
Mawji and his brother wanted to prompt interactivity in the village by
using solar power to illuminate the village’s community gathering places.
The project helped “open up time,” in Mawji’s words, so that villagers
could interact outside the working day.
While a success, the project illustrated the limitations of small
electrification projects. Private solar generators only replace one source
of illumination (kerosene) with another. Moreover, they are difficult and
expensive to maintain. Worst, because they are DC-power systems,
useful appliances cannot be hooked to them without more investment.
“We needed a new approach that would give them the same sort of
system any urban person would have,” says Mawji. “We wanted them to
just be able to plug in to have broadly useable electricity.”
The Mawji brothers came up with Jamii
Power, a concept built around a central
33kWp solar plant sufficient to supply
230V AC power to 150–200 village homes. The power plant is modular and can be
installed in just two weeks.
“We build the grid the week before
the container [containing the power plant
and solar panels] shows up, using locally
sourced wires, poles, etc.,” says Mawji.
“Once the container arrives, we set up
the plant, and then use the container as
housing for the plant.”
The Jamii Power model addresses all
the challenges raised in Mawji’s Kuwasha
“First, we supply AC power, so they
can use appliances. Second, we make
the necessary investments in the plant,
depending on demand. And third, our team
handles maintenance, which we can do far
more cheaply than an individual could.”
But the success of the first Jamii Power
project raised scaling issues, which kept the
idea from being a sustainable business. So
Mawji turned to UBC and Sauder for help.
“The issues were not technical so much
as they were social,” says Mawji. “For
example, the community does not have
access to banks or credit, so collecting
revenue is a nightmare once you expand from
a few units to a whole village or many villages.”
Load management was also an issue.
Solar power can only be generated in
daytime and can only be stored in batteries.
There is no way to import power from
another village with a surplus.
“To solve the capacity problem, I wanted
to look at other sources of electricity. So I
joined the UBC Engineering’s Clean Energy
program to learn more about technologies,
such as bio-mass and micro-hydro power, I
could incorporate into the project.
“And I wanted to use the entrepreneurship
track to learn more about the
business side. That’s where Sauder came
in,” says Mawji.
In September 2013, Mawji joined UBC’s
Lean LaunchPad accelerator program:
an intense eight weeks where the ideas
of budding entrepreneurs are ruthlessly
picked apart from every angle.
“[Instructor] Paul Cubbon and
[entrepreneur] Blair Simonite helped us
narrow down to the four key ‘pains’ so
we could explain it to people who are
unfamiliar with Africa and rural electricity.
“The semester after that, I got into
the Technology Entrepreneurship course
taught by Cubbon and [Professor] Thomas
Hellman. And that is where we took the
idea further, getting into the details of what
the Jamii business model would look like,”
Armed with his education from UBC,
Mawji, 28, now works full-time at Jamii
Power in Tanzania, using the firm to also
complete his masters project. Brother
Aleem, who is 21, divides his time between
his UBC engineering co-op work for Teck
Highland Valley Copper in Logan Lake, and
working at a distance on the Jamii project.
Cubbon continues to follow Mawji and
Jamii Power with interest: “Naeem is a UBC
entrepreneur that put his company front
and centre to help solve a major global
societal problem. Sauder and e@UBC
continue to stay in contact with Naeem and
Jamii to support him where possible.
”Naeem is still developing Jamii Power’s
business model, but he is determined to
bring sustainable electrification to the
villages in a way that all parties, not least
Jamii Power, profit and develop. He sees it
as an obligation.”
Mawji reflects: “I believe people
shouldn’t do things because they feel good
about it. They should do it because they
can. Because once you have the ability, you
have the responsibility. If you don’t, you
have denied yourself and the world. Simple
This article originally appeared on the Spring 2015 issue of Viewpoints magazine.