Scope#29 | WASSHA

Turning on the Light in Africa

In Tundwi, an off-the-grid village located within a 90-minute drive from Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s largest city, people used to rely on candlelight or the flickering flame of a kerosene lamp after sunset, until a few years ago.

“Children didn’t use to study at night because it was dangerous for them to use a kerosene lamp,” says an elderly woman sitting on a rug outside of the house with her small grandchildren, who are awaiting dinner. Their young mother is cooking rice over an open fire.

Kerosene lamps that emit harmful black smoke are being replaced with brighter, safer, cleaner, and rechargeable LED lanterns, offered as a rental service by WASSHA, a Japanese startup headquartered in Tokyo. As its name suggests (”wassha” is a Swahili word that means “to light”), the company, currently in collaboration with Marubeni, is lighting Tundwi and areas in the rest of Tanzania that live without access to electricity. According to the International Energy Agency, the power grid reaches only 32.8 percent of the nation’s entire population.

The elderly woman and her family now use WASSHA’s lantern, a portable light that has a strap and a USB port. They hang it on a pillar while cooking and eating. They carry it when they walk to the toilet that is also outside of the house. Her grandchildren read at night. After the light is turned off, they use the lantern to recharge their mobile phones. “We’ve tossed out our kerosene lamp,” she said.

Villagers pay 500 shillings, equivalent to 20 US cents, to rent an LED lantern for a night, less than what they used to spend on the kerosene lamp and the recharging of their mobile phones combined. If there are no battery-recharging stations nearby, people walk for miles to the one that is closest to their village. Despite the lack of electricity, 43.6 million people in Tanzania (76 percent of the population) have mobile phones, according to the Tanzania Communications Regulatory Authority.

Digital Technology Enables Off-Grid Solutions.

WASSHA’s lantern rental service is operated by kiosk owners selling foods and other necessities, and the company calls them “agents.” This is a good side business because agents receive commissions every month, and they don’t have to pay the initial cost. Bakari Suleiman, who was selling vegetables and fish at his little kiosk in Tundwi, became an agent in 2015. “I wanted to help others to get safe lighting for their homes and businesses,” Suleiman says. “And I also wanted to earn extra income.” The WASSHA service has indeed doubled the sales of his kiosk, allowing him to buy some adjacent land.

The company provides each new agent with a “WASSHA Starter Kit”: 30 LED lanterns, a 60-kilowatt solar panel to generate electricity and a smartphone with the WASSHA app installed. In order to recharge the lanterns, the agents buy “airwatt” through the app using mobile money, a payment system using SMS, which is prevalent in East Africa.

This app is connected to the company’s online dashboard, which enables WASSHA to monitor agents’ sales and other day-to-day operations. Armed with these digital tools, the company can also remotely control the devices; the timer-controlled lanterns become automatically locked after 15 hours of use, and the agents need to enter a passcode to unlock them. Passcodes are sent to their phones upon purchase of airwatt.

“Make Profits, and Sow That Back Into Society”

WASSHA launched its business in Tanzania in 2015 with a handful of people including Tatsuki Yoneda, the company’s Chief Operating Officer. It now has 120 employees working in Dar es Salaam and other locations. As of May 2019, 1,100 Starter Kits have been installed across Tanzania, Yoneda says, adding that the company aims to increase the number to 2,500 by the end of the year. Expanding the network of kiosks is key to ensuring stability of the company’s revenues which comes from the sale of airwatt.

Despite its ambitious goal, WASSHA carefully selects its agents and it has even developed an app for this purpose. Its marketing officers must use this app at the end of each visit to a prospective agent; they answer 20 questions, and the app automatically assesses the candidate’s personal qualities as well as the size of the economy of their business territory. Before they had this app, MOs were more prone to rely on intuition, which risks inconsistencies in decision making. “About one third of the candidates are removed from the list because they fail to meet our criteria,” Yoneda says. “We are trying to recruit only diligent people, who demonstrate good business sense.”

Yoneda emphasizes the fundamental difference between the role of WASSHA, a private company, and that of non-government or non-profit organizations. “We must make profits, increase the value of our business, and sow that back into society,” he says. “We believe that this will contribute to the sustainable growth of Africa.”

“Our Lanterns Really Changed Their Lives.”

Marubeni ventured into the community-based power business in August 2018 by investing in WASSHA. As part of its long-term commitment, Marubeni also provides WASSHA with human resources. Tetsuya Okiyama is a Marubeni employee currently working with WASSHA as its business development manager.

In his previous role at Marubeni, Okiyama worked on large-scale projects in Africa and the Middle East, such as the investment to a 2,000-megawatt power plant. In contrast, he now talks to kiosk owners about generating 60 kilowatts of electricity via a rooftop solar panel. Nonetheless, he remains fascinated seeing the visible impact that WASSHA is making on the lives of people.

“A mother said to me, ‘Cooking became an enjoyable thing after I began to use a WASSHA lantern,’” he recalls of an early visit to one of Tanzania’s many villages. Previously, she was cooking in dim light, unable to clearly see the color or shape of ingredients. A vendor at the market, who used to call it a day after dark, told Okiyama that the lantern made it possible for him to work longer and increase his income. “I understood that our lanterns really changed their lives.”

Okiyama’s primary responsibility is bringing lantern-rental services to other countries in Africa, and in Asia, and establishing worldwide expansion structure in WASSHA with support from Marubeni’s global network. He will soon be camping out in Uganda, one of the neighboring countries in which WASSHA plans to conduct a trial run , where he will be doing everything on his own: hunting agents, setting up Starter Kits, and trouble shooting. “I wanted to first get hands-on experience with every step of our operation,” he says. “With that, I should be really able to identify areas for improvement.”

Growing Together With the Company

At WASSHA, people act quickly, and things develop organically. The fishing light, a new product introduced in August of 2018, was developed in under six months, and it started out of necessity. Many complaints were coming from engineers of the office in Mwanza, which covers the Lake Victoria region—home to Tanzania’s largest inland fishery. They were getting numerous broken lanterns from the agents. “We found out that our lanterns were being used for fishing,” says Ally Tambala, the head of operations. “Our lanterns are designed for households, so we came up with the idea of making waterproof lights that are purposefully designed for fishing.”

Under the night sky, local fishermen were using karabai, a kerosene lamp with a glass cover, to be attached to the wooden frame afloat, for the purpose of attracting fish to their nets. Then they discovered WASSHA’s lanterns, which are not suitable for their purposes, but are brighter, cheaper, and safer. Earlier in 2018, Tambala and his team asked local fishermen about the expenses and challenges of night fishing using karabai; one boat needs seven karabai, and the accessory parts such as wicks and metal pins must be replaced every time. Plus, fishermen frequently move their boats during the night to push down the wick of the lamps to make sure it is kept saturated with oil. This consumes a lot of the fuel that is necessary for their boats’ operation.

After a consultation period with the fishermen who used the samples of the new fishing lamp, some adjustments were made and the product was ready for commercial use.

“This company is growing, and I’m growing,” Tambala says. When he joined WASSHA in 2015, there were only eight agents. “I am proud of myself that I started from scratch and that I have been working hard.”

Gloria Bazira, the leader of the group overseeing the coastal zone, joined WASSHA in the same week as Tambala. She enjoys her job not only because the working environment is “more like a family,” but also because the company’s top management allows young leaders like herself to use their own discretion when it comes to making strategic decisions. “That makes me feel that I’m using my intelligence and that I’m developing my career,” she says.

Bazira also likes the fact that WASSHA helps kiosk owners boost their self-esteem. Some agents start to shine after they go through extra training and realize, “This is not just a rental business. I can learn more—how to manage a budget, how to attract more customers.” In some villages, WASSHA agents are well respected and regarded as “someone important,” because the company entrusts them with all the equipment and lanterns. “WASSHA gives them prestige,” Bazira says. “Because they have a company that trusts them.”

Grace Galinoma (affectionately called “Mama Grace”), general manager, joined WASSHA as its first Tanzanian employee after having worked for international institutions including the United Nations Development Programme. “I was excited because I knew what it would mean to have light,” she says referring to Iringa, a southern highland, where she grew up. Near her home, there was a village where there was no electricity. “People just stayed inside and locked themselves up.” Her dream is to see WASSHA’s lanterns being used everywhere in Tanzania. As quality of life improves, “Our mortality rate will drop,” Galinoma says. “Children use our lanterns to study, and they become future leaders.”