Meet The 32 Year-Old Entrepreneur Who Is Building Zimbabwe’s Largest Solar Company

Simbarashe Mhuriro

Simbarashe Mhuriro, 32, is the founder and Managing Director of Oxygen Energy Private Limited, an independent power producer and renewable energy development company that specialises in utility scale power plants and commercial rooftop projects.

Earlier this year, the African Development Bank (AfDB)-managed sustainable energy fund for Africa (SEFA) approved a US$ 965,000 grant to Oxygen Energy Private Limited to support the preparation of a bankable business case for the development of a 20MW off-grid solar photovoltaic rooftop project on buildings owned and managed by Old Mutual Property Group, Zimbabwe’s largest property investment managers. When the project is completed, it will provide reliable and competitive solar power to hundreds of small and medium sized enterprises throughout Zimbabwe.

Mhuriro was listed in the 2016 ranking of the 30 Most Promising Young Entrepreneurs In Africa. He recently spoke to me about Oxygen Africa’s initiatives and its plans for the future.

Tell me a bit about Oxygen Africa

We are an Independent Power Producer and Renewable Energy Development company specialising in both utility scale power plants and commercial scale / rooftop projects.

Our desire is to build a home grown Zimbabwean company renewable energy company that will be build significant market share in its fields. We are in the process of being acquired by a large institutional investor after which will transforming more from an independent power producer to a financing and asset management company for renewable energy projects; a fund of some sort. Our vision is to one day list Oxygen Energy on the Zimbabwe Stock Exchange.

Why Solar?

When brainstorming on which industry Oxygen should focus on and be defined by I looked for a product that fits the following description: is consumed where it is produced, required by all aspects of our lives, there is a clear need/ deficit, provides constant predictable income and its raw materials are easily accessible. Solar in particular provided all of the above including minimum operations and maintenance as the plants have no moving parts and it is very flexible as the plants can deployed anywhere, in different sizes and relatively quickly.

You recently received about $1 million from the African Development Bank to develop bankable business case for the development of a 20MW off-grid solar photovoltaic rooftop project on buildings owned and managed by Old Mutual Property Group. Give us a brief on the project

Oxygen Energy together with Old Mutual Zimbabwe will partner on a 20MW commercial rooftop solar project spread across its entire property portfolio of commercial and industrial buildings at a cost of $28 million dollars. We anticipate that upon completion the project will achieve a net power generation of 32 GWh per year. Given the Grid Emission factor of the interconnected SAPP grid Zimbabwe is part of 0.95 tonnes of CO2 / MWh (almost 1 tCO2/MWh), the CO2 emissions avoided by the project will be 30 000 tonnes / year. We will also save Zimbabwe up to $4.5 million in import substitutions of power per year.

At what stage is the project now?

We are very advanced and close to implementation. We have agreed to debt terms with senior lenders and are we at the final stages of financial closure. We will work with Jabil Energy a subsidiary of Jabil Inc USA and Soventix GMBH Germany as the engineering and construction partners to the project. We have identified the first 6 buildings that will form the pilot in Harare and we look to begin construction once all the contracting is complete.

How has this project been received locally and what impact will it have on Zimbabwe’s renewable energy sector:

The project has received support from the Ministry of Energy & Power Development, National Project Status from The Ministry of Finance & Economic Development and a Climate Action Endorsement from the Ministry of Environment, Water and Climate for driving and championing the following United Nations Sustainable Development Goals: Climate Action (13), Affordable & Clean Energy (7), Decent Work & Economic Growth, Sustainable Cities & Communities (11) and Responsible Consumption & Production (12). This project will also go a long way in achieving the targets of the country’s economic blue print, The Zimbabwe Agenda for Sustainable Socio-Economic Transformation (ZIMASSET), by increasing the amount of energy saved, with the target being 300MW saved by 2018.

Renewable energy has the opportunity to attract foreign FDI or if locally funded substitute the importation of power and the economy cannot grow without reliable sustainable power. There is an opportunity for young men and women to participate right across the value chain of a project from financial & legal advisory, procurement, engineering and construction. I am a big believer in ecosystems where we work in teams to bring a project together, everyone has seat at the table and each plays their position effectively, delivering results.

You recently had the opportunity to brief Russian President Vladimir Putin over your renewable energy projects in Zimbabwe. Tell me more.

I was invited to make an address on African Energy access at the opening ceremony of the 19th edition of the World Festival of Youth & Students organized by the World Federation of Democratic Youth (WFDY), a United Nations-recognized international youth non-governmental organization, jointly with the International Union of Students since 1947 and is the largest gathering of youth and students in the world.

I then had the opportunity to brief the President & his First Deputy Chief of Staff Mr Sergey Kiriyenko on our solar project, ask for more Russian participation in agriculture as they have a massive fertiliser industry that has created billionaires. (See the full transcript on this link from the Presidents Official Website)

What message do you have for budding youth entrepreneurs in Africa especially those interested in renewable energy?

Drive and implement the global sustainable development goals, compliment and support your respective government’s policies and goals in relation to sustainable energy, climate action and the environment. Participate in you countries economic growth; dream big, come up with that big energy idea financiers will flock to. Anything is possible, you never know where your journey will take you. So to my fellow youths everywhere: exchange ideas, forge partnerships, execute those ideas, and never give up.

What do you enjoy the most about being an entrepreneur?

Apart from the usual benefits of being an entrepreneur like making money, doing what you love, being your own boss, hours etc. In my journey I found 5 benefits in particular that I enjoy:

Stand up for what I believe in: I love my country and I believe I am a patriot, being an entrepreneur I find myself constantly standing up against negative perceptions of Zimbabwe, debunking myths and spreading the word how great it is and the opportunities she has. Every time I step in front of a panel of investors, potential partners or international financing institutions it’s like stepping into an arena/ ring and fighting for your country.

Being the bravest of the brave; try being an entrepreneur in a challenging economy like Zimbabwe with sporadic, little or no income, no security. Should you succeed the rewards will be indescribably spectacular.

Better relationships: It’s easy to build false relationships. It’s easy to lose them, too, because as soon as you step outside your comfort zone and encounter the risks I have highlighted above people will leave you and those that stay are the real relationships you need.

Faster adaptation: Have you ever gone to a meeting with 5 to 10 or more people – some like your idea, some don’t understand it, some who want to kill it or give you a hard time? Thus you constantly have to think on your feet, adapt and move fast midway during the meeting. What I lack in size as a small company we make up for in mobility and creativity.

I create my own opportunities and destiny; and in the process you solve problems and hopefully make a difference in the process. With renewable energy you also get to effect change in people’s thoughts and actions.

Why is renewable energy so vital to Africa?

This is also why I got into renewable energy. According to IRENA Africa is undergoing unprecedented and sustained growth. By 2050, the continent will be home to at least 2 billion people – twice as many as today – with 40% living in rural areas.1 In 2010, about 590 million African people (57% of the population) had no access to electricity, and 700 million (68% of the population) were living without clean cooking facilities. If these current energy access trends continue, in 2030 there will still be 655 million people in Africa (42% of the population) without access to power, and 866 million (56% of the population) without clean cooking facilities, depriving the majority of the population of the opportunity to pursue a healthy and productive life.

Research by the Africa Development Bank shows that Africa is rich in renewable resources and could benefit from the increasing use of renewable energy, such as hydro-power (potential estimated around 1,750 TWh) and geo-thermal energy (estimated at 9,000 MW). Over 80% of the continent receives about 2000 kWh per square meter of solar resources per annum for example a solar generating facility covering just 0.3% of North Africa could supply all the energy requirements of the European Union. These energy sources offer a clean alternative to traditional sources of energy, particularly fossil fuels thus a massive opportunity as a business.

Follow me on Twitter @MfonobongNsehe. E-mail: mfon.nsehe(at)gmail.com

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