POWER PLAYER IN WEST AFRICA

MY BEYOND SILICON VALLEY INTERVIEW WITH NICOLE POINDEXTER

Nicole Poindexter is a rare breed of innovator. She has the experience, vision, team, and products to solve one of the world’s most vexing problems — first-time access to electricity for 1 billion people. The Houston-bred daughter of a lawyer and a surgeon (who also took some turns as an entrepreneur), Nicole received her undergrad degree from Yale and her MBA from Harvard Business School, worked as an investment banker, and served as director of economic development in the Mike Bloomberg mayoral administration in New York City. She came to the energy sector when she served as senior director at an energy firm and founded an energy-industry conference.

She co-founded and leads Energicity, a solar-powered, mini-grid company serving West Africa. Here’s my interview with Nicole, who told me about her big vision for literally empowering West Africans, “This doesn’t feel like a choice. It feels like my purpose.”

Joe: Can you tell my readers where you are right now?

Nicole: I’m in Kumasi, the second-largest city in Ghana, home of the Ashanti empire, which has a proud and amazing history. I’m in the bed and breakfast where I’ve spent a lot of time over four years.

Joe: What does Energicity do?

Nicole: We provide communities with tiny solar energy grids. We’re a mini Con Edison. We produce electricity and sell it to customers. We have smart meters that calculate how much electricity customers use, and the customers pay on a prepaid basis. Although it varies by country, for the most part, we pay a minimal licensing fee to governments in countries where we operate. Because most governments are very interested in having private-sector investors serve this vital need, the licenses may cost merely hundreds of dollars.

Joe: Why did you do your first project in Ghana?

Nicole: I was Facebook friends with a Ghanaian from my undergrad days. I saw that Ghana was having power crises and messaged him that I was considering coming to Africa to look into the problem. I asked him if it made sense for me to come to Ghana.

“Absolutely!” he said.

My co-founder and I started Energicity in March 2015 and completed our first Ghanaian project that October. Since then, we’ve won contracts to expand to Sierra Leone, and we’re expanding to Nigeria and Benin.

Joe: Tell me about entrepreneurship in Ghana.

Nicole: Everything here is difficult, especially the bureaucracy. The basic level of infrastructure doesn’t exist. One example — it took me 45 minutes to complete a single banking transaction today; our banking platform never works well. Another example — a year ago, we were visiting customers in a community we serve. The road is completely washed out for four months each year. We decided to try to drive through, got stuck, and ended up walking the rest of the way. That type of thing happens all the time.

On the other hand, the environment and people are incredibly dynamic. People make money by constantly hustling — buying and selling things all the time. They’re farmers, and everybody here is an entrepreneur. That spirit and drive are present in everyone.

When it comes to electricity and energy access, there’s tremendous fluidity; the rules haven’t been made. It offers an awesome opportunity to shape regulation in ways that ensure a good, strong energy industry for years.

Joe: Is there infrastructure to support an early stage company — things like telephone service, utilities, and labor?

Nicole: We’ve managed to find everything we need. None of it works exactly the way you’d want. But in Ghana and Sierra Leone, we’ve got phone service, albeit, no water service (so we have to buy water in tanks). In all these places, there are lawyers.

Joe: Oh, good, I’m so glad there are lawyers! Tell me, does a government agency have oversight over you?

Nicole: The regulation environment varies by country. When I first showed up, Ghana was in the midst of a power crisis called “dumsor.” Lights across the country were off for 12 hours and then on for 12, which made everyone crazy. The regulators were very enthusiastic about our adding capacity to the power sector.

“We’ll create this new pilot structure so you can solve this problem,” they (basically) said.

Joe: Was there a strategic decision to go to Ghana first, and if so, why?

Nicole: It was entirely opportunistic. I briefly did a market screening exercise and discovered that Ghana was in the top-10 markets for starting an energy access business in Africa. I considered several factors in my screening — population size, general health and safety, terrorism, and corruption index. Ghana is safe, big enough, and has relatively low levels of corruption, so it seemed like a good place to check out the opportunity.

Nicole Poindexter with her Energicity team. Image shows four people in Ghana.

Joe: Every young company has HR challenges — what are yours?

Nicole: We have found people with business talent that’s right up there with the talent of many people I’ve hired in the US. However, many West Africans possess talent that, compared to the US, is raw. For instance, we have a really great construction head who is smart and knows the business, but having grown up speaking Ewe and Twi (two local languages) and graduating from a local high school in Ghana, his English writing particular is shaky. It sometimes is really difficult for me to understand what he’s trying to tell me. I found English language workbooks to help raise his English skills to a level where he can realize the rest of his potential with us. Here, you have to look at how to develop people based on raw talent, which differs from how things are done in the US.

The head of Andela told me something I appreciate, “If you believe talent is distributed equally across the world, there’s real talent here; it’s just a matter of finding it.”

Joe: You’re offering a fabulous professional opportunity for a young person in Ghana.

Nicole: Exactly! We have a clear mission, and our employees are excited that they can participate in something meaningful to people in their country, which gives us choices. My co-founder, Joe Philip, the vice president of engineering and operations, is an amazing engineer. Most of the people we hire are desperate to learn from him. Lastly, we have a unique culture. Joe and I are laid-back, rigorous, and quirky, all at once; we have a lot of fun. In post-colonial countries like Ghana, this is an atypical work environment. While we do not have a pool table, we’re a little bit “Silicon Valley,” whereas, most other companies here are a bit United-Nations-like, with a government-style bureaucracy in even the smallest of offices.

Joe: How are communications with Ghanaians? It sounds like a real challenge.

Nicole: It is. I’ve had to become proficient at reading emotions. For instance, we were at a community meeting talking about kilowatt hours, a concept only people with a lot of experience with energy understand. One of the community members, a fisherman, wanted to build a cold chain that included freezers throughout the region. This was a very sophisticated operation he was describing, he knew his trade extremely well, but we speak different languages — me English, him Twi — as well as business languages.

He said, “We’re villagers, and you’re talking about selling us kilowatt hours. How are we supposed to understand that?”

One of my staff continued to try to explain the concept of kilowatt hours, which confused everyone.

Reading the body language, I interrupted: “I know this is confusing, but we’re going to be with you, and we will work with you.

Reading the body language, I interrupted: “I know this is confusing, but we’re going to be with you, and we will work with you.

With that, he relaxed — you could see it, physically. My clear commitment of actual support made a huge difference. I’ve had to learn how to watch and read these feelings in meetings because I don’t know exactly what people are trying to communicate.

West Africa, including Ghana, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, and Benin, where Energicity has or will have a presence.

Joe: What’s your lead time for delivering energy to a community?

Nicole: Three weeks, from the day we start construction to the day the lights go on. The period running up to that can vary in length, depending on the market.

In some markets, like Sierra Leone, the government said, “You get these 32 communities and a concession for them for 20 years.”

This meant we didn’t have to convince the community — we just showed up and said, “We’re your provider.”

In most countries, we work toward community buy-in. Convincing communities doesn’t take long. What takes time, especially in harvest season, is that we require about 60 percent of the community to sign up — that equates to sufficient demand to support the fixed asset of the grid. Despite our small sign-up fee, if it’s before the harvest and people don’t have a lot of cash, they may need a few months to get the money together.

Joe: How do you bill them?

Nicole: Daily. They pay using an SMS message.

Joe: What keeps you up at night?

Nicole: Raising money. There have been times where our bank balance has been a thousand dollars. We’re like, “Alright… how do we make this work?”

My second concern is personnel issues. Do we keep this person, do we let them go? If we let them go, how are we doing to deliver on commitments?

The last thing, we’ve got too much business… Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Benin… it’s a lot, but not the worst problem to have.

Joe: If you had it to do over again, what would you do differently?

Nicole: Get a better truck. I bought a used truck, and we drive our trucks hard here. I had to replace the engine three times. After that third time, I finally figured out what was going on. It turns out, when they repair vehicles here, they always repair them with old parts. I hadn’t known that.

Trucks have huge operational impacts on businesses here. You know the “broken windows” effect in a neighborhood, where small things that are broken and out of place give permission to a bigger culture of dysfunction? That applies here with a company’s operating vehicle. I want my team to aspire to excellence, and they want it, too, and then we’ve got this crappy truck, which is the antithesis of excellence.

I want my team to aspire to excellence, and they want it, too, and then we’ve got this crappy truck, which is the antithesis of excellence.

The truck is emblematic; it speaks to how we’re trying to create a new culture. Having things that are inconsistent with that culture is a problem.

Joe: What advice do you have for American entrepreneurs and innovators from your experience in Ghana?

Nicole: One word: listen. Part of listening is being data-driven. Joe and I have technical experience and training in, and exposure to business, which we developed in the US, but all of that American training is relevant and will generate money only if we can apply it to the context in which West Africans are living. The only way we can do that is if we listen, talk, and engage.

Joe: What’s something Ghanaian entrepreneurs do better than American entrepreneurs?

Nicole: They don’t give up. They’ll hustle until they drop.

They don’t give up. They’ll hustle until they drop.

And they have businesses that matter. Businesses here are about innovations like how to deliver water. Another company here is delivering vaccines using drones. These businesses are immediately and very clearly improving people’s lives. It inspires me to remember that innovation is best when it is fundamentally about building businesses that matter to the improvement of people’s lives in very meaningful ways.

Joe: I agree wholeheartedly and hope my readers do, as well! Nicole, thank you — this has been fabulous!

Nicole: Thank you!

Readers, I have to admit I became so interested in Nicole’s business that I also asked her a lot of investor-type questions. Our conversation on that matter is fascinating (if I do say so myself). I have put that part of our conversation in a separate article. Next week, I’ll post that follow-up article, which dives deeper into the operational and financial aspects of delivering power to people who need it.

For now, here are links to additional articles about Energicity, Black Star Energy, and Nicole Poindexter’s work in West Africa.

The Race to Solar-Power Africa” by Bill McKibben, The New Yorker. June 2017.

“Energy Is Life!” by editors at the American Energy Society

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Entrepreneur, angel investor, board director, university lecturer, and writer.

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