NIWA Solar fights energy poverty in Africa and Asia – Interview with founder and visionary Ti el Attar

Ti el Attar from Niwa
Ti el Attar from Niwa

„Our goal is to fight energy poverty in Africa and Asia.“ says Ti el Attar, founder of NIWA Solar. And he has some facts to tell which might surprise you. Over 1.6 million people are actually „sitting in the dark“ which means they have not enough or no electricity at all. If one might think that energy is not the number one priority when it comes to fight poverty in Africa, Ti came to know via his many travels and personal contacts that lack of energy plays a major role in people’s every day life with serious impact on the ability of economic growth.

So Ti developed a system to end energy poverty in the world. The problem is, as often in developing countries, related to financing. Most people living in rural environments do not even have a choice, but if electricity is available, people have to pay over 250 USD to get an electrical connection, an investment too high for the majority. Also, micro financing and pay-as-you-go are not the best solutions – complex in implementation and too difficult to scale.

NIWA’s approach is a different one: step-by-step investment is the keyword. NIWA offers fully scaleable solar systems which grow with consumer’s evolving needs and fluidity. The approach is a very practicable one, as it is very close to the income realities of farmers, who make a 90% of the clients. Customers flexibly purchase modules over time and grow from one single lamp into a fully electrified home. Deciding only by themselves, how far and at what pace they want to grow and invest. Aiming for a future of solar independence, one step at a time, slowy-slowly – or polle polle, as said in Swahili.


Ti, please tell us shortly about your professional background. What did you learn/study, and why?

Looking back to more than 10 years experience of product development and consumer research for companies like Siemens, Nokia and Samsung in the consumer electronics and medical field. I always worked at the junction where consumer understanding meets technology innovation and product design.


Since when and how did the idea with MSS come up?

Around 6 years ago while working with a research team at Nokia Japan I found myself conducting a qualitative research  study in the slums of Accra / Ghana. At that time people living in the slum opened up my eyes about their everyday challenges and approaches to deal with them. MSS first of all is a cultural product, translating people’s everyday investment behaviour into a product solution.


MaketechX: NIWA_Energy_for_Economic_growth1
MaketechX: NIWA_Energy_for_Economic_growth1

People in Africa need food, need Education, need peace – you say, people in Africa need electric power. Is it really such a big priority in the face of maybe far larger problems Africa is facing right now?

Electricity is one of THE key enablers for economic growth, on the community and national level. Economic growth provides access to to food, better education and wealth which also supports peace. Electricity not only saves up to 30% of families income which they would otherwise spend for kerosene, disposable batteries and fuel for generators but also boosts local businesses. (Not to mention all the great benefits electric light provides to families and kids). So ultimately sustainable energy is a cash machine. Germany first realized that, African and Asian countries follow next in an even smarter and more sophisticated way. Independent, highly cost and energy efficient and completely de-centralized energy home grids are the result not requiring billions of dollars for investment in the national grids. Scale happens from the bottom up, flexible and by people’s on means, pace and preferences. We need to allow families, businesses and governments to set their own priorities. You can be sure electricity always ranges quite high on their list.


Why is energy poverty such a big subject?

We are delighted to experience a unique moment in history: For the first time falling solar prices, higher LED efficiency and 5 year plus battery lifetimes can be realized at a relatively low price level. Those are the ingredients driving innovation for off-grid solar products. Together with the fruits of globalization in particular extremely low transport cost we see an opportunity meeting the energy demand of 1.6 billion people living without electricity in Africa and Asia.


How are you connecting with local partners?

Through friendship, hard work and a common vision. Seriously – the Off-Grid Industry meets through World Bank/ IFCs Lighting Global plattform and we also formed our own association called GOGLA.


What are the biggest difficulties in the work that you do?

The entire industry is facing several financing issues along the line. Most prominent ones are ‘distributor & retailer financing’ and ‘consumer financing’. Second we finally solved through MSS. First one still gives us headaches due to missing financial support to our local partners from finance institutions. But we are confident that they also will wake up one day…


Which obstacles did you anticipate, which ones did surprise you?

I did not anticipate that financing plays such a major role in meeting an omni present market demand. A highly misunderstood fact is: The consumers have the purchasing power and are ready to invest in sustainable energy solutions. But our partners taking the last mile to rural and urban consumers have a very hard time in operation and logistics already – the missing financial support in partly unstable countries comes on top of that. What those countries need are highly innovative and financially strong distribution, retail and after-sale companies. We already teamed up with some of the best in the field. But many countries do no have any in place.


What is the biggest reward in your work?

Seeing people heading into complete energy independence with our products.


How do you know „what people (for example in Africa) want? Do you not just tell them „you need this“ in order to evoque their desire and then make a business out of it?

This is the hardest work: As the only company in the industry our management is conducting all consumer studies by itself in rural villages….Only like this we can guarantee that the essence of the consumer’s assignment is carried through the entire -  often very rigorous – product development process.


How often are you in Africa – and how is working in Africa different from the working circumstances you are used to?

Twice a year. Currently we are building up local production in Ethiopia which might require to be there even more often in the future.


Did you maybe already take on a bit of the „African“ (or Indian) way of life/way of working?

Unfortunately not. But you are right, I should enjoy life a bit more, care more about family and go to bed earlier :)


What are your goals regarding people in developed countries – raise awareness or money? What is your ultimate goal, what do you want to achieve?

The end of energy poverty is our goal for the communities. ‘Business as usual’ is the target for the working relationship with local partners. The west has to finally realize that Africa is ready for business and tired of being treated as a patient. Africa and many Asian countries deserve the same chance as China.


and: Why is your company called NIWA, what does it mean?

NIWA means ‘the future of solar energy’ in every language of this planet.


Ti, thank you very much for your time!


MSS – Modular Solar Systems by NIWA