Business and Finance
a ugandan businessman in Chicago Launches Solar Ovens in Uganda
Earlier this year, Ronald Mutebi, a Ugandan entrepreneur living in the US, won a substantial grant through the African Diaspora Marketplace award. His plans are to introduce solar ovens to his native Uganda. In an exclusive interview with The Promota, he shares his experiences living in the Diaspora and his hopes for the future of Africa.
The Promota: What has been your experience living in the Diaspora?
Ronald Mutebi: My experience has generally been positive, especially in the United States, though there have been some negatives along the way. Before I started travelling to western countries, I used to admire and wish for everything portrayed about the West. However, after I started my travels, I came to appreciate the richness we have in our own country that I had taken for granted all along. I miss some of the cultural values from home. But I have high appreciation for what this new home has afforded me. If you dream and work hard towards your dream, you are almost guaranteed to realise it. Other advantages are the entrepreneurial spirit and attitude coupled with the supporting mechanisms and resources readily available.
RM: It was registered officially in 2003, when I was awarded my first contract to install high speed internet portals in the Chicagoland area for Northpoint Communications. One of the requirements was that I had to be a registered company.
At what point did you realise you needed to venture into the solar cooking ovens?
RM: The solar cooking technology came through my community service involvement. When I was still in Uganda, I was a Red Cross life member. When I came to the USA, I looked for the Red Cross club to join, but I soon found that in America, it is not as grassroots an organisation as it is in Africa. And the only closest match was the Rotary Clubs. It’s through Rotary that I came to learn about the Cooking Solar Oven.
My idea to look at it as a business venture came when I observed what problems Rotary encountered when it tried to donate the ovens to the clubs in Uganda. Some projects were killed by the bureaucracy and lack of understanding of this technology, its impact and benefits to the people who need it the most. That’s when I realised that it makes good business sense to manufacture these ovens locally.
You were one of the finalists in the USA/Western Union at the African Diaspora Marketplace. Have you achieved what you envisaged in the proposal?
RM: Being one of the ADM finalists and eventual winner of the ADM Award is good, but it’s only a validation of the work that the Diaspora has been doing for a long time through different approaches and ideas. It is also validating the skills the Diaspora has invested over the years without acknowledgement and support from their home countries or developmental agencies. The ADM is the first to do so. I hope that our governments will support the Diaspora investments, as it has a great potential. Look at the remittances and tell me who would be more beneficial to and suited to develop our villages and communities. These are the places we come from and so we have a vested interest to develop them. It is also in our interest, and our goal, to dig ponds for our brothers and sisters to fish from rather than to keep on providing the daily fish. The remittance pipe has grown into such a powerful force which has now led the World Bank, IMF and other funding agencies to talk about taxing these already much taxed sums as a source of revenue for the Diaspora host countries. And who is fighting in defence and protection of the Diaspora? Time is the only witness.
What has been the significant achievement you can share with us?
RM: There are many but my most significant one was securing a tax exemption for the cooking solar ovens from the Uganda Government, a process which took about four years to accomplish. My gratitude goes to our former Finance Minister Hon. Dr. Suruma for his great help on this.
How does the oven work? I understand it can’t work during cloudy and rainy time?
RM: The cooking solar oven is the only cooking device that has been researched and designed to incorporate cultural perspectives. It was designed to meet 70% of the cooking needs. It can be used to bake, boil, roast, dry or steam foods. It is also used to purify water for drinking. You can use it to cook rapidly or as a slow cooker. It does not burn or dry food and keeps it hot up to 4 hours if you do not open it up. This is the cultural perspective I mentioned, since in many African cultures, we have our supper long after sundown! The cooker will meet 70% of the cooking needs instead of 100%, because we must take into account cloudy and rainy times, as well as night time. We leave the 30% allowance. If any technology promised even just 50% benefit to harness an abundant free energy source, I would take it any day. This is an easy to utilise technology that does not require any manuals to read. I teach people to use it in less than two hours, after which they can already teach others how to use it.
How did people receive the oven idea and will the common man be able to afford it?
RM: The concept has been around for decades and it had been tried before. However, everyone I have talked to about the performance and efficiency of the oven, either thinks that I am lying or that I am just an excellent salesman! I have had to demonstrate its ability to cook effectively in real time every time. I even had to cook for ministers to gain their support in my tax exemption process! Everybody who has seen this oven in action wants to have one, regardless of his class status or country!
Do you manufacture the oven yourself in Uganda?
RM: No, the solar oven was invented and is manufactured in the USA. I am doing what is termed a technology transfer. And I’ve had to pay licensing fees in order to be able to setup manufacturing in Uganda. However, what I have brought to the successful adaptation and implementation of the technology in Uganda is my cultural, technological and business understanding of both worlds. And I credit this largely to the training and experiences I have received from both nations.
How many units have you sold so far?
RM: We have not sold ovens on the open market in Uganda yet. This will happen once the factory opens in the first quarter of 2011. However, we have bought in over 1000 units imported from the USA for the pilot programs we’ve carried out over a period of 7 years now.
Do you think the solar oven is contributing to a decrease in deforestation?
RM: Yes, with the solar oven, you don’t have to wait for weeks, months or years to realize the results. You see them and experience them instantly. As long as you have enough sun to see your shadow, the sun oven cooks. From all the pilots we have done, every family that has an oven has reduced its cooking budgets by 60 to 80 %. In some instances, one oven is shared between neighbours and serves all of them sufficiently.
Have you expanded to other countries?
RM: No, not yet, though I have been consulted to do feasibilities in a couple of African countries. I hope that my experience in Uganda and the lessons learned will help to shorten the implementation process in those countries. Besides the trainings I have done in Liberia, Mali and about to do in Senegal, Nigeria and Cameron, Uganda is the first big project I have done so far.
What next for Ronald Mutebi?
RM: My aim is to put a sun oven in the hands of every African family, especially those at the bottom half of the pyramid. I am on my way already!
Any word of wisdom to fellow Ugandans in the Diaspora?
RM: To my fellow Ugandans in the Diaspora, I would say first of all that, no matter when and how you ended up there, you should never forget who you are! We should always remember what makes us unique and be proud of our culture and norms and exhibit them in our daily lives regardless who we’ve married or gotten married to.
Secondly, I would challenge all Africans in the Diaspora, to participate and get actively engaged in the civic affairs of the communities, cities and states we have come to call our second home. It is only through this active engagement that we will be able to have our voices heard, especially when issues concerning our home countries and communities are being discussed. Think about the practical example I mentioned of taxation of our remittances.
I would lastly also urge our governments to setup practical support mechanisms to help us in our efforts to develop our villages, communities and the country as a whole instead of being a hindrance and a roadblock And I would also ask our government to stop underestimating our individual and small capital investments because collectively, they dwarf those of the FDI darlings.
Ronald Mutebi hold a Bachelors Degree in Social Psychology from the University of Makerere and runs his own consultancy firm “Tekcinc” in Illinois.
Contact Ronald at firstname.lastname@example.org
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