When we think of great ideas to empower the people of Africa, we tend to envision these great, big multinational-led campaigns. Fortunately, we have seen the rise of a new kind of change. We’ve seen people, from all walks and nationalities, rise up to alleviate some of the most prevalent problems faced by the African people.
This article shines a light on a young man who has identified a problem that may be neglected by some, but remains very real for many.
Sylver Kibelolaud is living proof that it takes but a small spark to light up an entire room, literally, as he was recently selected as a fellow for the prestigious Mandela Washington Fellowship (YALI), expected to take place this year, in June.
This young man from the Republic of Congo embarked on a strenuous journey of finding himself in a different country, until he reached the epiphany that his contribution to the world rested in a small idea with a big impact.
Sylver has played a vital role in youth development programs in order to foster a spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship in young people; but it wasn’t always like that, and he has agreed to share the important moments of his journey that made him believe in himself, and lift his ideas off the ground.
Could you share the story of your origins and where you now stand in life?
I was born in Brazzaville, in the Republic of Congo, but grew up in Pointe Noire, the second city. I then moved to Namibia in September 2008 for my tertiary education as I obtained a scholarship.
There, I studied Mechanical Engineering at the Polytechnic of Namibia and obtained a Bachelor of Engineering in April 2015, and later founded GreenVille Solutions, a startup distributing solar lights and phone chargers while creating awareness of solar energy to eradicate the use of candles, paraffin lamps, and wood as means of lighting.
When did you realize that your future went beyond your degree?
I went to university with the mindset that I would get my degree and then work for a petroleum company.
In my third year, after taking courses like Environmental Engineering and Renewable Energy Systems, I realized I wanted to work for a company dealing with renewable energy and sustainability. It was only after joining AIESEC, a international youth organization that provides leadership experiences, that my perspective started changing. Suddenly, I saw myself attending events like Developing Leaders Day, the Youth to Business forum in South Africa, and even the Global Youth to Business forum in Taiwan. That’s when I started thinking about venturing into starting a social business. It was after successfully organizing the Namibia Youth to Business forum, in my term as the AIESEC Namibia Vice President, that I realized that I could really go for it. I was volunteering for an almost two-year-old organization with very limited resources; and despite its many challenges, I could see that I kept on finding ways not just to survive, but to, above all, thrive. So I told myself: go for it, test your idea and adapt it to the market and see how things go; if you succeed, great! But either way, it will be priceless experience gained.
Has there been an obstacle you encountered that affected your self-confidence?
During the conception phase, it was the feedback I got from close friends when I told them I wanted to put all my time and money into GVS. Someone, for example, told me that it was “something I could do on the side and that my degree was going to waste.” This made me realize that I had to work harder to convince people, be more creative, and also make people see my passion. Currently, the biggest obstacle, like most startups, is securing funding to be able to grow and expand. Sometimes after meetings, presentations, or calls, you believe you are about to secure something and get excited but then you get a “No” with no feedback.
You then start doubting your business and its viability, thinking that you might actually be wasting your time.
Why is your field of operation so relevant, and important to you?
Energy poverty is a really big issue in Africa, with about 600 million Africans not having access to electricity. Candles and Kerosene lamps are a major source of light, not just for poor rural households, but for relatively rich urban ones as well, since there are frequent power outages that plague African cities. When people use these systems, they are putting themselves at risk, such as fire and burn incidents, or health issues (eye problems from dim light and fatal respiratory problems) and limited productivity at home. The World Health Organization estimates that household air pollution from kerosene and coal kills 4.3million people a year – more than the combined deaths from malaria, TB, and HIV-related illnesses.
These systems are inefficient and costly, and it is estimated that Africa can save more than $12 billion annually by switching from candles, kerosene lamps, and battery-powered flashlights to solar LED. A simple solar light can do so much for the African people, by allowing them to be more productive, reducing indoor pollution, and creating safer environments for their health.
What does the future look like, and what is your advice for young entrepreneurs?
We want to start manufacturing solar kiosks, have an initiative similar to Edu-light but with a focus on NGOs dealing with women-related issues and empowerment, and hopefully open a branch in Congo-Brazzaville.
One thing I have learned in my still short entrepreneurial journey is that sometimes the greatest resource one can have is enthusiasm and not money. Failure should be seen as market research, and the idea does not need to be perfect for one to start; it simply needs to exist. Making use of feedback and constantly reinventing oneself are the vital ingredients to success.
Though it may be hard at first to experiment with your idea, as Sylver rightly states, the most important resource is enthusiasm. In order for an idea to work, it needs the constant investment of passion and commitment, and this is what really enables today’s youth to become successful entrepreneurs.
So let’s not be afraid of identifying social issues that are relevant to us, and that we feel we can make a difference about, because, chances are – we really can.