SAREBI helps renewable energy entrepreneurs turn dreams into cash

Services such as installation and maintenance are avenues for renewable energy entrepreneurs. Here workers clean solar panels at the Lesedi solar plant in South Africa. (Courtesy of SolarReserve)

Services such as installation and maintenance are avenues for renewable energy entrepreneurs. Here workers clean solar panels at the Lesedi solar plant in South Africa. (Courtesy of SolarReserve)

Africa has its fair share of entrepreneurs, and some of them want to break into the emerging renewable-energy market.

The South African Renewable Energy Business Incubator — SAREBI — wants to help these bright minds achieve their goals.

Renewable energy entrepreneurs face challenges, including the need to hone their business skills to see their ideas through to success. That’s where SAREBI comes in. It helps small, medium-sized and microenterprises get into the renewables and energy-efficiency business.

The Cape Town–based SAREBI nurtures projects from the idea and concept-design stage all the way to launching the business.

“As a small-business incubator, we’re not geared to incubate an entrepreneur who wants to build a 100-megawatt wind farm,” says SAREBI General Manager Helmut Hertzog. “The sheer scope, the capital requirement is not something that fits into the scope of a small to medium enterprise.”

Man in white shirt gesturing (State Department)
SAREBI General Manager Helmut Hertzog speaks to a master class. (State Department)

Instead, the small businesses SAREBI assists supply products and services to residential or commercial green energy projects.

SAREBI engages two business sectors: product manufacture and services. Products include components for the solar photovoltaic or solar thermal industries and energy efficiency — solar water heaters, circuit boards or LED lights, for example.

Service-oriented businesses consult on renewable energy options and install and maintain solar panels or wind turbines.

Roll of LED lights on tape (Courtesy of LEDzShine)
These ribbon LED lights, designed in South Africa, are produced by LEDzShine, a company in the SAREBI program. (Courtesy of LEDzShine)

BUILD BUSINESS SKILLS THROUGH WORKSHOPS

To help get businesses off the ground, SAREBI offers a “master class,” a three-month-long series of workshops that give aspiring entrepreneurs grounding in what it takes to turn their ideas into a viable business.

“The SAREBI skills development program focuses on enterprise skills,” Hertzog says. “SAREBI itself is not as focused on artisanal skills development.”

After participants finish the master class, they are ready for a six- to 12-month “pre-incubation” process. During this time, the business model is fleshed out into an operational business plan, until the business is ready to open its doors.

Close-up of man (State Dept.)
Akhona Songo is developing a renewable-energy services company. (State Dept.)

Akhona Songo, founder of Green Energy Systems Solutions, which offers engineering, procurement and construction of solar photovoltaic systems, says of the master class, “It helped us narrow down where we wanted to focus.”

“Our vision is empowerment,” Songo says, “empowering South Africa and the rest of the African continent through solar energy. … And we want to increase employment.”

Close-up of man (State Dept.)
Inga Magodia’s business benefited from the SAREBI Master Class. (State Dept.)

Inga Magodia, a partner in an electrical engineering company doing custom residential installation and maintenance work, says the workshops helped them get on a good business footing.

“We were just ready to do the electrical work, but we didn’t take into consideration the other challenges,” the things that a business needs to sustain itself. He also wants to create more jobs and bring electricity to places without it.

People working at table with large, rectangular solar water heaters (Courtesy of SAREBI)
Workers with iSolar assemble solar water heating collectors at the SAREBI manufacturing center. (Courtesy of SAREBI)

TEAM UP WITH PROS

The entrepreneurs — who are already in business or are about to begin — are now ready to be partnered with experts.

They either work in residence at a manufacturing technology center or participate in a virtual incubation program off-site. Either way, the budding business owners receive support for critical aspects of business management, such as accounting and payroll, human resources and networking.

Dustin Rebello works for Oleum South Africa, an oil purification company that restores contaminated oil so it may be reused — and not dumped into the environment.

“We’ll provide the `hard’ skills,” Rebello says, referring to training in technical skills. “Other companies like SAREBI will provide the `soft’ skills,” such as learning how to communicate with customers and how to manage a staff.

“We believe that this is a fantastic opportunity and a necessary thing to properly develop South Africa to take it to where it should be,” Rebello says.

Woman listening to man (Courtesy of SAREBI)
LEDzShine founder Richard Lomax explains an LED light set-up to Cape Town Mayor Patricia de Lille. (Courtesy of SAREBI)

`PAY IT FORWARD’

Once a business is on its feet, SAREBI follows up with its graduates, offering continued coaching and business strategies. This includes tips for selling their goods and services online through cloud-based marketing and selling.

SAREBI graduates also pay it forward, helping entrepreneurs start new businesses.

So far, SAREBI has shepherded 29 entrepreneurs through the stages of incubation. According to Hertzog, 26 are now operating on their own.

LEDzShine, which makes LED lighting and grow lamps for agriculture, is among three companies currently trading at the SAREBI incubation center. The small family business is run by Richard Lomax, his wife and a few student apprentices from a local college. Lomax is enthusiastic about his company and the potential of South Africa’s abundant solar and wind resources.

“Where we have put up renewable energy systems, it has saved an absolute fortune in terms of the build time and the cost of the power,” Lomax says. “It also generates jobs out in places where jobs wouldn’t necessarily be generated.”

By: Lea Terhune