#10YearsOfSolarImpact: NIWA, driving innovation and quality for energy access to all

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A conversation with Ti el Attar, CEO at NIWA

Ti el Attar

Do you want to tell us a bit about NIWA and its backstory?

In 2008, when I was conducting consumer research in the slum of Accra for a major mobile manufacturer, I was struck by the local realities of people living off-grid in Africa. Mobile phones became commodity items in lightspeed and innovations like mobile money were adapted much before they came to the US, EU and Asia. But at the same time, energy needs were not satisfied at all.

Further, you could see that the digital divide to our Western world was tremendous and growing. It was such an unfair situation for the economic development chances of businesses and households!

I decided to dedicate myself to changing this with my 15+-year background in product development and consumer research with the vision to bring energy products to the same commodity level as mobile phones and make them available and affordable up to the last rural village.

Image: Siemens Foundation

I first worked for one leading off-grid lantern brand conducting consumer research in West and East Africa literally designing new product innovations with off-grid customers in the field. As a result, I had the chance to design the best seller in our industry to date.  Unfortunately, the management struggled and I had to leave but I wanted to continue contributing to the off-grid future vision we all lived together in the field at that time. So NIWA was created in 2011 in Hong Kong since I wanted to continue to build the sector. This is purely a passion for me and I want to make an impact and grow at the right pace with a team.

GOGLA played a key role for us to grow the brand and build partnerships for retail and distribution.

We have had nice growth, working with the main players in the industry. Coming from large corporations, I am a big believer in the power of partnerships and I see the future of the industry going through some consolidation phase right now and finally ending in a specialized model which we see in all other more mature industries. There will be excellent manufacturers on one side, sophisticated distributors and outstanding retailers on the other who all grow together. The kind of  ‘vertical integration’ that we saw before (brands doing everything themselves) is not commercially sustainable as we have seen in multiple examples.

Which markets do you work in?

We have a worldwide presence but concentrate in East and West Africa and the Pacific.

Image: NIWA

Have you felt strongly the COVID impact?

We saw some of our partners struggle. Being close to China, there was a big impact on supply chains and costs. In fact, in China, lockdowns are still happening and containers can delay for 6 months.

Semiconductor prices have increased tremendously and so have container costs; TV prices doubled at some point in time. … China certainly is not good for business anymore when we are not even able to visit our factories for years now – we are working on our post-China strategy right now.

Have you struggled with financing too?

Our growth comes from our revenue and profits from the beginning. We did not take any investor money. It was a personal choice from the start because I felt it creates pressure for quick growth and companies become rigid or even incapable to innovate as I experienced multiple times in my career before.

What have been your main challenges?

We haven’t succeeded in establishing a regional presence to better support our partners for marketing and after-sales… We haven’t found the right moment to do it well.

Image: Siemens Foundation

Do you think GOGLA could support you with this challenge?

Yes, I think one of GOGLA’s functions should be to make it easier for members to set up a regional presence in East and West Africa indeed. For example, it could support facilitating connections and provide basic knowledge about local specifics for our type of industry operations. It would be helpful to have a sort of handbook of what you need to do, common mistakes others have made. Most companies in our industry struggled with this – they changed regional management on a monthly basis, burned a lot of money to find the right direction in sales, marketing and after-sales.

Overall, we’re happy with GOGLA though. We have grown together! GOGLA has helped us become a more mature brand manufacturer.

I think GOGLA has also done a great job bringing investment into the sector. Especially for the PAYGO sales this was key for growth.

One part that GOGLA certainly can improve is to be a bit more confident in taking the lead on identifying and leading future industry trends. Currently, we follow too much what is set by other organizations which might not be that relevant for our members. The fridge and water pump trend is an example of a not very commercially sustainable niche in the market. GOGLA should better look at future major trends that are important for the majority of our current and future off-grid customers. For example, GOGLA lags behind in addressing the  ‘digital divide’ I mentioned, call it the digital transformation of workplaces and businesses which is affecting the majority of our customers. How can African businesses be sustainable globally if they don’t even have a computer for basic business tasks such as finance and accounting, marketing and communication?

Overall, I believe GOGLA events are the best part of GOGLA. They bring the most value to us as a company. But there should be more events beyond the global Forum to engage and meet regionally every year, like one annual regional event in Nairobi and another one in Senegal for example. By doing it at the same location every year, it would reduce the workload for GOGLA tremendously. Why not do a member survey about it? I am sure most members will love the idea! For me, this would be much better time and effort spent than trying to standardize technical things or evolving our certification standards. Verasol is taking good care of this already.

Image: Siemens Foundation

What do you think the future looks like?

The future is looking great! I am confident our industry will innovate and grow as before. Our quality energy products should finally become commodities: they should be found in every retail shop at an affordable cost with a sophisticated after-sales warranty that reaches the last village in Africa.

The industry’s future products will look very different though – double lifetime, much better value-for-money,  only 30% of today’s CO2 footprint and Made outside of China. Smarter product design will make expensive human labour for production obsolete. Local simplified assembly of products with automation for certain parts could even be done by importers themselves in target countries. The kind of assembly factories in the industry use today will not exist anymore.

We will also see new product categories which focus on digitalization and sanitary equipment.

I strongly believe GOGLA will play a key role in this future.

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