Category: Blog

Entrepreneurship and poverty

Woman working at Mitticool pottery factory in India.

Woman working at Mitticool pottery factory in India.

Poverty is a complex sustainability problem, which has an impact on the lives of people on many different levels.  On a societal level, social structures maintain poverty. Instead of having equal opportunities, poverty has a negative impact on the lives of people born in conditions of poverty and it tends to be inherited from one generation to the next generation. Therefore, solutions to poverty ideally challenge the structures of the current system and break the cycle of poverty.

Living in conditions of poverty has also an impact on the community level. This is demonstrated for example in the lack of basic services such as education, energy, health care and clean water. These can be completely absent or the underprivileged part of the population has access only to poor quality services. For example, in low-income communities schools might have crowded classrooms, unqualified teachers and not enough materials for each student.

While these conditions are challenging, these can also act as an inspiration for innovations and entrepreneurial solutions. Since the infrastructure is incomplete, it also means that there is no legacy systems slowing down the adaptation of new technologies and it is possible to leapfrog to a more advantageous system. Further, solution to poverty alleviation should also provide access to services and create jobs, which provide income to the low-income population.

On an individual level, it means that due to a limited budget people are less mobile, are more vulnerable in case of illness or injury and have fewer possibilities to participate in activities, which require a payment. Poor individuals are isolated due to the location of their housing, the available infrastructure and sometimes because they do not speak the language prevailing in society. In addition, they face resource-scarcity in everyday activities and do not know about issues going on in society. Peers from the same community tend to have a similar background and thus not able to provide answers to the many unknowns.

The strenuous situation leads to poor people to be forced into entrepreneurship. This so-called necessity entrepreneurship means that entrepreneurial individuals buy a stock of goods in the morning and sell it throughout the day. The profit made in one day has to be enough to buy something to eat, to pay children’s education and other expenses like that, to buy a similar stock the next day and maybe even to save a little. These entrepreneurs have little growth potential and the impact on poverty alleviation is minimal. On an individual level, one solution to poverty is to empower local actors with entrepreneurial qualities and aspirations to become entrepreneur. These entrepreneurs can then provide jobs to other people.

These perspectives are explained and demonstrated in more detail in this video: Creating frugal innovations to solve global sustainability challenges.

Text and photo: Marleen Wierenga









Social challenges vs Innovative solutions in Tanzania

Coin based water vending machine

The Human Development Innovation Fund (HDIF) –Tanzania, has once again organized the Innovation week from 21st– 26th May. In 2017, HDIF collaborated with 16 partners to make the innovation week a success. The week attracted over 1000 people. This year, HDIF together with 24 partners have managed to organize this trending week on innovation in research, development, entrepreneurship, technology and design. Areas of focus being health, education, and water/sanitation/hygiene.

Innovation is booming, Tanzanians are engaging themselves more and more into the innovation culture. The thirsty and curiosity for solving societal challenges is growing very fast.

Planned for all, designed for a few?

Social challenges are most of the time common to everyone living in a particular area. The diversion starts when solutions are targeting only a certain group of people. It is obvious that innovators do think of everyone as a whole when thinking of solving challenges. At some point the thinking starst to change and the outcome ends up targeting only a certain group of people.

Most innovators are young and it is natural that they will be thinking about people of their level when thinking of innovative solutions. I see this as a limitation to development. Innovators need to invest more time in designing solutions that would benefit people from different levels of life. We still have many years to go before each person in a developing country like Tanzania will own a smartphone and will have good access to a speedy internet connection, to enjoy all the benefits and solutions that come with it. Let us not forget the seniors who never got the chance to get basic education, or the educated and retired officers who are ageing and their brains are for sure getting tired. Even if you would give them a free smartphone today, using it and connecting to the internet to enjoy the benefits of having it is almost impossible.

Innovating while thinking of people from different levels of life, will not only increase equal distribution of solutions but it will also increase customers and hence growth to a company.


During the HDIF innovation week, I was inspired by many innovative solutions but I will tell about this particular one that is actually directly targeting the people I am talking about above.

Coin based water vending machine

MAJI-Pesa It is a coin based water vending machine. Developed by STICLab –The House of Innovation, a technology and innovation center. The solution is now in many parts of Tanzania including Dar es Salaam, Mbeya, Dodoma, Geita etc.

Apart from being a coin based water vending machine, MAJIPesa is equipped with IoT facilities that offers remote monitoring through a state of the art Web platform and a mobile App. If offers a room of generating reports, with an option of daily notifications via sms or emails. The system is a solar based, tailored to provide service 24/7 with self diagnosis capabilities.

Erick B Paul, UFUNDIKO – Ngutoto Water Project:

“We have had a lot of water projects in a lot of villages along Dodoma, but most of them died as there has been no Data on sales vs water produced or any occurring problems. MAJIPesa has helped us a big deal as we have all the information right at the fingertip. I recommend the MAJIPesa not only for rural projects but also urban water project.”

Baba Pop – MAJIPesa Client, Mbagala Dar:

“MAJIPesa has changed my business, am now collecting enough money with no hassle.”

Kelvin Abel – MAJIPesa user, Mbagala:

“MAJIPesa has made things easy as I can get water 24/7 with no worries, with just a coin and a bucket am all set.”

Saidi –  MAJIPesa user, Ngutoto:

“Am privileged and humbled to use a system innovated, designed and manufactured by Tanzanians for Tanzanians. This system is a way through sustainable water projects along Tanzania and Africa as a whole.”


STICLab was awarded a Global Negawatt Challenge Winner on 2015, at Barcelona -Spain where they competed with this wonderful innovation, MAJIPesa.


During the HDIF innovation week 2018, I met one of the co-founders of the STICLab Eng. Sanga Valerian Linus. He is also one of the engineers behind this innovation.


According to Eng. Sanga, sales have been increasing. A total number of 55 machines have been installed and they are still receiving more orders. The feedback from customers is also very positive.

Emma Nkonoki
Senior project specialist at Aalto University, New Global Project
Project researcher at the University of Turku, Tanzania team.

Remarks from field research on sustainable energy in Kenya

This spring I have familiarised myself with the Kenyan energy sector and managed to gather a good amount of data for my master’s thesis on urban energy transitions. The field research period in Kenya is now coming to an end and I feel incredibly grateful for having been provided with the opportunity to work on my thesis on such a fascinating topic.

There are major differences between urban and rural energy in Kenya, especially when it comes to electricity. During the past decade, the nationwide focus has been on providing electricity access to off-grid areas. The dedicated efforts of the Rural Electrification Authority and international collaborators to power the rural areas of Kenya have been successful. In the recent years, the connectivity level has improved from around 30% to over 70% of the population, but access to electricity is still the primary concern when talking about energy in Kenya.

Nairobi – the capital of Kenya and the focus of my case study – is considered ‘well off’, because it is mostly covered by the national grid. Nairobi consumes more than a half of all electricity generated in the country, while the demand is rising with the rapidly increasing urban population and standard of living. Despite the decent level of electricity access, there is still room for improvement in the sustainability, reliability and affordability of energy in Nairobi. For instance, there are frequent power cuts and quality problems because of the unreliable and inefficient distribution infrastructure. Diesel generators are widely used to provide backup power, contributing to the pollution issues and the already unstable cost of electricity. Prices and supply have also fluctuated during droughts due to the reliance on hydropower, adding to the trickiness of providing clean, reliable and affordable electricity to an increasing number of urban dwellers. Meanwhile, effects of climate change are already further complicating matters.

Although overcoming the energy and sustainability challenges in Nairobi is still hindered by several factors, such as lack of cross-sector collaboration and long-term planning, there have been very promising recent advancements in the sustainable energy domain, including improvements in regulatory frameworks, availability of financing schemes and a number of initiatives on training and awareness creation.

Erika Forstén

Cover picture: Erika Forstén. Strathmore Energy Research Centre conducts research and quality assurance on solar PV products. There have been quality issues with imported solar PV products, but the situation is improving due to increased awareness and recent improvements in regulations and standards.


Ngong wind farm, located in the outskirts of Nairobi, is currently the only grid-connected wind power plant in Kenya. Recently a large wind power plant was built in Turkana, Northern Kenya, but the plant has been on standby because of delays in building the transmission line.


Micro-electricity holds its position in the country of hundreds of millions of energy poor people

Sini Numminen visited India Energy Access Summit in Delhi. In the picture above (Photo: The Climate Group) Poonam, a Solar Saheli from Rajasthan, is holding a speech.

India Energy Access Summit 2018 in February in New Delhi gathered hundreds of people working with cleaner fuels and improved energy access for hundreds of millions of energy poor households in India. The speeches and panel sessions touched on energy financing, technologies, policy and social aspects. A consultant presentation forecasted increases in solar lantern sales and a donor organization promised more funds for energy access projects. Bankers discussed financing models.

Voice was given also for women practitioners, often overlooked. As India is a traditional society where women often stay at home taking care of children and preparing food; and thus forming an important energy user group, Still energy providers and entrepreneurs are mainly men. Barefoot College and Frontier Markets are exceptions to this rule and were invited to stage. These initiatives educate women all around the developing world as “solar mamas” and “solar sahelis” who are able construct, maintain and distribute solar systems in their communities.

For me, as well as for the majority of the participants, this event was the arena for meeting collaboration partners and to network. I am a doctoral student having since 2015 researched how small renewable energy technologies perform in Indian villages, in actual environments where they are being used. Currently, I am in the process of interviewing as many Indian micro-grid utilities and entrepreneurs for their technologies, as I can reach. The summit was a must for me to meet these people and to organize interviews. After the summit I took two weeks for visiting micro-grid installations around Northern India. More information on my research is available on my website.

Street vendor by night in Uttar Pradesh using a mobile street lamp. Photo: Sini Numminen

Street vendor by night in Uttar Pradesh using a mobile street lamp. Photo: Sini Numminen


Seems like the micro-grid companies in India are in a pending phase. A flagship program of the government is the Saubhagya scheme, under which the distribution grid is expanded to all non-electrified households by the end of 2019. In this program, the role of micro-grid electricity remains unclear. This unclarity in the legal status was articulated in the Summt presentations of the energy entrepreneurs, sometimes bursting out as desperation, as administrative burdens – for example in gaining permits – can be unbelievable astounding.

However, it was rather surprising that the foreseeable effects of the scheme were not much discussed at the Summit sessions. If all households were to be connected, what would remain for the off-grid electrification companies to do anymore? Maybe it went without saying that the scheme is merely a political target and not an implementation plan? Some people I have interviewed have laughed and said that, of course, there will always be non-electrified and under-electrified valleys between the electrified hubs. An aged and inefficient power distribution infrastructure can never host the millions of under-electrified households without a thorough renewal. Power quality and regular blackouts are also a great problem.

There is plenty of room for micro-grid electricity companies to work in also in the future, not only as back-up power providers. I hope the renewal of the grid infrastructure would be done in cooperation with micro-electricity providers. The opportunities in building up a reliable and inter-connected smart grid are huge for India.


Sini Numminen
Doctoral Student at Aalto University (Tiina ja Antti Herlin Foundation)
Travel Grants: UniPid FinCEAL+ and TEKES New Global

Gaining insight into energy and sustainability in urban Kenya

 It’s been a few weeks since my arrival in Nairobi, Kenya, where I will spend the spring working on my master’s thesis on the topic of urban energy transitions in emerging markets. In practice, the work mostly involves data collection through in-depth interviews with researchers, decision-makers, industry representatives and other local experts. The insider insights have already proven valuable, as a large part of online information seems to be out of date or otherwise inaccurate.

So far, first-hand observations and interviews with organizations such as African Energy Research Policy Network, UN Habitat and Strathmore Energy Research Centre have provided new perspectives on the topical energy and sustainability matters in Kenya’s capital. A lot remains to be done in the energy sector, as a great number of people either lack access to energy or deal with unreliable supply and high costs. In addition to the challenges with energy adequacy and access, there are visible issues with waste, pollution, housing and transport, with traffic jams clogging the main roads on a daily basis. For example, last Friday a few hours of heavy rain resulted in flooding streets and long power outages.

Despite the prominent challenges that the rapidly growing city has, my first impression of Nairobi has been very positive, especially due to its warm-hearted, joyful and friendly people. My local officemates have also made a good effort in turning me into a Nairobian by teaching me Swahili, making sure I try all the traditional Kenyan dishes and inviting me on their Saturday hike to one of the nearby national parks. Overall, Nairobi is an incredibly diverse and lively city with a lot to experience. After some initial confusion, things here flow smoothly and it’s easy to feel at home in this beautifully chaotic city.

The writer, Erika Forstén, is a master’s student in the Advanced Energy Solutions programme at Aalto University. As part of the New Global team, she is working on her master’s thesis about urban energy transitions in emerging markets, looking at Nairobi as a case study.

Keeping the communication wheel rolling between cultures

To be able to deliver and receive information properly, lines of communication need to be open and active. What if the communication between is interfered by distance and culture? Do we wait for an email response for 3 weeks? Do we face people through other channels of communication?

During 2017, I have probably done so much work on a smartphone than ever before. Not because I like chatting, but because most times I am left with no choice. I have come across situations where the only possibility was to collect some information through Facebook private messages and WhatsApp. Some moments calls for you to act and respond fast.

When working with emerging markets, one had better learn to be flexible and very patient. Being originally from a developing country myself, I noticed that I too need a lot of patience when communicating with local partners and colleagues when in the field.

Communicating with Finnish colleagues when we are all in different continents.

With the world getting more and more hectic, very interesting and so unpredictable, you feel the urge to communicate often with your colleagues especially when in the field. Sometimes you need fresh information from each other; you want your colleagues to participate in team meetings online wherever they are etc.

Thanks to WhatsApp, my communication and information collections from long distances is much easier.

I have had to collect information through WhatsApp chats, WhatsApp calls and when necessary through WhatsApp voice notes. The next thing would be to move the voice notes and the chain of chats to my computer to store the data.

Communication with local partners; simplified by Technology, challenged by Culture

If you have worked with different people across cultures, the challenges of communication must be familiar. Thanks to technology, communication has become much easier than before.

Now if technology has brought the revolution and made it very easy to communicate, where are the communication challenges coming from? In my experience, the number one issue is “culture”.

For many in the North, emails remain to be the best way to communicate with local partners. What if there are no responses? What if one receives only a short email?

I could give an example of the way I would communicate with local partners who are Tanzanians. This is the simplest work for me, as I am also from Tanzania. When I write a mail and there is no response, I will turn into WhatsApp or even Facebook private messages. For some this sounds like invading people’s privacy, but in my culture and the way I would relate with colleagues, it’s not. It is just another way of contacting someone when I am not getting through to him or her through formal emails.

Recently I started sending short voice notes and asked the partners to do the same. This has worked very well. I have been able to receive a lot of information and this is very important for research. Nevertheless, I have been able to connect well with local partners, we have become closer and it is now much easier to discuss different matters.

New Global Project Specialist Emma Nkonoki voice messaging with local partners

When doing research, you need enough data, you want details, which you can analyze and pick out the most relevant ones by yourself. I have had experiences where I would get some information in a short email report and I would immediately sense that there is more to it than this. Through cultural interpretation of information that is written down or recorded it is easy to figure out that there is more to it than that. Most of the time the missing information can easily be said orally and not through writing. Some of us come from cultures that are traditionally not so used to writing much. When you tell us to “talk” / “tell” then we would tell you so much more.

One thing I know is that, it is not about being lazy or unprofessional; it is just the working culture and the general culture deep within people. After so many years of working with development projects, I can honestly say that there is still so much more that the North and the South need to accept and learn from each other in order to be able to work smoothly together. The so-called “ugly truth” is that, due to very strong cultural values from both sides, some things will never change, and we just have to find ways around and through to make our collaboration relationships easier.

Emma Nkonoki, January 2018

STIClab – The House of Innovation enabling young innovators to realize their ideas in Tanzania

Formed and run by the enthusiasm of a professor and a group of students from Dar es Salaam Institute of Technology (DIT), the STICLab forms an unique and enabling environment to experiment and develop innovative solutions to the prevailing issues in Tanzania and beyond. The enthusiasm and entrepreneurial spirit of these people has resulted in a number of businesses in various fields, water being one of the examples.

It was almost three years ago, when we first met people working at the STICLab and at the time, they were participating World Bank’s Negawatt Challenge in Dar es Salaam. The team had built a prototype of a coin-based water vending machine, Maji Pesa, to ease the collection and transparency of water payments at water distribution points. Since, the team has developed Maji Pesa further, and a mobile payment option is included together with a range of other improvements in the technology and business model.

Over 30 of these water ATMs have been sold across Tanzania, and Mr. Njau is one of STICLab’s customers who is now running his water business with the Maji Pesa water ATMs. In the past Mr. Njau would have needed staff to collect the payments, but now the ATMs take care of this automatically, together with tracking the collected revenues and amount of water sold. To this water distribution point Mr. Njau has also established office and retail spaces, which he is renting to other entrepreneurs – these water distribution points often serve as natural meeting points and attract people as they might be the only source of water in the community. Thus, besides providing a source of income for the entrepreneurs of STICLab, the Maji Pesa is enabling its customers to set up transparent water businesses and create hot spots for other businesses to be established around the Maji Pesa water ATMs.

This example of STICLab and Maji Pesa, highlights the importance of supporting young entrepreneurs and building their capacity and networks through e.g. provision of working spaces and laboratories, such as STICLab, as well as programmes, such as the Negawatt Challenge, to build business and technological skills and meet stakeholders, collaboration partners, mentors and funders.

SticLab is a technology innovation centre that provides a futuristic technology development environment for scientists, makers and innovators. The center offers its users full access to lab and Workshop equipments that help them easily do their tasks, starting from idea conception to product and/or service development. More information:

Negawatt Challenge was a global innovation competition and accelerator programme by The World Bank and other partners. More information:

Anne Hyvärinen

Research under uncertainty casted by the elections in Kenya

The almost deserted campus area the University of Nairobi.

New Global’s Doctoral Researcher Anne Hyvärinen is spending this fall in Kenya, immersing herself into the local environment and gathering insights for her research on water sector innovations and innovation enabling organisations. Currently, the tangled situation with the elections is creating some extra twists and turns to the daily life.

Uncertainty describes the current atmosphere in Nairobi. As the August 8th elections were nullified, the re-run is now scheduled for the 26th of October – already once postponed from the original re-run date of October 17. Since the August vote, demonstrations have been frequent as the Supreme Court annulled the results due to ambiguity in compliance with constitutions and laws. Since, the opposition has been demanding reforms from the electoral commission (IEBC), which has lead into demonstrations around the country. As a further hurdle, the opposition’s candidate pulled out, causing further uncertainty on what will happen. Next Thursday, the latest, we see whether the elections will take place or not.

These hurdles and controversies around the elections are of course influencing the life of Kenyans and others living in Kenya, as well as the economy. During my stay here in Kenya, I am affiliated to the C4DLab at University of Nairobi. At the C4DLab, I have the opportunity to see enthusiastic starting entrepreneurs in the supportive environment created by the Lab, hear about the challenges they face and experience how they can supported to thrive in the future. For the past few weeks, rest of the campus has been almost deserted – as the students have been sent home indefinitely due to unrest. Hopefully, quickly after the elections the campus is back to its bubbly life with all the students around.

Although the situation might seem confusing and mixed messages are heard on the streets, things still roll as usual here, at least mainly. I have been able to collect a good amount of data through interviews at several organizations, such as UNICEF, Water Sector Trust Fund (WSTF), Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA) and Kenya Innovative Finance Facility for Water (KIFFWA). The current situation of course brings in an extra twist, and a further topic of discussion with people you meet. As a positive side note, the daily traffic jams have not been quite as terrible– as it seems that some have decided to stay home in the fear of demonstrations. All in all, Nairobi is a vibrant city with lots of things to do and learn, when you just keep out of the places where, for instance, demonstrations might take place.

Akshar Agro Engineering: the story of the groundnut digger

To meet entrepreneur number 4 we had to make again a five-hour drive to Rajkot. In a village 17 km away from Rajkot, we met with Sanjay Tilwa who has developed the Groundnut Digger. It is a machine that eases the harvesting of groundnuts.

In the beginning, the groundnut digger did not reach commercial success and therefore Sanjay decided to develop a plowing machine. He purchased a plowing machine from a large manufacturer and reverse engineered a cheaper version. Now this machine is selling well in Maharashtra, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh – despite the competition from established organizations. With these sales, he can fund the company.

When we discussed the future, Sanjay told he had bold plans to grow and believed that the groundnut digger will be the machine that will help him achieve the goals. Sanjay explained that there is no standard measurement but that he has to make customizations for each region’s groundnut farmers. Currently he is making tailored solutions according to a farmer’s wishes but in order to grow, he said, he has to develop one model that fits all.

Related to the future, we also discussed financial matters. Sanjay had been approached by his bank two years back because his financial records had been stable for a while and the bank wanted to offer him a loan. I wanted to know why he had not gone to the bank earlier and his answer was short – he was not aware of the financial services a bank could have offered. It was a surprising answer and a good reminder of how the world looks to a grassroots entrepreneur. Formal institutions such as banks and patent registers do not feel relevant to them.

Groundnut diggers ready to be shipped to clientswhere the will be assembled.

The most exciting moment of the field visit is always when the entrepreneur shows his factory. The factory of Sanjay was relatively small and he hopes to buy the factory neighboring his factory to facilitate future growth. Sanjay had though how to make the production faster and made frames, which he had attached to the workshop floor. Utilizing these, the workers know the size of the machine and the manufacturing process is much faster. Sanjay also told that the raw materials come from the nearby ship breaking industry. He sends his drawings and the measurements and they deliver the parts. The availability of raw materials providers played a role also when selecting the location for his factory.