Social Impact Internship: Electrifying Rural Kenya

Micah Sims

One of INSEAD’s application essays asks you to write about your short and long term career aspirations with your MBA from INSEAD. I wrote about building a renewable energy company to bring power to the unelectrified areas of Africa. I wonder how many people actually end up following through on what they wrote. In a way, it's part of the INSEAD experience that you end up on an adventure that you could not have imagined before. Somehow, though, for my summer internship, I found myself doing exactly what I wrote about, working for a pay-as-you-go solar startup in Nairobi, Kenya.

I did not exactly set out with this idea in mind.  An INSEAD classmate convinced me about the merits of Nairobi first, which has become something like the Berlin of Africa. Over the past five years, start-ups have sprung up rapidly as the latest solution for some of Africa’s most fundamental development issues. I then started telling my classmates of my interest in the renewable energy and agricultural supply chain industries. It seemed like everyone knew someone in Nairobi and they were eager to connect me. In the end, I found my internship at Pawame through an INSEAD classmate and was grateful to secure financial support as a recipient of the INSEAD Social Impact Award.

70% of Sub-Saharan Africans still do not have access to power and 67% of Sub-Saharan Africans do not have access to financial services.  Pawame’s mission is “to provide energy access as a gateway to enhancing the quality of life for off-grid communities in Sub-Saharan Africa.”  Their solution is a Solar Home System, which includes a solar panel, a battery, four light bulbs, a flashlight and a radio.  A customer pays an upfront deposit of USD25.  Over the next 18 months, the customer makes regular payments via mobile transfer (M-KOPA’s reach is truly incredible) to pay back the remainder of the Solar Home System.  In doing so, the customer builds a credit history and Pawame is then able to offer this customer additional life-changing products (with a similar loan structure), such as TVs, water tanks, micro insurance and so forth.

A Pawame Solar Home System in action

As a Business Development Associate at Pawame, my role was incredibly cross-functional. Pawame had recently developed a strategy to achieve cash flow breakeven prior to raising Series A funding. My primary role was to convert this strategy into a plan and put the plan into action. 

I worked closely with all the function heads, as a consultant, to help them define, prioritise and finalise projects that would enable them to achieve their defined KPIs.  

I developed charter templates and other project management documents for them to track their progress on these projects after my internship ended.  In addition, I also worked on an incredibly challenging analysis to help them understand the reoccurring monthly gap between the customer payments they had expected to receive and the customer payments that they actually collected. My responsibilities were much greater than I was expecting and made my internship more fulfilling and rewarding than I could have possibly imagined.

The highlight of my summer and internship was the week I spent travelling around the rural parts of Kenya with Pawame’s sales director.  We visited and spoke with the local sales teams to understand how they felt about working for Pawame and what their greatest challenges were in selling the product. Our insights from this week helped us further refine and prioritize the projects that the sales director would take on for the remainder of the year. We also spoke with Pawame customers about their experience with the company and the product. You can imagine the positive impact of electrification, but to witness it first-hand is a different experience entirely.

The Sales Director, a Sales Agent and a customer outside of his shop in Kisumu
Visiting the Sales Team in Baringo

I was incredibly lucky that five additional INSEAD classmates were also doing summer internships in Nairobi. We had weekly outings and several of us even spent our weekends travelling together. From the wildlife at Masai Mara and Lake Naivasha to the beautiful coastal beaches of Diana, Kenya certainly has a lot to offer.

INSEAD 18Ds out in Nairobi