Many young people across Africa are setting up their own businesses by innovating new products and services or reconfiguring old ones. One of them is Samuel Malinga. Last week, the 26 year old Ugandan received the Tony Elumelu Prize for Business at the Future Africa awards for his development of a full-cycle sanitation system that starts with the building of local low-cost but highly hygienic toilets and ends with the conversion of sludge into cooking briquettes and agricultural manure. Because of this work, he was shortlisted for the African Prize for Engineering Innovation and also won a space in Ventures Africa’s 40 African Innovators to Watch which was published earlier this year. Onyedimmakachukwu Obiukwu spoke with him following his most recent accolade and asked him, amongst other things, what drives him as a young African Entrepreneur.
Onyedimmakachukwu Obiukwu (OO): Hello Samuel, Congratulations once again. How does winning this award make you feel?
Samuel Malinga (SM): Thank you very much. I feel extremely happy and blessed to be a recipient of Tony O. Elumelu Prize for Business. This is a life changing award for me; it has sold my name and work globally.
OO: You couldn’t make it to Nigeria to attend the ceremony because of visa issues. That must have been painful?
SM: Yes, it was painful but everything happens for a reason. Last year December I also had visa issues to travel to South Africa thus I missed the training. I think our continent needs to move to a visa-free Intra-Africa travel system. That would save a lot of time and money. It is a nightmare to get a visa to travel to some African countries, many people lose their visa application fees daily and airlines also lose a lot of would-be passengers. There is a lot of talk about the need for African integration, making intra-continent travel visa-free will be a huge step in that direction.
OO: Very true. So your award is titled the Tony Elumelu Prize for Business. Does it make it more inspiring to have such a successful African entrepreneur as the sponsor? And how important is it for young Africans to have such people to look up to?
SM: It is very motivating to have Tony O. Elumelu as this award sponsor. I also look at him as my mentor and his success stories inspire me to work even harder. I aspire to build a strong and long lasting brand like his. Venturing into business might be easy but staying in business is challenging and that is where having people like Tony O. Elumelu in Africa as mentors play a huge role. They have been up the business ladder for decades and are showing no signs of quitting it. Many of us—the young ones—are in the daily battle against quitting, but having them to look up to gives us the motivation to hang in there.
OO: The Future Awards is one of the several platforms that specifically focus on young Africans. The Anzisha prize is another. What kind of impact do these platforms have on young Africans like you?
SM: The mentorship young Africans get from these platforms is life enriching. It activates our thinking, boosts our morale and makes us not just to dream big but also not to be scared to start small. The exposure we gain by travelling to other countries is also priceless. It widens our perspective, introduces us to new ideas and links us up with like minds from faraway lands. Above all, the financial rewards they offer in form of prizes also help a lot and are sometimes actually our first real revenue given that most of our innovations or businesses are early-stage startups.
OO: Do you, when you are going about your business think, I hope this gets me nominated for the Future Awards?
SM: Not really, I focus on growing my business and serving more clients. Getting nominated is a bonus. But it is the kind of bonus that I always hope and pray for.
OO: So much is being said about the need for young people in Africa to innovate and start their own businesses. Many now do that but they face a lot of hurdles most especially in raising capital and accessing critical infrastructure. As a young African entrepreneur faced with similar challenges, how do you overcome those hurdles?
SM: It is important to carry out business mapping before you innovate. I always ask myself; who will buy my technology/product? Why will they buy it? Is it better than the existing one? Will it make profit? Will it enable other businesses to spring from it? When these questions have clear answers it might be possible to get help from a friend, family, donor, and people who want to partner and be part of the business. Financial institutions should be last resort. For countries that offer a youth fund, there is no harm in trying to access it. However, getting mentored, especially on business and market presentation skills, is also very helpful for any young person starting up a business.
OO: What drives you as a young African entrepreneur; success, money?
SM: Of course the need to make money is a huge, perhaps the biggest, motivating factor. I was not born with a silver spoon, so yes I would love to strike gold with my works. But I must say that my love for the environment and passion to succeed in helping it in whatever way I can is an equally strong motivator for me. I grew up in a slum and a lot of people there were challenged with evacuating their faecal sludge when their pits got full. This inspired me to design innovations to tackle these challenges after I graduated from the university. I saw a need to develop a better desludging pump that goes deeper, cleaner, minimizes contact of sludge with operator, and requires less energy to operate with high flow rate and can be used in informal settlements. I also realized that the best way to protect the environment is to reduce and reuse waste. There is a lot of deforestation and this led me to the development of briquettes as an alternative source of energy to charcoal. These works, I hope will help me succeed in bettering people’s lives (It is my dream to see that no one dies or suffers from faecal sludge related diseases), helping the environment and, yes, making money. I think this is more sustainable than being driven by the sole desire to make as it could make people greedy and lead some to take immoral shortcuts.
OO: How crucial is the role of today’s young Africans in the development of the continent?
SM: Young Africans are very crucial in the development of many sectors since their minds are still fresh and ready to explore new solutions to old and emerging problems. They also have a lot of energy and self-drive to execute duties. However, many African countries don’t fully utilize the potential of their youth because of the ineptitude of some leaders or the ineffectiveness of the governments they lead.
OO: You are an Agricultural Engineer by academic training but you are better known for innovations in the areas of sanitation and renewable energy. And here you are with a prize for Business. How do you combine all these interests, and what drives your pursuit of them?
SM: Albert Einstein said, “Education is not the learning of facts, but the training of minds to think”. Agricultural Engineering has well packaged courses with a practical tough in design, business training, other engineering disciplines, agriculture, farm power and machinery, environment, water, energy and social fields. I had to apply the knowledge I acquired from university studies to develop technologies that are solving community problems. For sustainability, every good technology has to be accompanied with a decent business approach to enable people buy it. Like Paul Polak, IDE said; “In my work with a multitude of affordable technologies over the past 30 years, one key feature has become abundantly clear: If you have met the challenge of designing a transformative, radically affordable technology, you’ve successfully solved no more than 10-20 percent of the problem. The critical other 80% of the solution lies in designing an effective marketing, distribution, and profitable business strategy that can be brought to scale”. This is what has driven me to be business minded.
OO: The sludge management process is your most celebrated innovation thus far. It got you nominated for the Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation, into the Ventures Africa list of 40 African Innovators to Watch, and has now brought you this Prize from the Future Awards. What is its current status?
SM: We are scaling two Decentralized Faecal Sludge Treatment System (DFSTS) in Northern Uganda; one targeting reuse of dried sludge for processing briquettes for cooking and as a source of heat for poultry birds and the second is focusing on composting sludge for use as a soil conditioner. Constructions works are ongoing and we hope government will adopt this technology in other districts. However, I must say that my most celebrated technology is the Rammer (the semi-mechanical desludging pump). It has been received as a heavenly solution by people living in unplanned settlements and who lack space to dig new pits. It has made me know Vietnam, Kenya, and Senegal. All our technologies are in one way or other important to the community like in Eastern Uganda (Soroti), I have developed solutions to problems affecting people in latrine constructions i.e. collapsible soils, rocky areas, termite prone areas, high water table, leaking roof. These solutions are accompanied with strong business approaches. The overall objective is to make people move up the sanitation ladder. If this works in Soroti, it will be replicated in other districts.
OO: How adaptable is your innovation across sub-Saharan Africa and how optimistic are you that it can spread across the continent? Are you working on that already?
SM: All our technologies can be replicated in the whole of sub-Saharan Africa because they solve cross-cutting challenges facing these countries along faecal sludge management. Like in Kenya and Tanzania, they have purchase the rammer and it is being used for pit emptying.
OO: The international community is currently engaged in climate talks in Paris. What role do you propose for Africa in this fight to save the climate?
SM: Firstly I think African governments have to lead the way in moving our society towards cleaner energy. They can do this by supporting green innovations and getting tighter on irresponsible pollution. Government also has to create public awareness about the effects of deforestation and importance of environmental conservation. It can do this by encouraging the teaching of subjects on climate change in schools and also by funding research towards cleaner energy options. We also need strong environmental laws, for example against automobile and industrial pollution. But the African private sector also has a huge role to play in this fight. We have to introduce new cleaner energy technologies for heating (industries), lighting and cooking which will greatly reduce the need for deforestation. There is also a role for ordinary people. We all have to appreciate the fact that climate change will have a direct effect on our children and the generations to come. We have to take action in our own little ways by planting trees, deciding the best source of energy to use and buy, by sensitizing other community members
OO: Great points you have made indeed. Will you be hoping to bag another award perhaps this time next year?
SM: Interesting! I hope to receive more awards throughout my career. I will keep innovating technologies that solve emerging problems in my Country, Africa and the wider world.