Oolu Solar’s Aichatou Ali Mahamane is defining her own path in Niger’s nascent but growing off-grid energy sector.
With a mission to replace polluting and expensive lighting solutions with sustainable energy alternatives, Oolu Solar, headquartered in Senegal, has become one of the fastest growing off-grid solar companies in West Africa and is currently the only foreign pay-as-you-go (PAYG) company in Niger. As Oolu Solar’s Country Representative for Niger, Aichatou Ali Mahamane is responsible for expanding business operations to underserved rural areas, facilitating partnerships with non-governmental organizations, and coordinating with Nigerien government agencies. Mahamane and her team are working hard to demonstrate the PAYG business model — which has catalyzed millions of first-time electricity customers in sub-Saharan Africa — can deliver results in Niger.
Q: How did your business career prepare you to become Niger’s Country Representative for Oolu Solar?
A: I have more than 13 years of experience in marketing and sales with a proven track record of delivering top and bottom-line growth within telecom and consumer goods companies. After I attained my Bachelor’s in Business Administration from the Management Institute of Senegal, I put my knowledge into practice at international companies like Celtel, Orange and Unilever. My work brought me to different countries in East and West Africa. I demonstrated an ability to adapt to all situations and took initiatives in various multicultural environments.
Q: Oolu is the first solar household system (SHS) company in Niger using a PAYG business model. How have you tackled the challenge of being a first mover?
A: It is not easy at all. The key challenge is getting rural people to use mobile money for the first time. Customers with low incomes are excited about the PAYG model because it allows them to spread out their payments, however, the adoption of digital finance takes a long time in an environment with high illiteracy.
Q: Are there regulatory challenges in Niger that impact the off-grid energy sector?
A: I think the sector in Niger will struggle to grow until the 19% value-added tax is removed from SHS sales. The government has taken steps by removing some taxes but it’s not enough. People need solar systems since there is a lack of electricity in much of the country, but the cost of SHS remains high compared to incomes and taxation is a big factor.
Q: Are there perceived barriers to women working in the energy sector?
A: I used to think having an electrical background was needed. However, it’s not necessary to be an electrician to have a successful career with a solar company. Some women perceive the physical requirements of a solar technician to be a barrier — for example, getting on a roof to install or check solar panels — but they should keep in mind there are no limitations to what a woman can do. Being a woman myself, I have no problem installing a solar panel!
I lost my father when I was only nine. That was a big shock. My mother was alone and had to provide access to education for me and my three brothers. This was the first time I realized that women can do anything despite the circumstances. It was during this difficult time that I made the decision to be a hard-working student and make my mother proud. I’m confident that I have made her proud by lighting up Niger.