Nthabiseng Mosia has been recognized as a trailblazing social entrepreneur with accolades from Bloomberg (2021 New Economy Catalyst) to Forbes (Forbes 30 Under 30), but when she was a graduate student at SIPA, entrepreneurship was not yet on her mind.
“I didn’t come in as an entrepreneur, but I came out of it well-trained and well-versed,” said Nthabi.
After a few years in the management consulting space, Nthabi was curious about how energy, which is such a foundation for a modern economy, was missing in many of the areas that she had visited in her work in Sub-Saharan Africa.
“You can’t talk about economic development and industrialization in Africa without access to power,” said Nthabi.
With this in mind, she enrolled in SIPA to get some answers.
“I was always interested in the development question around energy, and so I took a course on serving the energy access problem,” said Nthabi. The course, taught by Philip LaRocco, required drafting a hypothetical business plan for a company that would provide better energy access, a plan which she and classmates Eric Silverman and Alexandre Tourre, then submitted to the 2015 SIPA Dean’s Public Policy Challenge, part of the Columbia Venture Competition. They won, and with it, received a $25,000 prize.
Nthabi, Eric, and Alex took the prize money to “go from a concept on a piece of paper,” as Nthabi described it, to an on-the-ground survey in Sierra Leone in December of 2015. The pilot involved site visits to homes that were outside of the Sierra Leone energy grid.
“I had been to rural communities before, but this [energy access] was so far behind what I had seen before,” said Nthabi of the visits. “In one of the houses, I went inside and saw that the house was using a kerosene lamp for light, and we couldn’t bear to be there because of the smoke the lamp gave off. I still have a picture of that lamp.”
“You can conceptually understand injustice, but the contrast between what we saw in Sierra Leone and what we had as graduate students in New York City felt too much like a lottery,” said Nthabi. “The emotional aspect of seeing what the bottom of that energy access pyramid means in a sensory way was a big turning point for me.”
With everything about the pilot pointing to a genuine need, “we leveraged every Columbia resource to build this grad school baby into Easy Solar,” said Nthabi.
Now, Easy Solar is a leading distribution company in West Africa making energy services affordable and accessible. The team of 800 people has reached over 750,000 beneficiaries in Sierra Leone and Liberia. Easy Solar provides access to clean lighting and cooking solutions for off grid and weak-grid environments, including things like solar lanterns, home kits and backup battery generators. The company works through community agents by building relationships with trusted local authorities and makes the solutions affordable as a pay-as-you go system. They also work with schools, hospitals, farms, local businesses, and NGOs on larger projects.
“When we all moved to Sierra Leone to work on this full time in July 2016, we didn’t have any security and we had student loans,” said Nthabi about her Easy Solar team. “But when you find something you are passionate about and you see that you have a chance to do something important and meaningful to the world, there’s nothing that can really compare to acting on that opportunity.”
What should Columbians think about if they have an idea that might be the beginning of a startup?
“My advice is: don’t do it alone, and find an ecosystem that fills in the gaps. For me, I started with two other incredibly smart people who are different from me – we challenged each other and helped each other see things in different ways,” said Nthabi. “There’s also a hunger and a drive that’s necessary to keep going, and there’s the need to take advantage of what’s there. Leverage whatever you can. Most of the classes we took at SIPA, we structured to fit our needs.”
According to Nthabi, her time at Columbia transformed her. “Entrepreneurship always seemed like something you did when you had figured life out: something you did when you had sufficient capital and had a lot of connections,” said Nthabi. “But what I really loved about being in the Columbia ecosystem was that that’s not the case at all. When you have an idea and an ecosystem that nurtures that idea, you can turn it into something practical, scalable, and sustainable.”