When agents for the mobile network Tigo came to the village of Mwamabaza scouting for a local representative they were directed to Nelson Gwimira as the most enterprising man in the community. Nelson runs a phone charging business and barber shop using solar power and sells airtime vouchers for the three main networks in Tanzania. The Tigo staff were looking for someone interested in offering mobile money services. Nelson signed up and will soon be enabling his neighbours to send and receive money through their phones. He will be the first person in his community to offer this service.
Mwamabanza is 5km from the national grid down a dirt road off the main highway east of Mwanza in northern Tanzania. It is typical of hundreds of communities in this region. People grow rice, cotton and vegetables, keep a few cows and goats. Many people in the village own phones but there is no electricity and no bank.
Nelson started charging phones last year, operating from his home with a 25W panel. When he heard of GVEP’s programme of support for solar charging businesses in the Mwanza region he applied to join. During the initial training sessions he picked up a number of ideas and immediately set about implementing them. He bought a second panel of 50W, constructed a small shop and opened up a barber shop. The electric clippers run off the battery and inverter connected to the panel. He moved his other panel to the shop and now provides the phone charging service from the there. The business has been operating successfully for four months.
The day I visited there were 17 phones charging. Demand is high. Nelson told me he never charges fewer than 15 phones in a day and normally it is around 30. He has started keeping records calculating each month his profit from the business in a cashbook. He’s now building a small shop next door to the existing unit where the phone and mobile money business will operate from, leaving the existing space for hair cutting. He has built these structures on the land of a neighbour. The land is free for two years after which he will pay a monthly rent. He employs one full-time person at the shop and another part-time.
Phone charging is good business but recently competition has arisen from people who are stealing power from a nearby phone mast and running a service as 200/- a charge (US 12 cents.) Nelson has had to lower his price from the 300/- he was charging to remain competitive. The thieves of course have no costs as they get their power supply free. GVEP has reported the illegal activities at the mast to the local officials to try to get it stopped.
Nelson’s ambitions do not stop with phones and haircutting. He has applied with GVEP assistance for a loan of 1.5m Tanzanian shillings ($930) to set up a regular TV show – football, news and films. Nelson has never taken a loan before but has joined a local credit and savings cooperative from which he will be able to obtain finance. GVEP has negotiated a lower than normal interest rate for entrepreneurs it introduces. GVEP has worked with the cooperative for several years and has helped it acquire active and reliable new members.
The TV shows will be screened in the backyard of Nelson’s house, under a thatched canopy supported on wooden poles. It’s a simple structure of traditional design which can be made from locally available material at low cost. Nelson showed me some of the tree trunks and branches he has already started to gather. They are piled by a saw pit where he is cutting the wood into rough planks for seating using a handsaw. Like the mobile banking the TV shows will be a new development for the community.
‘Before I met GVEP my vision was clouded.’ Nelson said. ‘GVEP gave me many ideas, even the cabinet in which I keep the phones while they are charging to protect them from dust. I built this after the training I received. I also started keeping records. This helps me monitor the business. I can see that this week I had a lot of customers and this week less. It helps me know if we are giving good customer service.’
The opportunity with Tigo was not the direct result of an introduction by GVEP. But because of his training and enterprise Nelson was able to convince the agents he was the man to do business with.