The Irishman bringing solar electricity to rural Mozambique

Kevin Kennedy's company sells solar systems to the 4m households without power

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Each week, Irish Times Abroad meets an Irish person working in an interesting job overseas. Here, Kevin Kennedy from Rathgar tells us about selling and financing solar systems to families in rural Mozambique

When did you leave Ireland?

I left  in 1983. I was one of those people who used to take the ferry to Holyhead to save money. At least 30 per cent of my year of science graduates emigrated. We went to London and other English-speaking places. Though I left Ireland when economic migration was high, for me it was always going to happen. I wanted to get to know other places, so once I started to travel, I just kept adding other countries such as Peru, Uganda, Spain and Mozambique. Learn a few languages and the world opens up . England was not my destination. It was a place to earn money and a stepping stone.

So much of what I am was formed in Synge Street. I still feel it

Did you study in Ireland? 

Over the years and after Trinity College, I’ve picked up a few degrees. The university environment is perfect for learning, but terrible for doing - and I like both. So I’ve used each degree to help me shift direction - from zoology to accounting to social enterprise. In 2009 while dealing with the new reality that a 50-year-old man was never going to get another job in financial services in Europe, I did a Master’s in International Development and used it to get into solar system financing and then mobile money in East Africa. And yet so much of what I am was formed in Synge Street. I still feel it.

Where have you worked since you left Ireland?

I spent five years in the US, and 20 in London riding the financial services boom and raising a family in Surrey. After selling my business in 2008, I lost half of my money trying to rent art online in something that seemed very cutting edge at the time, but was like trying to light a candle in a hurricane. So I stopped that and went to Uganda to help a new company learn how to rent solar systems. I did the "I liked it so much I bought the company" thing, though the reality is I made a small investment which represented the last of my capital.

I managed that company for 18 months and then started being asked to work in other countries in Africa to help do the same. Last year, beginning to feel like consulting was becoming too much like talking about something rather than doing it, I decided to set up another company. I liked the look of Mozambique, got on a plane and did the damn thing.

Kevin Kennedy far off-road in Mozambique
Kevin Kennedy far off-road in Mozambique

Tell us about your work now.

My company here, Epsilon Energia Solar, sells small solar systems to the four million Mozambican households that do not have electricity. We’ve sold about 1,500 so far, so there’s a way to go. The systems cost about €140, which is what many households already spend over a year on kerosene, batteries and the weekly trip to charge up the phone. So while our system represents great value given that it lasts four to five years, the challenge is that almost no family has a year’s expenditure on hand. So we offer hire purchase, and collect the payments using the mobile money system MPesa. This is finance for the poor. Like paying for the telly on the never never in another place and time. Well, in Mozambique we use mobile money as I said, and "never never" becomes "poco a poco" [little by little] over the course of a year, and then it’s done, and family expenditure on light and phone-charging drops to zero.

A stalwart support base for Benifca, Porto, Sporting Lisbon. Eusebio came from here

I spend half my time raising money for the business, and half working with staff to build up the company. The team sells far off-road in Central Mozambique where electricity poles will never ever come. We meet local community leaders and begin the process of introducing ourselves, our product and mobile money. It is amazing that where electricity will never arrive, mobile money is already present. So we are filling the gap creating what is beginning to be called the "distributed grid", which means families with their own stand-alone solar systems.

What challenges are there?

We are taking solar to places where it is unknown, and trying to persuade people to switch over their spending from batteries and candles. And then we tell them that they will be paying using their mobile phones. So it takes a while to get things off the ground, but people learn very fast, particularly when some neighbours take the leap and demonstrate that it actually is a good idea that saves them money and houses full of smoke.

If you wanted to come and work in Ireland, what would your career opportunities be like?

I would estimate the chances of me getting a job in Ireland as a shade over absolutely zero. I am 56, and by now indelibly labelled strange and too independent to manage. There’s no happy return to a professional career when you have been an entrepreneur in strange places. You’ve see behind the curtain and know how companies are made and run and sometimes fail.

What is it like living in Mozambique?

It’s beautiful and interesting. It’s a strange anachronism being a large ex-Portuguese colony, speaking the language of the old oppressors, embracing their music, importing vast quantities of olive oil and wine, and representing a stalwart support base for Benifca, Porto, Sporting Lisbon. Eusebio came from here. Maputo and all the regional capitals have their cafés and villas. There are 4,000km of Indian ocean coast which offers access to the islands, reefs and beaches of Tanzania and Kenya. And then there are the parks - big and empty. Empty because the animals were mostly killed during the long long civil war.

What advice would you give to someone interested in pursuing a career away from Ireland?

I don’t know that I can give advice. For me the urge to get to know the world is an irresistible force. If I am somewhere interesting, and I know it well, there are other places that are more interesting that I don’t know yet. But I suppose what I would say is give it time. A couple of weeks or months doesn’t get you under the skin of a place, and for me, working in a new country is the way to understand more.

What do you think your future holds?

If I have the health and some savings, the future will be interesting because I won’t accept anything less. I think Mozambique will be the last country in Africa that I live and work in though. If we are successful here, I will want to take another leap of faith. Russian is a beautiful language ... but maybe now that I speak Portuguese, Brazil might be more fun.

What emigration meant for me as a child simply doesn’t exist any more

Is there anything you miss about living and working in Ireland?

My aunt and her young husband took the boat to New Zealand. Another one went to Canada. It was accepted that we would hardly ever see them. The distances were unimaginable, and I always felt a bit sad for my mother who was close to both. But now, if you miss people, you get on the plane and there you are. What emigration meant for me as a child simply doesn’t exist any more. We have extended absences and much more ability to decide how long we stay away, and how quickly we return. In the return suitcase... scotch eggs and English mustard.

If you work in an interesting career overseas and would like to share your experience with Irish Times Abroad, email abroad@irishtimes.com with a little information about you and what you do.

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