To make a real change
A founder like Torsten Schreiber exists still far too rare in this world.
Together with his wife Aida, he founded the company “Africa Green Tec” to bring electricity, clean water and Internet to African countries and villages, where electricity often only gets produced by extremely polluting means .
This interview was a special pleasure for us! That’s why we are very curious how you, the readers, like it. In any case, it was an enrichment for us as well as a motivation and a “kick in the right direction” to keep up and to positively influence the world. Because there are only limits where we put them.
How and when did you get the idea to start your own business?
I am actually a serial founder in terms of businesses. I founded my first company at the age of 13, a publishing house. As a young boy I wanted to be a journalist and worked at a student magazine. Together with a few boys from my class, we founded the first nationwide school newspaper called “Imperfekt”. At that time, we had support and it was a really exciting and beautiful experience.
The catalyst for founding Africa Green Tec in 2014 was a visit to a 20-megawatt diesel power plant in Mali. This monster burned the unbelievable amount of 9 semi-trailers of diesel every day. That really touched and moved me, so I came to the decision to do something.
At that time, I still worked at “bettervest”, a crowdfunding platform for energy efficiency projects, which I co-founded in 2012. At that time, mainly energy efficiency projects were financed there in order to change bulbs into LEDs. In Mali, I saw how much the impact on climate change would be if such machines got replaced, and then I first made bettervest aware of this new market and then launched Africa Green Tec.
What was your motivation and vision at that time?
The vision was to replace diesel generators in Africa with renewable energies, which is not limited to photovoltaics. This is still the core concept, but since then, our model has been complemented by various other aspects to a holistic approach, our 360-degree Social Impact Vision. In 2015/16, the Syrian civil war and the refugee debate were added. Today, 2018/19, “Fridays For Future” also makes climate change even more aware.
To actively and locally work on these topics is our brand’s essence, because we help people in the global South to fight against the causes of their potential escape by promoting climate protection and bringing renewable energies and technology that helps people to generate value locally and independently. That sounds pretty much like a perfect solution, maybe a little unrealistic. We are in the midst of the great issues of the time, so to speak, in the eye of the storm, and do what many only speak. Our motto here is the German “#nixBlaBla” or translated in English “#doinginsteadoftalking”.
Were there initial challenges?
The challenges never stopped. The biggest one is to inspire new investors to take very high risks. At the same time, our topics are of course very exciting and affect all people. However, we do not want to raise any donations. Instead we want to build an economic model that treats our customers as such and not as aid recipients.
Of course, investors also want to know how they get their money back. If the media is the only source of information about a country such as Mali, Niger or Somalia, people often have a lot of prejudices and images in their heads. Often, they cannot imagine that people in these countries have valuable resources too. Not gold, diamonds or rare gems, but e.g. the knowledge of seeds and agriculture, to which we want to go back with “organic”. Everything there gets produced in organic quality. We see an insane benefit in this knowledge.
Because when people with these clean, non-pesticide treated soils are given the opportunity to do what they have done for 100 years, supported by electricity, water and light, they can create really beautiful and fertile landscapes. Other problems such as flight and migration disappear almost automatically.
What does a typical day in your life look like today?
I spend most of my time doing fundraising. The sustainable financing of our structure is my main task because people who want to give money also want to know what the founder is like. Some confuse Mali with Bali.
I am like a spider in a very complex web of relationships. On the whole, we travel around three continents and therefore meet different cultures and very different expectations from stakeholders, which means that I basically have to manage relationships. It’s often exhausting as well, because my political views are sometimes different from the mainstream and investors. They often don’t want me to talk about them on Facebook. However, I rarely adapt and I like to call things by my name.
Meanwhile, my work changes me too, also visually. My beard has not been cut since the children in Mali called me Santa. I always look forward to laughing with them and seeing what we have achieved there, that we have positively influenced the future of thousands of children. The joy of witnessing the first time when children see light in the village in the evening is something unforgettable. The reality in Germany is, as far as that is concerned, very much postponed, which always makes travel to Mali, like a civilization refugee.
What are the key skills and qualities to succeed in your industry?
I think intercultural communication, understanding and patience for completely different, often diametrical, cultures and also temperatures, is especially important. Sometimes I experienced 60 degrees difference between departure and arrival country. Understanding this “completely different world” is a basic requirement. You have to be prepared to leave your own patterns of thinking and beliefs at the departure airport so that you can re-enter the situations and realities every time.
My private life motto is a very old one namely “The way is the goal”. You never stop learning, set your goals as a course and do not forget to live the moment as well.
Do you have a secret of success?
For me, there is a secret of success that other people would certainly judge differently, namely: give without expectation. I tend to trust people more intuitively, so mutual trust is well built and you can quickly come up with solutions and results. Of course, you will also often get disappointed.
How do you / your business earn money?
Well, we are basically a corporate group with three different parts.
We are a technology company
There is the Africa GreenTec AG, which develops and produces the technical solutions, the know-how and the products. Our main product is the solar tanker, which generates electricity, stores electricity, prepares drinking water and provides internet via satellite. Over a period of several years, we have developed this plant, optimised it and made it an interesting platform, which enables enormous development in these countries or villages.
We are a financing service
Secondly, we have found that people are able to pay for electricity but don’t have access to finance capital goods. That is why we set up financing units, SPVs (special purpose vehicles) to pre-finance the assets. That was the second important step. We started crowdfunding and today we have a corporation on the capital market that issues a corporate bond. This bond will pre-finance the investments in Mali. In the near future, we will expand this model through our own financing platform.
We are energy suppliers
The third company was established locally in Mail, Niger and Somalia. The plant will then be built, financed and operated by this third unit in each country.
At first this sounds complex, but it is logically structured because the companies are in different countries and cultures and thus have different stakeholders. Malian society e.g. has customers, people who buy the electricity. The financing company addresses investors who want to make a difference with their money. We are talking about “impact investing”. The R & D Company & Holding focuses on the technology and develops it further. In many technical areas, we are pioneers and provide solutions that are not available elsewhere. For example, pure solar storage solutions, no hybrid diesel solutions, or the local implementation of “smart homes” and smart electricity meters with flexible rates for the needs of the people. We really have field experience in these areas and we have good solutions.
The first value gets added directly at the sale to the financing unit, where the wages are also factored here in Germany. The margin, however, is not particularly high, because the interest of us and our employees is to be able to offer the customers a fair and affordable tariff.
Is there anything that you think can be improved on your industry?
#UnfuckTheWorldis something that I would like to put down to any industry. Stop hurting the planet. I think if you succeed with this you are already a long way ahead.
If you could start again, would you do something different?
I do not think so, because everything was necessary for me to be where I am right now.
Every experience is part of an authentic story.
What do you advise others for their lives and careers?
I often experience that many young, well educated people are no longer willing to spend their working lives only for money, without a meaning.
We are currently in a phase where there is a kind of cultural struggle about nothing less than the survival of our species. The one part is driving at full throttle, so to speak, completely selfish, while the other side is willing to give up on not meaningful things. These people are willing to give up or sacrifice something in favour of a higher goal or social peace, such as eating no meat or not driving a car. Of course, there are grey areas, but in my opinion the people in the universities can roughly be divided into these groups. Some already have a well-paid employment contract in their pocket while studying. In order to participate in something meaningful, some of them have already offered to work for us, even without payment. That’s too extreme, of course, we do not accept something like that. However, this shows how important it has become, especially for young people, what they spend their time with and whether they can justify that to themselves.
This is totally exciting, because that presents a huge opportunity for our society, when this feeling of dissatisfaction becomes a movement.
Often Aida and I experience that people find it particularly great what we do, but are afraid to take actions by themselves.
That’s why I would recommend to create a company, if possible, a “social enterprise” or join one.