UpEnergy Is Taking Over Ugandan Households

Erik Wurster, Chief Executive Officer, UpEnergy

Erik Wurster, Chief Executive Officer, UpEnergy
Erik Wurster, Chief Executive Officer, UpEnergy

UpEnergy distributes household energy products throughout Uganda. They generate revenues not only from the sale of the product, but also from the sale of carbon credits associated with the use of those products, which enables them to deliver high quality products at affordable prices. 

This start-up has a founding team of five people, Erik Wurster being the CEO of the company. The strong team has deep experience in social entrepreneurship, improved cookstoves, carbon finance and more traditional finance.

In an interview with Erik Wurster this is what he said about this fast growing start-up:

1.            What was the inspiration behind the UpEnergy, how it began and what did it take for you to get where you are now?

Most of us were already involved in the cleantech / carbon finance sector in Africa. The goal of UpEnergy was to incorporate all of our collective lessons learned into one company that could attract private sector capital (many of us did our previous work under the auspices of non-profit organizations) and thus redouble our efforts towards maximizing impact among the households we serve.


         2.    What were you doing before UpEnergy

Prior to co-founding UpEnergy I co-founded a company called E+Carbon, which was a subsidiary of the non-profit cleantech investor E+Co. We developed some of the first carbon finance / cookstove projects in Africa, starting in 2007.

Nicole Ballin, Chief Operating Officer, UpEnergy
Nicole Ballin, Chief Operating Officer, UpEnergy

         3.Did you know you were going to be an Entrepreneur all along or did it happen by chance?

It was really by chance. Entrepreneurship was a way to accomplish our goals of generating financially sustainable, scalable change in Africa among those most in need. There are very few groups doing exactly what we do, so there weren’t many places we could go if we chose a path other than entrepreneurship.

          4.How successful are you in the business? Is there competition? And how do you face them

UpEnergy already has a significant track record of success, a mature distribution channel and we boast a market leading management team. We’ve proven to be able to execute more effectively and at lower cost than many of our competitors. Our branded distribution channel (we use the brand name SmartHome locally in Uganda) garners customer loyalty, while our growing list of exclusive arrangements with suppliers and distributors increases the barrier to entry for our competitors.

5.            How is the response in your market, and who is your most important client?

Our response among our clients has been exceedingly positive. Not only do our Ugandan customers value our products, but we have garnered significant support within the international community for selling carbon credits from our Ugandan operations. This is best exemplified by our contract to sell 500,000 carbon credits to the Swedish government from now through 2021. This gives us full price security in a volatile commodities market, which guarantees us a reliable income stream for the duration of the contract. You can read more about this here

6.            Does ICT play a big role in you organization?

We use mobile money for some of our transactions. We’ve also piloted a mobile platform to track sales in the field, so this has at this stage not gotten past the pilot phase.

7.            What do you love most about your business and your life as an Entrepreneur?

The company’s ability to impact the lives of our customers is the most compelling aspect of UpEnergy to me.

Mark Mutaahi, Uganda Country Director, UpEnergy
Mark Mutaahi, Uganda Country Director, UpEnergy

8.            What keeps you and your team motivated?

Our ability to impact the lives of our customers and partners in a positive way is what motivates us most. Since our founding, UpEnergy has served over 125,000 Ugandans through the sale high efficiency cookstoves. The environmental impact is considerable, with 30,000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions avoided and over 120,000 trees saved thus far.

The households we serve save several hours per day through reduced time needed for cooking and fuel collection. These impacts are significant in aggregate, but perhaps the most compelling impact on the individual level comes from the income generating opportunities we offer our retailers and sales agents.

For example, Aaron Okello is a motorcycle taxi driver turned stove salesman whose life was completely transformed due to income from working with UpEnergy. Aaron was able to relocate his wife and three children from northern Uganda to the city, rent suitable housing for the entire family, pay school fees for all of his children and pay 50 percent of the dowry for his wife, an important step towards recognition and respect in his culture. None of this was possible for him as a taxi driver.

9.            What can your team not live without?

I’d have to say Ugandan Groundnut sauce. We spend a lot of time in rural Uganda selling our products, and there’s nothing better after a full day out in the field than settling down to a Ugandan meal that includes Groundnut sauce.

10.        Is there a specific skill one needs to join you, if yes what is it

The skill sets we require depend very much on the specific role for which we are recruiting. However, the common theme is that we seek people who think and can work independently, and who can grab a project and run with it. We are still a small, entrepreneurial organization, which requires our employees to be flexible and self-motivated.


11.        What does UpEnergy have in store for the future?

UpEnergy is aiming to serve 1 million end users in Uganda by 2015 with life-improving products. This will require investing and innovating in distribution and logistics, after-sales service, consumer and retailer finance, marketing and carbon finance. With these milestones achieved we will have created the foundation to not only become the primary distributor of clean energy products throughout Uganda, but also to replicate our model in other countries.

12.        Who was the most influential person or mentor in your life?

My father; he is a successful environmental activist and academic and co-founder of the Environmental Defense Fund, a leading environmental advocacy group in the US. Many of his principles have influenced my career and my desire to create lasting change.


13.        What advice would you give to any person who wants to follow your example

I think the most useful advice I ever received was to follow your passion and what interests you most rather than seeking out lucrative jobs. If you are passionate about your work and you are good at it, the money will follow, and in the end you will be far more successful in your career.