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DCS #03 Samir Ibrahim of SunCulture

Published: 12 Dec 2022

Last Updated: 19 May 2024

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In this episode of Developing Carbon Stories, we are speaking with Samir Ibrahim, CEO, and co-founder of SunCulture—a climate tech company developing off-grid solar technology to provide farmers with reliable access to water, irrigation, lighting, and mobile charging.

More about Samir.

Find more about the carbon projects by SunCulture.


David Reside: Hi there, my name is David Reside and this is Developing Carbon Stories, a podcast about the project developers creating the most innovative and impactful carbon projects in the world. Developing Carbon Stories is a project by Abatable, a carbon intelligence and procurement platform that helps companies purchase high quality carbon offsets. Each episode I speak with an entrepreneur from a different part of the carbon ecosystem and talk about their journey so far, and how they are acting on climate change.

On this episode we’re speaking with Samir Ibrahim, CEO and co-founder of Sun Culture, a climate tech company based in Kenya, working to solve the biggest daily challenges of small holder farmers. They develop off grid solar technology to provide farmers with reliable access to water, irrigation, lighting, and mobile charging.

Hi Samir, thanks for joining us on this episode of Developing Carbon Stories. It’s great to have you with us.

Samir Ibrahim: Thank you for having me.

DR: I’d like to start by talking about your personal journey before you started or before you co-founded Sun Culture. I did a bit of a low-key LinkedIn stalk and so saw you studied finance at NYU and then you did a year at PWC and then straight after that you co-founded Sun Culture in 2012.

How did that journey start, like was that more of a, you know, a spur of the moment thing? Or was it sort of a lot of work going through uni and then through PWC thinking about this concept.

SI: I wish that I was skilled enough to have this have been a spur of the moment decision. But when I, I suppose when I look back there was really no aha moment and I always think about it.

I think the Sun Culture was my journey and is just a combination of so many things, most of which have to do with my family history and how I was brought up.

My family’s from East Africa and they got here in 1850 and then left in the 1970s, like a lot of other East Africans, Indian origin ones, Idi Amin was giving us some issues in Uganda. Growing up as a child of immigrants in the US, I was born in Canada, then grew up in the US.

My parents always reminded me of the opportunities that I had, that they didn’t, and they kind of forced-fed us that we had to use those opportunities for helping folks that don’t have those opportunities to help remove unnecessary suffering. So, a lot of volunteering was built into our lives, both from my parents through our religious community, et cetera, and I think there was sort of this ethos growing up, but I remember in 2009 when I was in university, I was studying abroad in Shanghai, and I was we were learning about all of the sort of Chinese investment to East Africa.

And I had one relative in Kenya, 2 of my mom’s cousins and his mom. So, I was emailing him all of these like horrible ideas. Like, “Hey this is going to be great, I’m going to come back. This is what I’m going to do” and it was its sort of a combination of sort of being brought up and then looking at what’s happening in the region and then sort of getting being brought this idea for Sun Culture, but because it was just a long journey.

DR: And so did that. did you think the idea for, I mean, cause Sun Culture is based around the, you know, smallholder farming. Did that idea, was that born from I guess the you know the cultural background you have in East Africa? Or was it more from maybe your time in China? Like how did that come about?

SI: No, it wasn’t my idea.

DR: All right, oh, so whose idea was it?

SI: Yeah, it was my cofounder’s idea and it came from a research paper that was written out of a think tank that was doing analysis on an NGO project that happened in West Africa that was combining renewable energy and agriculture doing solar powered depurination but it sort of sub commercial scales, NGO scale and it was that sort of the publicising of that project that started the idea and as we started digging into it. It’s from my personal perspective as I started looking at numbers and even over the last 10 years, like we keep digging into the data, you realise that there’s just this massive opportunity to not only figure out how to solve some of the world’s biggest problems, but do so in an environmentally sustainable way, it’s, you know. I hate sounding preachy, but it really is a win-win situation across a lot of different avenues, which makes us attractive, right?

Which makes us something that is something that I’m willing to commit myself to for a long time so yeah it started from just seeing what was going on and realising no one was doing good and being young and naive enough to think we had a shot.

DR: Well, worked out, worked out pretty well for you so far.

SI: I think we still have a long ways to go, but I feel like we’re in a good position to help to make it out.

DR: Yeah, okay, but what about the idea was like what most resonated with you like as you mentioned it ticks so many boxes in terms of being good for the world, a helpful thing you know a good business opportunity. You know what, when you heard the idea and this concept of maybe what some culture was going to be, started marinating with you. You know what was what was most exciting to you?

Was it climate change? Was it improving food security? You know, what was it? You know the business opportunity? What was it about it?

SI: All of the above I’ve been able to. I’ve been able to refine what was exciting a little bit more clearly now. Because I think once you see how things play out, you say okay, this is what was exciting, this is why, and this is how it played out and the way that we see the world.

One is that the fact that climate change must report disproportionately affects those who are the least contributors to it rings very strongly in our ears every moment, so that’s sort of, that just that’s sort of disproportionate allocation of suffering just, is really present in the way we think about the business.

And climate change mostly affects, you know, smallholder farmers living in emerging markets, those are the that’s the group of people who are the most disproportionately affected by climate change, because they’re the lowest contributors to climate change and they are getting completely wrecked by it and the reason they’re getting wrecked by it is because they make their money by either keeping animals or selling crops, both of which require water.

The way they get their water most of the time is by waiting for the rain, which is inconsistent and unreliable, and the changing climate is making that rainfall more inconsistent and more unreliable. And it’s making it– the temperatures are, it’s just way hotter, which means it’s also getting harder for them to grow food.

So, you have this really large group of people that are getting pushed further into poverty and that is the first big aha moment. Like oh wow like this is really bad and then you start going deeper and deeper, right? And you go deeper and deeper and you say, OK, what happens when this large group of people who you know about, two and a half billion people fall into this category get pushed into poverty.

Well then, they go and they try to make ends meet somehow, so they either do that by buying diesel and petrol pumps which then contribute to climate change, or they go and do stuff like cut down trees to make charcoal illegally, which I know you spoke about with Greg on the previous episode.

DR: Yep, Yep.

SI: Both of these things are just ways to try to make ends meet, but they both contribute to climate change.

So, they go from becoming pushed further into poverty to becoming contributors of climate change, and then the third layer is that more often than not, folks can’t make ends meet and then they have to rush from rural areas to major cities in search of food and shelter.

We have climate migration, and often you have political instability. You look at what’s happened with the Arab Spring with what’s happening in Sri Lanka right now look at Madagascar, Haiti, Syria. Over the last decade. Plus, you have fewer people growing food which exacerbates the food crisis.

So, we sort of said if we can figure out how to improve and protect the productivity of smaller farmers, we not only build a very big meaningful business, but has a really great commercial outcome, but we also help relieve the stress that climate puts on our food, our economic and our political systems.

And that’s what we set to set off to do, and it’s this sort of intersection of how do we solve food insecurity, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, economic, poverty and also reduce political instability and that sort of centre of that Venn diagram is really important for us, and you can do that by improving and protecting the productivity of smaller farmers, so that’s what we set out to do. We started to do this on the continent of Africa, because well one I realised that I had an emotional attachment to the region because my family’s from there of course.

But from a number’s perspective. 2/3 of the workforce in Africa and southern Africa are in agriculture, 2/3 live off grid, 2/3 live in rural areas– mostly the same people.

So you have this very big percentage of a population involved in agriculture, it’s the only continent in the world with an economic water scarcity versus physical water scarcity so we have enough groundwater to solve agricultural challenges, but we just have enough money to afford to pull it up, whereas in other continents and other parts of the world you have this physical water scarcity it’s not enough groundwater and you have abundant lights and you have 60% of the world’s unused farmable land, so you have sort of this perfect combination of all of the resources required to solve this global amalgamation of problems sitting in one place, so we said that’s the perfect place to start so that’s why we launched Sun Culture. We launched to build a platform of climate technology platform for rural emerging markets focused on improving and protecting the productivity of smaller farmers and then some, or all of these other challenges.

So, the way we look at our business now is we say that you know, we’re stealing this technology platform that switches African farmers from carbon emitting diesel fuel pumps and climate vulnerable rain fed irrigation to solar powered irrigation and then we up sell other productive goods and services.

So, we started as a solar powered irrigation company. We’re the first solar powered irrigation company on the continent of Africa.

DR: Oh really, and so most of these smallholder farmers, they’re using diesel generators to pull water from the ground from pores. Is that right?

SI: You’re so they’re doing that, so yeah, using diesel jet sets or petrol pumps to pull water from lakes, rivers, boreholes, water harvesters, or they’re taking buckets, lowering it down into these wells and physically moving water. So those buckets weigh about £45.20 KGS, those big weight plates in the gym.

So, they’re either using these carbon emitting pumps, or they’re using physical manual power to do that.

And the percentage of people that we’ve seen a percentage of our customer base that are using the diesel or petrol pumps has increased over time. So, there’s sort of this urgent needs to figure out how to replace them. But yes, to Sun Culture system I think as you were asking, replaces the power source for the water pumps and the water pumps themselves we replace the whole system.

So, the actual product is a, in a simplified way, there’s a solar panel on the roof, the solar panel is about the size of me you can’t see me right now, but it’s about the size of me, goes into a controller that we spend a lot of time on. We spend a lot of time figuring out how to get a relatively low amount of power to power relatively high-powered appliances, and that controller then goes and moves the power into a water pump that is in any water source, and from the water pump there’s pipes coming up and we allocate water through either sprinklers or then drip irrigation and there’s sort of a product journey that we take our customers up on.

First is this non-battery-based product with sprinklers. So solar panels go into a controller and drop into water pump and sprinklers.

Then we upgrade people into drip irrigation. So using the same amount of water more efficiently so you can expand your land of the irrigation even more, and then you upgrade people into a battery so they can irrigate at night and evening have a little bit more control over their farming and then we add on other appliances– both for productivity so we’re and for the household to lights TV, phone chargers, so there’s a sort of product journey, but it all starts with, “How do we figure out how to displace these on petrol pumps and get people irrigating more effectively?”

DR: Yeah, that’s interesting, I mean the point you make about irrigating it at certain times of the day, I mean, cause, I mean, as I understand it, you know irrigation is best done outside of main daylight hours, and obviously solar panels generating some electricity when it’s daylight. But so, progressing on to the third stage that you mentioned, having that battery that means they can do it in the in the you know the premium time, so hitting those you know those most efficient times for irrigation.

DR: Out of curiosity do you have like numbers off the top of your head in terms of efficiency, like versus using a diesel-powered generator to you know to do something similar. And sorry to put you on the spot.

SI: A few different ways to answer the question right…So you think about the importance of farming the irrigation the reason why irrigation is so important is because we spoke about it before, water is needed to grow crops to keep animals water is the foundation of agriculture irrigation can increase yields by two to five times, so having water in a consistent way regularly can just automatically increase your yields. So, it’s probably the lowest behaviour change required and highest ROI for any sort of farming initiatives. Using the diesel water pump versus the solar water pump in terms of just getting water to your crops, you’re both getting water to your crops.

The difference between a diesel water pump and a solar water pump for a farmer is that diesel water pump requires payments every month forever for fuel. So, they’re spending, you know, 80 U.S. dollars for fuel on a monthly basis.

Our model is we make, sell, service and finance our system so people are paying us on a monthly basis over a period up to 30 months, then they own it. So, after the period of finishing off their lease to own payment period, they have to continue making payments and they’re paying us at 45% less on the upper end of what they’re paying for diesel or petrol on a monthly basis.

So, for them the efficiency is on the money side first so they’re saving money and then they don’t have to spend money. When you use a diesel pump, you often flood your crops. So, you… folks, without your folks without micro irrigation so that sprinklers and drip irrigation are wasting up to 90% of the water because they don’t need that much water.

So, you have sort of water wastage. You have what’s called soil leaching, so nutrients sometimes don’t stay with the crops, because they get too, they get drowned if you drown your crops, if they’re close to a river, sometimes the nutrients you have the fertilisers run off into the river.

You may have certain fertiliser run off and then they go to the river, and then you have this whole sort of ecology issue, so there’s efficiencies on the money side, efficiencies on the water allocation side, and then there are a lot of efficiencies on the private side.

Sell to the farmer you can’t say you know, hey. take this because climate right? It’s a money thing. This is where obviously carbon comes into play, because there’s this non-linear correlation between price and addressable market.

So, to give an example, if we reduce our monthly payments for a farmer, for the monthly cost that a farmer has to pay us by 25%, our addressable market increases by 100 in Kenya.

DR: Right and what would that be in absolute terms, like what’s the, what’s the reach of it at the moment?

SI: So, if we reduce it from $40 to 15% less than $40, which if my math serves you right, it’s $34 that that increases our and I’m just using rough estimates because of the currency, the FX so.

DR: Oh sure, yeah.

SI: We’re having an, we’re having an election tomorrow. So, currency’s been a little bit all over the place the last few months.

DR: Yeah, OK.

SI: So, let’s use roughly $40 a month. This is for our product with the battery, so this is for the larger system with the battery.

DR: That’s like that’s the, that’s the deluxe. That’s the deluxe package, yeah?

SI: That’s the deluxe package. Yeah, if we reduce that from 40 to 30 dollars a month, our addressable market increases by 100%.

If we reduce it from 40 bucks to 20 bucks, by 50%, our addressable market increases by 600%. And this is done just by looking at how much money households make, the percentage of household income people are willing to spend on investing in a product like this, and what percentage of households make that type of money.

In Kenya, households are willing to spend 35% of their household income on non-essential food items. So, you take sort of what percentage of houses have $20 versus $34, which is $40, equals 35% of the multi household incomes, and that’s how we get to that number.

So, there’s this huge benefit to trying to figure out how do you continue to reduce the price of products right? And I maybe sort of pre-empting questions, you’re asking, but, the way we’ve, the way we’ve thought…

DR: No, it’s great, it’s perfect.

SI: The way we thought about stuff, right, in agriculture and energy markets around the world you sort of have seen subsidies that have been used to scale uptake of these systems, right?

Subsidies have been sort of instrumental in getting new technologies into the hands of rural populations from an agricultural perspective and from an electrification perspective, even if you look at sort of the rate of electrification for farmers in the United States in the 1930s.

I believe it was only 10% of farms that were electrified 20 years later post sort of farm subsidy programme you had 90% but my phone that I’m using right now is all but in the markets, we work in there are no subsidies for what we’re doing both on the ad side or that side.

So, one way for us to reduce the price of our product is to sell the carbon credits that are generated by displacing diesel petrol pumps into the voluntary compliance market and using those revenues, not to just boost our margin or have that’s revenues, but directly passing that on to the customer and directly reducing the price.

So, we’re using carbon, so we use financial services, so consumer lending, to try to bring that sort of all upfront price down, spread it out over many months and becomes more affordable for more people.

And then the most important part is how do we use carbon revenues to then continue to lower the price to a point where this becomes a mass market product.

And that’s what we’re, you know, that’s what we’re hoping to do with you, is how do we how do we bring that down.

DR: Yeah, sure.

SI: And that’s the genesis of our carbon business it’s how do we take more ownership and make what we’re doing more accessible because I mean the impact is so needed right now, especially as you look at the global food crisis, right you look at the Russia and Ukraine combined touch 12% of the globally traded commodities.

You look at wheat consumption in many of the markets we work in in Kenya, you look at where that wheat comes from and where we’re at huge risk, right now, and this is true all over the world so the sort of you know, during the pandemic for the first two years of the pandemic, there was a company called 60 decibels that did a lot of surveys for farmers in Kenya and they found that 90% of farmers lost money during the pandemic, which sounds logical, we did surveys around the same time and for our customers in Kenya, nearly the same number, same nearly the same percentage of our customers reported making money.

DR: Yeah, yeah.

SI: Oh, and by the way, the folks that lost money according to the survey they had to result to a financial alternative like selling an asset or something, which is just really sad, especially in hard times. But really, the same percentage of our customers reported making money, reported improving their way of farming, reported spending or land under irrigation, and 96% of our customers reported improving their quality of life.

So, you sort of look at, you know it’s easy for us to say our product reaches 13 SDG’s, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. But when you actually talk to someone, and you talk to some of the most vulnerable people in the entire world during a global pandemic and they’re saying, “I made money and I improved my quality of life.”

That’s real impact, and that’s why there’s such an urgency about our carbon business because we can, we can get that to more people faster.

DR: Yeah, right, and it’s interesting. I mean when you’re talking about the particular crops that these farmers are growing. I mean is the system that sun culture have has, does that lend itself to particular types of crops? Is it sort of region specific in that way, or how does that work?

SI: The beauty of water and the beauty of irrigation is that it increases yields for most things so all of our customers, I’ll say most of our customers because I haven’t met all of our customers now need to be factually correct, but most of our customers practise mixed farming so they keep animals, cows, chickens, goats, etcetera, either for the meat or by products they grow low value crops that are seasonal every six months like beans, maize, potatoes etc., and then they also grow high value horticulture crops and sort of kitchen gardens that expand. So, stuff that we eat in salads– the greens, the peppers et cetera. And one reason they do that is because cash flows for each of those three types of crops and animals are different. So, with animals you can get to the daily weekly cash. For the horticulture, high value, fresh fruits and vegetables, you can get sort of every three months you can harvest for six to eight weeks kind of thing.

SI: And then for the seasonal crops, you’re harvesting every six months they control cash flow that way. Yeah, water helps increase all of those sorts of yields.

DR: OK, so the.

SI: You a few, I’ll give you a few examples, I think. Right, because you have numbers, right?

So, cow’s milk is 85 to 95% water. Yeah, if you give the cow more water, they produce more milk. We’ve seen that just giving a cow water improves milk production by it doubles it the next day essentially, and if you use the water to grow Napia Grass, which is used to feed the cows, you can triple quadruple milk yields, which is huge.

We had one farmer go from something like a handful of farmers. Four or five cows. Sorry, a handful of cows, four or five cows to like 40 cows, a story I was just told just because they had more water. We’ve seen…Yeah, that’s just a water pump moving water. This is just very simply not even using irrigation. It’s just moving water from source, from the ground up to the up to the surface. Yeah, just as simple as that. When you use sprinklers or irrigation on maize, low value crops, traditionally the question was does it work? We’ve seen yields increase by 50 to 100% just on maize.

DR: And that’s sort of…is that conducive for drip irrigation in particular because I mean I would have thought that would be more of like a, you know, turning the tap on and off, sort of situation rather than having a constant flow which might be …

SI: And then of course you can’t grow high value fresh fruits and vegetables regularly without having irrigation. So, we’ve seen incomes increase by 3, 4, 5 times on people’s farms over the course of the year it’s quite significant and just really special to see.

DR: What’s the current reach of Sun Culture at the moment? How many customers have you got across Africa?

SI: So, we’ve served about 30,000 farmers, mostly starting in 2018. I mean, we know we talked about starting ten years ago. First years was a whole separate podcast conversation.

DR: That’s the whole setup. Yeah, yeah.

SI: And then we started raising equity in 2017. Started piloting our financing in 2018 kind of started going. We operate our full network of retail, engineers, sales, finance in Kenya. We work with distribution partners in Ethiopia, Uganda, Togo and then this year we’re going to be launching this stuff full retail sales engineering financing model in two new countries.

Part of the part of the service models is we train our customers and all of our relationship managers for our financing business are trained agronomists, so we were able to provide advice. We’re now–so it’s really interesting is we’re able to correlate asset utilisation with repayments.

If you think about it, it it’s almost obvious that the more regularly someone uses an irrigation system, the better the yield is going to be the better pair there’ll be.

No one’s ever been able to prove that we’re able to prove that now, and we’re able to actually start gamifying good farming behaviour and incentivizing our customers to practise good irrigation behaviour. To sort of remove inefficiency in farming, which is quite an interesting use of the data we’re playing off of our systems.

DR: Yeah, you mentioned the, yeah, the data collection you’re doing. Can you tell me a little bit more about the technology that you have that creates that Internet of Things between the different products that you have and how that sort of centralises this data collection?

SI: It’s really… I find it to be one of the most interesting parts of our business right now. So, we have we have our sort of embedded data science platform that collects all of this data.

SI: We call it. We call it Maarifa. Maarifa means knowledge in Swahili, and it does sort of two things. So, it it’s and we’re building it to sort of beef up the capabilities of both of these things.

So, one part of it is the first pillar I suppose is incentivizing good farming behaviour like we spoke about, so we obviously have data that’s collected from our customers who they are, where they live, etc.

What crops they’re growing, some of them we have slow data on them for beefing that up as well. We have data on how much solar is we have all the data coming off of the solar panel, so irradiance etc we have all the data coming from the system, how they’re using it, when they’re using it, etc so all this sort of like live usage data which is, for us really unique because when people look at lending to small holder farmers which has been a big nut to crack over the past few decades, especially in development work. A lot of people are looking at making credit decisions based off of origination or pattern matching like what traditional banks do.

So, David, if you and I went to go get a loan, they’d compare my salary and where I’m from my background and my credit score with those that they’ve given before and said, OK… Same with you.

The thing is, farming this thing with farmers is that there’s no credit history, very few assets to set as collateral, and the value is actually coming from a growing season, from the assets themselves. So, from the farm, et cetera, not necessarily from the farmer. So, it’s hard to figure out if someone is a good farmer. We’re now able to actually get the first real insights into a farmer’s business behaviour, which is what’s needed to actually figure out if they’re going to be a good pair or not. So, we obviously use origination best practises, but what’s really interesting is we can now start to tell who might turn into, who might start having trouble mid-season because they’re not using the irrigation system as they were at the beginning of the season we can send nudges we can give phone calls we can, we can.

That’s where the incentivizing the farming behaviour comes in. Because we have insights into, you know, might someone become a bad pair? Might they have trouble mid-season? Let’s course correct that.

So, this is the first time that we’re able to see and course correct mid-season which we find very exciting, so that’s one pillar of maarifa.

The second one is just giving tailored advice. So how do we bring in weather forecasts, crop information and give customised tailored recommendations to our customers, so that’s sort of something that we’re building and we’re using third party partners, data that we have to give that advice.

And the third pillar and I know I said there’s two pillars, but there’s actually 3, the third, the third pillar is how do we connect folks to the agriculture value chain? How do we bring in seed companies, fertiliser companies, other products and services, insurance companies into what we’re doing you know everyone there’s a, there’s a big, maybe it’s just in my head, but a bigger race to be the entry point into smallholder farmers and there’s companies that provide seeds and fertilisers. Those companies provide a lot of other stuff that they’ve actually reached more farmers than we’ve reached and are hoping to sort of be the entry point to farmers. But the challenge is that it’s much easier to sell somebody, for example, inputs or insurance when they have an irrigation system than vice versa.

One, irrigation systems are more expensive, so it’s much easier to give someone credit for something cheaper once you have given them something for credit bigger.

But irrigation systems are an insurance policy. It allows you to know that that farmer is going to be making more money than they would have otherwise, so it’s easy to layer things on top because we’re increasing money that they’re making and increasing the food that’s being grown. It’s really easy for us to then become this sort of platform to layer things on top of which is again why we need to go from to 30,000 farmers to 100,000 farmers very quickly, and then to 500,000 farmers to 1,000,000 to 3,000,000 to 10 million very fast, because the need for sort of what we’re doing right now is very urgent.

But I digress from the technology side, so that’s what we’re using the IoT, the IoT for and there’s a lot of–

DR: Yeah OK, yeah.

SI: There’s a lot of cool things we can do with it, but the first is, how do we just make sure that our customers are the best farmers in the world. How do we take traditionally, very what are considered to be risky customers to banks and make them super bankable.

That’s the first part, the second part is how do we then make sure that they have access to the world of agriculture and open up the world to help them become sort of participate in the consumer markets first from the commercial agriculture perspective and just from a regular human consumption perspective. That’s the that’s the goal and the IoT platform, maarifa, allows us to do that with the data, we’re collecting.

DR: OK, and at like a practical level, I mean that two way communication that you have with the customers is that just enabled through an app or something like that or how does it? How does that enable?

SI: It’s on a very practical level, it’s enabled first from phone calls, then through SMS’s USSD, and then an app. So, there’s sort of different layers that we’ve built in.

We’re rolling that custom app right now, yeah?

DR: Just spiced around the needs of the is that spiced around the different needs of the customers and for that sort of reason.

SI: Both the needs and also just timing of building right? We start with what’s easiest and then build up to what’s hardest. So, we’re now rolling. We’ve built in our rolling out a customer app, and that’s going to continue to evolve but before we had that we were just sending messages to people. Phone calls, messages. Yeah, simple.

DR: Yeah, keep it simple if it works.

SI: Yeah, yeah, yeah don’t need to overcomplicate things.

DR: Yeah, and I wanted to just go back on one point you were talking about the electrification as being such a critical element of development in in Africa and solving the problems that you mentioned.

Has that given an opportunity to collaborate with the government like have you been speaking to the Kenyan Government about these sorts of things? Like how has that been a collaboration that’s been there from the beginning or something you’re looking at?

SI: Yes and no, at the same time. So, in some markets, yes, in some markets, no and more something we’re looking at more recently.

So, in Kenya, we’ve started working with county governments under a World Bank programme and both of the candidates running for president and again the election is tomorrow, have put climate smart agriculture in their manifesto as sort of what they what part of what they need to focus on.

So, we’re very much looking forward to collaborating with the new administration, whoever, whoever leads the administration working with them to build policies that help food sovereignty. We’ve worked with the Togolese government, so we’re currently working with them on Africa’s first solar irrigation subsidy programme.

So, the Togolese government raised money externally and subsidised our products by 50% in market and this happened, you know we had always we were talking about doing a partnership with them and then the COVID crisis exacerbated their food challenges and they and I think with supply chains being choked they realised that they need to solve this and they can’t solve it internally with technology. So, we started working with them on that, which we’re very excited by.

We’re very interested in national food security programmes. We want to work with more governments. I feel we didn’t have the capability to do so from a supply side from an understanding side just from the capacity side.

Over the last couple of years, we’ve built that capability and now we’re really interested in doing country wide food security programs with governments. I feel like it would be in doing one where the government would allow other governments to see they can solve issues internally, and they’re not that expensive.

You know there was a report that was published by Dalburg a couple of years ago that said that in Kenya you would only need $96 million of subsidy to get the country to 100% food security over a 10-year period using solar water pumps and irrigation.

So as long as somebody runs a little bit amount of money to do this so.

DR: That was that was million. Was it 96 million, right?

SI: Million, yeah million, not a lot of money and if technology costs have gone down from 2 year ago as well, so I guess that’s 70 million, 65 million dollars would solve it.

It’s not a lot of money and you’re talking about getting a country to food security. 100% food security, right? Africa has projected to spend $100 billion importing food by 2030.

DR: Well, yeah.

SI: That’s wild, especially knowing that, like I said earlier, we have 60% of the world’s unused arable land. We have sufficient and abundant groundwater. We have a population that is involved in agriculture that needs more jobs and we have to import food, it’s sad. It’s really, really sad. And we need to figure out how to make Africa the bread basket of the world.

DR: Hmm, well it sounds like I mean there’s such a big opportunity there to grow into. I mean, it’s a sad thing, but at the same time it, it just shows it presents itself as a as a really big opportunity and something you’re you know aspiring to deliver on.

Yeah, I think that’s a natural little segway. You know to hear about the, you know, the vision for Sun culture, the aspirations like, you know the next. The next five years, what does, what does Sun Culture look like in in five years time? I guess. At the moment you’re across five countries with around 160 employees. Is that about, right?

SI: About 370 employees and I think you.

DR: Wow, I’m way off.

SI: Yeah, I think, I think you forgot all of our sales agents that are that are out there doing the hard work selling these systems.

DR: I must have apologies to the to the sales agents listening.

SI: It’s no, it’s OK, it’s OK. I you know, I think in five years, Sun Culture, there’s a way for us, we’re just scratching the surface, right? We’re the largest distributor of solar water pumps for smaller farmers in Africa. But we’re only at 30,000 farmers, it’s we’re just scratching the surface and I feel like we’re just getting started in this business right now we need to be in the millions.

I feel like there’s a pathway for us to figure out, how do we? How do we get to being 50 times bigger in five years.

How do we–40 times bigger. How do we get much larger than we are right now and a big part of that is figuring out a reduced price but it’s really thinking about how do we bring in carbon?

How do we do country level food security programmes? How do we launch distribution partnerships in other continents and how do we put together a platform that that allows us to use what we’ve developed in terms of modularity, both in terms of our business model but also in terms of our software to scale this kind of hardware. How do we use carbon financing software to then look at bringing this to as many countries as fast as possible, but it’s all about operational execution right now, plus bringing up the price.

So, it’s kind of the how do we reduce the price and just execute operation, purely that. There’s a lot of exciting things we could do in terms of layering new products on top, like I spoke about.

But at the end of the day, we don’t figure out how to grow 70% more food by 2050 to feed this 9 billion people, we’re in a big amount of trouble and we don’t figure out how to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by 45% by 2030 we’re in big trouble some…

So, there’s a lot of sort of urgent near term needs that we need to solve and we see our role as how do we how do we get as many solar powered irrigation systems to as many farmers as fast as possible. But in the next 5 years I think there’s scope to be sort of a multiple of 10 larger and really starting to crack and prove that this works.

And hopefully catalyse more. You know, a big reason. I want Sun culture to be big and successful and you know successful in terms of actually providing huge returns to investors and being able to absorb and allocate huge amounts of money successfully, efficiently. And there’s a lot of ways to define success, but in this particular sense I’m talking about financially successful.

Is because I want to prove that these types of climate solutions that require both digital and physical infrastructure, which are traditionally looked at being very hard to scale, are super scalable and are really good investments because we need a lot more of these, if going to be reaching our climate goals. And if we don’t reach our planning goals, the head of the IPCC said that we won’t secure a liveable future, which is really scary yeah, and I don’t want to be in that position, so a big goal for us is how do we prove that these businesses can be a good investment so that people use us as a as an example. I want people to say, oh, I can invest in this biogas business or I can invest in this other hardware based climate business because of Sun Culture like I want people to use this as the pattern match is what I really want.

So that’s sort of the harder and non-tangible version of what Sun Culture looks like five years, but that’s sort of where we want to go.

DR: Yeah, that’s what you’re aiming for. I guess that’s you know that that’s mostly Sun Culture. I mean, we don’t have a lot of time left, but I would like to hear about, you know other than Sun Culture and solar irrigation for smallholder farmers, you know what’s the most exciting space for you right now in in in climate change solutions? What are the things you’re looking at and admiring? I mean, if you have any off the top of your head.

SI: Oh wow. I’m really, really interested in how people are using carbon revenues to scale technologies and emerging markets that both sort of empower people who are most affected by climate change but also reduce and avoid carbon emissions and there’s this sort of sweet spot. Right, you know you spoke with KOKO, there’s a lot of there’s a few companies doing this.

But there’s this sort of I think there’s a big focus on removals right now, and I want to make sure people don’t forget that while removals are, while engineered removals are important in the future, we need to also make sure we’re– the future doesn’t matter if we don’t get to 2030 with 45% reduction in greenhouse gas.

Yeah, and what’s most exciting for me and I think most pressing is focusing on that. What’s going to help us reduce our emissions by what we need to in the next 8 years. So, I’m really looking at stuff that is figuring out how to decarbonize big assets. I’m looking at the energy transition into solar.

It’s just really figuring how to how to move that you know trillion dollars of profit that the oil and gas industry makes annually, which don’t quote me on that, but I think it’s there and how to use that energy.

DR: Be around that.

SI: So, I’m really on the energy transition. How do you? How do you? How do you switch that over? So, for me it’s and a big part of it will come from emerging markets and I think that there’s this really big opportunity to solve a lot of problems while you do it. So, what’s most exciting to me is sort of those areas.

I know it was broad, but I guess I’m trying to show where I’m less excited by the engineered solutions are really important, but natural carbon sinks and nature-based solutions are there and they’re working and they can, they can do a lot of work.

DR: Yeah, yeah.

SI: So, my big focus is on, how can we get more people focusing on the next eight years versus post that because it’s sort of a without one, you don’t have the other side where we’re in this moment in time where you can’t just plan for the future, you kind of have to fix it now.

DI: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, it’s refreshing to hear that like. I mean, we have so many solutions that that that can help right now that that we can be deploying, but still so much focus is put on innovation and it’s great to have you know focus on innovation of course.

But at the same time as you mentioned, there are lots of solution, nature-based solutions, avoidance projects going on which are just as just as critical if not more.

SI: Yeah yeah, and I was I was going to say KOKO Networks.

SI: But you just you have them already, so you know, yeah.

DR: Yeah, that’s right. Already got to them.

SI: Yeah, there’s a there’s another really cool company I think you should talk to called Systema Bio. They’re doing very cool very cool biogas stuff and again the additional code benefits are huge. There’s a, there’s a there’s a big carbon application. You know they’re also really cool, so I think there’s some cool innovations. And I think it’s how do you–there’s this, there’s this, you know, people talk about avoidance credits and removal credits there’s this this woman that we that I met a few weeks ago, who and I think she coined us from protection credits.

So how do you look at hmm sort of– If we if we sell systems to farmers that are lining a very important and very yeah very climate forest for example. And we make sure that they have enough money with our service to go cut those cut those two down so.

They’re kind of in what’s called a buffer zone so if we figure out how to improve and protect the productivity of those farms we’re also making sure that we protect these natural carbon 6 and I think there’s this really, this really interesting sort of emerging market theme that could be looked at.

And how do you how do you look at sort of very targeted innovations in those areas too? So that’s also kind of exciting to me because it does talk about it doesn’t, it does work with sort of using carbon to replace this technology, but how do you then like supercharge how do you get it to be plus, which I think is quite cool.

DR: Yeah, there’s a lot to be excited about, and Sun Culture is definitely one of the ones to watch on that list, yeah.

SI: Thank you, thank you. That was very kind.

DR: Yeah, no, it’s terrific work that you’re doing and it’s definitely one that we want to keep an eye on.

SI: Thank you.

DR: I think that’s probably just about time. I probably had a few more questions, but we’ll have to have you on again.

SI: I love it, this is great.

DR: Thanks so much for joining us Samir. It’s been great chatting with you.

SI: Awesome, thank you. Yeah, thanks for all the work you’re doing and for sharing these stories and yeah, we just have a lot of work to do, so I’m happy to be able to do it with folks like you.

DR: Definitely thanks very much. It’s great to hear your story.

SI: Thank you.


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