By Amanda Ellen Nicola Jojo
ZEAL is an intense pursuit of some outcome or activity, it is a fire that energies the establishment of many entrepreneurial ventures. Social entrepreneur William Ponela has proven that for one to be a successful business owner they have to possess teeth-gritting insistence of conquering the rocky road of entrepreneurship.
Motivated by the need to address the lack of power induced challenges he faced during his formative years in the town of Chivi, Ponela founded his venture Zonful Energy. These challenges include, shortage of water which exposed the villagers to unprotected sources of drinking water and energy for lighting as well as cooking.
“We grew up in areas where we had to gather firewood, to cook and get light. I also witnessed a number of accidental deaths and serious injuries as a result of fire. Every time I visited urban areas I could see that people lived comfortably they had light,” told The Entrepreneurial Magazine.
“My grandma used to ask me what I wanted to do and I told her that am doing engineering so that I can solve all of our problems. After I had graduated the situation had not moved in the rural areas. I then constructed a water pumping system made out of scrap material so that these people could avoid travelling long distances to get their water.”
Zonful Energy is a profit social enterprise that is grounded on the Pay As You Go business model. Thus this venture is a testament that it is possible to make money while having a positive social and environmental impact. The solar systems consist of solar panels, batteries and a broad range of appliances including lights, radios, televisions amongst other services.
The Pay As You Go is a game-changing credit system that removes the initial financial barrier to solar energy access by allowing people have to pay a very small deposit for their system.
“…Upon full payment of the system, they start enjoying energy for free. If someone miss a payment the system automatically shuts off till the person catches up with the instalment fortunately, people have been paying up and owning up.
“We discovered that people do not have internet in the rural areas so, am glad to tell you now that we introduced smart phones which are also on Pay As You Go, they can pay as little as US$20,” Ponela said.
Zonful Energy’s line of operations are in harmony with the objective of United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 7 which is aimed at ensuring access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all.
For that reason, the energy venture’s ultimate goal is to leapfrog from energy deficiency to a more economical route to universal access to power.
He said: “Our industry is highly technical and for us to achieve the universal access to energy which everyone is talking about in line with the UNSDG access to energy won’t be a success until we also look into the issues related to energy development.”
The solar energy sector is undergoing a massive technological transformation that is set to shift the boundaries of conventional energy supply chains. Ponela acknowledged that the industry is highly technical and it requires skilled manpower.
“I am glad to share that it is one of the areas that Zonful Energy has focused on and we have trained quite a number of people.
“I am proud because most companies have got a person who has been formally been employed or trained by ZONFUL Energy,” he added.
In a bid to help people realise their potential, Ponela sculpted an expert and novice relationship through his mentorship program which has been running since 2019.
“I provide mentorship to locals who would have probably come forward and offer themselves to be mentored because it is important when it comes to reaching goals,” he said.
Girl child empowerment is at the heart of Zonful Energy’s corporate social responsibility thus it is their obligation to pursue achievable and good long-term goals.
“We provide scholarships for young girls who are specifically studying engineering at local universities. Though we have an exceptional case whereby we awarded a scholarship to a person who is in a different field altogether because of different circumstances,” he pointed out.
Zonful Energy’s business model revolves around customer centricity which means that they put their customers on the throne right from the start.
He said: “We actually believe that we need to connect the dots from the front coming to backwards and the customer is the centre of every business so we have an obsession that above everything else we have to become customer centric and the philosophy of customer centricity does not refer to the outside customer only but it refers to everyone including internally so whenever we are putting up a service it has to be seen from a perception of a customer.
“I always tell people that the first rule of marketing is that you are not a customer, which means that you do not need to do things that pleases you, everything else has to be taken from the angle of a customer whatever service that you are providing is it making the other person happy.”
The growing frequency of unfavourable climate conditions has undeniably proven the need to accelerate the energy transition, a recent report by World Economic Forum demonstrated that investing in renewable energy makes sense from a climate perspective.
Commenting on that, Ponela is of the view that the renewable energy sector today is as ripe for entrepreneurship today as how other sectors have been for several years now.
He said: “This is the right time to invest in the renewable sector because of the issues to do with climate and change since there has been global war cry for people to move to renewable energy.
“Also Zimbabwe is one of the countries that has the largest population which does not have access to energy it is the right industry for anyone to venture as such, the key is to understand the business model and distribution strategy that one is going to pursue.”
As much as the solar industry is poised for growth, the sector is prone to challenges such as sourcing capital and the navigation of the business operating ecosystem.
“One of the major challenges is the anticipated risk factors associated with our political environment, the perception acts as a setback for sourcing capital through investors but we have managed to convince other people to invest in the business.
“By the way we have never raised any single cent from this country, the biggest challenge which we faced in this country is the perception banks have towards new companies they don’t want to give you money when the company is still new.
“They only want to come to you when things start moving, everyday various people come to my office saying they are offering me this and that. Also, the other issue has to be in line with the bureaucratic processes associated with government institutions which goes against the time factor of getting things done,” he lamented.
Amongst his notable achievements, the enterprising businessman and his team were once shortlisted for the Energy and Environment Partnership Africa Project (EEP) of the year award.
Ponela acknowledged that the EEP Africa which focuses on advocating for gender equality and opportunities for women in the energy sector strengthened Zonful Energy’s credibility and opened doors for them.
“It opened a lot of doors for us including international media coverage, even though we were up the runner up for the award.
“In terms of other milestones, we have since grown the company from 5 to over 73 people at the head office and over 500 people dotted across the country and the company has since opened branches in each part of the province. And we have managed to reach over 55000 households in terms of our products,” he said.
Worth noting is the fact that the success of Zonful Energy is hinged on team building and a healthy company culture. This is in accord with studies which have shown repeatedly that there is no replacement for a great company culture.
“We have a lot of activities which we do to encourage company culture and team building, every Monday before COVID-19 we would gather around for just about 20 minutes and people would confess on what they had done wrong and ways to rectify it so I used to be the first person to say what I have done wrong so as to encourage a culture of psychological safety.
“I acknowledge the fact that mistakes are not done by a junior only and at our company, titles are there to guide us and for administration purposes but everyone in this company is a leader,” he highlighted.
As Zonful Energy has established a position for themselves, the visionaries behind the company have been leveraging on solidifying intrapreneurship (entrepreneurial spirit) in its employees.
In addition, they also engage in team building activities through a fitness program dubbed ‘Fitness for a purpose programme.’
He said: “This is whereby we call a fitness trainer every Friday after 1300 and then we have our lunch followed by two hours of training just to make sure that we stay fit and we also encourage our people to do the same at home, this has also helped in building the team.
“During the exercise there is no separation between the management and subordinates. Culture is a growth strategy so if you don’t have the right culture your strategies are deemed to fail.”
Ponela is a shining example and a role model to many, in that regard, he urged aspiring entrepreneurs as well as the general populace to avoid early gratification.
“That is the biggest problem that we have as a nation, in life there is no point to prove anything to anyone,” he highlighted.
Ponela has a high regard for the business magnate Strive Masiyiwa.
“I like the way he grabs opportunities since the ECONET Group is almost into everything which means that the he knows how to grow a business in multiple sectors,” he said.
In order to achieve a state of equilibrium between work-life and curbing entrepreneurial burnout, Ponela said he conditioned his mind to accept rejection.
“The first thing that I did was to condition my mind to rejection because one of the difficult things to entrepreneurship is that it’s a lonely journey so if you don’t condition yourself for rejection you can easily give up.
“In terms of work life balance, I have got a program for myself like most entrepreneurs I wake up very early and I engage into exercises daily I run10 km every morning so I always have time for family discussions,” he said.