Molosiwa Tests Crowdfunding for Clean Energy

Violet Ayoub encourages her fellow Tanzanians to cook using charcoal briquettes made from agricultural waste instead of wood. Photo courtesy Embark Energy

Would you believe in a project that could simultaneously reduce deforestation, support a female entrepreneur, reuse waste, boost green-energy use, and employ young people? Tebo Molosiwa ’14 is hoping to make this a reality for one woman in Tanzania.

Molosiwa, an economics major from Botswana, conducted research this past summer for the international benefit corporation Embark Energy. Its mission is to expand clean-energy use in developing countries by training individuals to become entrepreneurs and connecting them to business projects such as solar-power systems, clean-burning cookstoves, biomass briquettes, and small-scale hydroelectricity.

It’s a sweeping mission, but to Molosiwa it meant something very specific: helping Violet Ayoub encourage her fellow Tanzanians to cook food using charcoal briquettes made from agricultural waste instead of wood. Ayoub compresses farm byproducts such as sugarcane stalks and maize husks, turning them into charcoal briquettes. Using her house as a factory, she already makes enough briquettes for more than 50 families. Now she hopes to scale up the effort, mass-producing briquettes and employing local youth in the process. For that, she needs business capital.

Since Ayoub has no collateral for a traditional loan and no access to venture capital sources, Molosiwa was brought in to investigate crowdfunding.

“This relatively new concept democratizes the way people can receive startup capital, through donations from people all over the world who care about the cause,” Molosiwa said. “My job was to see if it was feasible for Embark’s projects, and if so, what structures are needed to start a crowdfunding campaign, and how one might operate for projects in developing countries.”

First, she researched the characteristics and requirements of the crowdfunding platforms Kickstarter, Indiegogo, and RocketHub. To match entrepreneur to platform, Molosiwa interviewed Ayoub by Skype whenever Ayoub visited an area with Internet access.

“I dropped everything to talk with her, no matter what time it was,” Molosiwa said. “I found out her story and thought about how to present it to an American audience to raise funds.”

Molosiwa was also in Skype contact throughout the summer with her mentor, Evgenia "Genia" Sokolova ’01, who heads the company’s finance network and who spent her summer helping to establish Embark Energy’s partnership with Kakute in Tanzania.

“Genia was always checking to see if she could facilitate my work,” Molosiwa said. “Her advice was valuable, and she’s offered to remain a resource for me after I graduate.”

By the time Molosiwa concluded RocketHub was the place to launch this crowdfunding campaign, her internship was ending. But she continues the project on a volunteer basis. The goal is to raise $3,800 by January 25, then report to Embark Energy about whether this pilot project shows promise for other endeavors.

“Mount Holyoke’s rigorous curriculum prepared me to work independently and to deliver good results consistently,” Molosiwa said of her internship. “My economics courses in particular helped me to be analytical and to think through the implications of what I’m doing. “

If crowdfunding works for Violet Ayoub’s project, this international chain of determined women may bring clean energy and better economic prospects not only to Ayoub’s community, but to others throughout the developing world.

—By Emily Harrison Weir

• Learn more about the biomass briquette project in Tanzania, including video produced by Prarthana Bhattarai ’15.