Blog of Lorin Symington

Uganda: Follow-Up and Follow-Through

Posted Friday 26 October 2018 by Lorin Symington.

I’m following up & following through with our young solar powered entrepreneurs at the SmartUp Factory Tororo Hub. I’ve been receiving small reports and hearing from Plan Uganda and SmartUp staff that our trainees have been baking, making sales and getting paid! They’ve even taken to social media bragging about their new jobs. I was really excited to get back and see how they’ve been moving along.

When I arrived I was pleased to see the SOL5 in it’s new home, a fenced enclosure, looking shiny and well calibrated. That was one of the challenges the trainees were to face after I left. The SOL5 is located in a semi public place, near a main road and next to a youth center, where many young folks hang out, play football etc, so it was important to protect it. When I asked Augustin, one of the trainees and a senior mentor at Hub, how did the moving go he said “Very well, though it was a bit tricky… before they finished the fence, we carried the whole thing over, no dismantling!”

The SmartUp members were excited to hear about the Gulu training, I passed along greetings from their friends in Gulu and then we got down to business: I asked them to report their successes, challenges, lessons learned and plans for the future. As for successes, their accounting books show that they’ve all earned money and grown their stock of inventory since I left! I call that an unmitigated success.

Challenges & Solutions

At first, it seemed that other than the weather, things had been going very smoothly… too smoothly, I thought to myself. Once I got the students to open up about the challenges they had faced, the challenges just kept emerging:

Challenge #1: It’s still the rainy season up until November, so they are reporting that they haven’t been able to meet all the demand for their products, and they have had some products bake incompletely, resulting in losses.
Solution #1: Partner with a local baker and rent time in their oven or save up for a charcoal oven to be used during the rainy seasons.

Challenge #2: At first, clients complained about the quality of icing decoration.
Solution #2: The students did research about how to make better icing, and I bought them an icing dispenser with different shaped nozzles for flowers and ribbons etc.

Challenge #3: George, the Marketing Director, did a survey to find out how people viewed their products and found that their initial branding contained too much information so people didn’t bother to read it. Their packaging is also hard to find sometimes in Tororo and expensive.
Solution #3: They are redesigning their branding and moving to smaller, cheaper stickers. During my time in Kampala I will try to locate a reliable supplier of packaging materials (I hear this is also desired by Gulu Hub)

Challenge #4: The bread molds and cupcake molds that we had fabricated in Kenya are not the same size as the ones used here in Uganda, so this is an obstacle for pricing their goods and selling to shops who are accustomed to certain products.
Solution #4: Save for new molds built locally, to local specifications.

Challenge #5: There is need for a bread slicer. While bread is the least profitable of the items they prepare, it is still something that is good for earning since the demand is always high. Bread sold in the shops always comes pre-sliced.
Solution #5: Plan Uganda and GoSol are investigating bread slicing machines. Should they prove very expensive I have in mind a relatively cheap manual design I might have fabricated for the students.

Challenge #6: Shops have complained that the bread goes mouldy after a week.
Solution #6: Use preservatives. I’m not very happy about this solution… I normally try to avoid preservatives, but here in Uganda, essentially all packaged food has preservatives in it. I tried to make the case for selling bread for immediate consumption, and the students countered that they can’t plan for such at the moment because they can’t produce in cloudy weather. Perhaps when they have saved up for and bought a charcoal oven, they can get contracts with schools and other institutions to provide fresh bread daily. For now, they can sell to shops, and the shops demand preservatives.

Challenge #7: This was the big one. It’s rainy season and that means unpredictable weather. One of the girls nearly left the business after she had baked for 2 hours each day, earning a small but important amount of money, but then on Friday she tried to bake, the clouds came and ruined the bake and the loss of those ingredients cancelled out her earnings for the week. She was making the case that the individual baker should not have to pay for losses, that the business should pay for the loss. Immediately the group began arguing. It’s clear that they had had these discussions before.
Solution #7: The production manager is responsible for making decisions about whether to bake or not. If a baker proposes to bake, and the production manager agrees but it goes from blue skies to clouds while the bread is still proving, the business takes the loss. If a baker proposes to bake and the production manager says no, but the baker proceeds to bake anyway, the baker is individually responsible and the losses come out of his or her wages. This solution seemed to satisfy everyone.

As you can see, the students solved some challenges themselves, demonstrating dynamic thinking and real entrepreneurial motivation. Other problems they need some help with, but considering their business is getting started during the worst time of year, weather wise, I think they are doing marvellously well. In fact, December-January is going to be a big season for them as they are the sunniest months of the year, and with the holidays, marriages and graduations going on, our entrepreneurs are confident that they’re going to be pulling in piles of cash. By then, they’ll have these small challenges solved and be ready for the peak season.

My next stop is Kampala, the capital, where I’ll meet visit the original SmartUp Hub, explore solutions to these challenges for our pioneering solar bakers and explore options for fabricating the SOL5 locally because already demand is growing strong.

Second Training in Uganda Completed!

Posted Wednesday 10 October 2018 by Lorin Symington.

I’m happy to report that there is a new solar powered bakery business operating in Gulu, Uganda! Our two-week training course in cooperation with Plan International and SmartUp Factory Gulu Hub finished with a great launch event where the young entrepreneurs promoted their bakery cooperative and got a chance to gain publicity, attract new clients and make sales to finance the next production runs! Here are few of the training highlights from Gulu.

These are the first solar baked loafs of bread baked by our entrepreneurs in training. Entrepreneur Lydia's face speaks for itself!


The Entrepeneurship "Aha" Moment
There’s a key moment in our training course when the students make their first sale. After a week of education and training in operation, maintenance, science, business and bakery skills the students were able to bake good quality breads, cakes and cookies, present and package them for sale - and when they make their first sale, entrepreneurship becomes so much more real!

Part of our training aims to foster what we call "entrepreneurship awareness" - the kind of mindset you need to make a business a success. When you start a business, you can’t be in a passive 9 to 5 attitude, you need to be proactive. When you make 10 sales on day 1, you need to ask yourself if you can make 20 the next. Once you know how to make breads, why not explore more advanced pastries? Can I expand my business by having a stock of cookies that last longer, in case we run out of bread? How do we satisfy - or even better - delight our customers? Just some examples, but what’s key is instilling in the students the actual entrepreneurial thinking process and a proactive attitude - so that they become independent thinkers, independent entrepreneurs.

A single day of baked goods minus about 30% of sweet and sourdough bread, cakes and cookies that got eaten before the picture was taken.
Students paying attention to detail while measuring ingredients. It's important to train accurate measuring for consistent results.

After making the first sale is a great time to revisit ’roles and responsibilities’ within the business. Even before I got there the students, with support from the SmartUp Hub, organized themselves into a cooperative business, agreeing on principles. I took them into the class and facilitated a group discussion. 20 minutes into the discussion the class stopped speaking politely in English and started discussing heatedly among themselves in their native tongue. From time to time I asked them to summarize, and it was great to see them discuss the roles and responsibilities and give each other feedback on how to improve the work. Listening to them self-organizing felt very powerful. I felt they’re in, they’re on board and I knew from that moment that they will succeed!


It’s Showtime!
Soon enough it was time for showcase! SmartUp Factory Gulu Hub invited local dignitaries, journalists and NGO representatives, and the students were at their best! Though the day started off cloudy, as often happens this time of year, the skies cleared in time to bake cookies and show the power of the SOL5! Attendees got to hear about the training from Plan representatives, SmartUp representatives and from me; I described the entrepreneurship training, the practical components of the training and gave an overview of the Direct Solar Economy and the impact this new wave of solar entrepreneurship can have on people, the environment and the planet.
In the days after the showcase I mentored the cooperative business and provided deeper sessions for subgroups of the students, I’ll be sharing more about this process in a subsequent post. Meanwhile the entrepreneurs continued to do business and showed a great communication culture for calling out inefficiencies and agreeing on better workflows. The entrepreneur mindset at work!

Eager customers, eager sellers and a beautiful variety of products on showcase day.
The students decorated their SOL5 in anticipation of a great showcase day attracting many people.
Program Area Coordinator for Plan International Uganda's Lira office Collin Mutinda gave an overview of Plan's activities.
Meanwhile, sourdough is rising under the tea towels, ready to be baked and sold during the showcase.
Bright faces, bright future: The launch Day, as well as the training as a whole, was a complete success!


Moving on
This brings to an end the second training course GoSol did in Uganda. Over the coming weeks it will be very interesting to follow the young entrepreneurs and see how far they will take their solar business after the training. Next week I hope to circle back to Tororo, where SmartUp Factory Tororo Hub reports the group I trained is in full swing, so stay tuned for more updates!

Let there be Solar Fire!

Posted Tuesday 25 September 2018 by Lorin Symington.

I’m now well into the training here in Gulu, Uganda, training entrepreneur students from the Smart Up program set by Plan International. The students have truly experienced the Solar Fire.

Sharon, who is interested in robotics and fabrication, learns for the first time handling a cordless drill.
Once calibrated, the focal point of the SOL5 gets so hot that it can set sticks on fire!

A smooth start

On Saturday, just before we took a break for the weekend, we calibrated the mirrors on the SOL5 and this group of 12 soon-to-be solar entrepreneurs got a feeling of the power of the GoSOl technology. The excitement in the air was palpable as the students took turns setting leaves on fire in the powerful focal point of the SOL5. I got a glimpse of who might be the group’s chief SOL5 technician when the students were holding the door of the oven open with their hands inside exclaiming that they could feel the rising heat and one young man said ‘if we close the door it will heat up faster’. The door was promptly closed to allow the heat to accumulate.

A country willing to be ready for sustainable challenges

Gulu is a fascinating town. Located in Northern Uganda, about 100km from the border with South Sudan, Gulu and the surrounding region have a colorful and tragic history. Gulu was central in the Lord’s Resistance Army’s fight against President Museveni’s control over the country. Ethnic conflict raged throughout the nineties and into the 2000’s and northern Uganda is still feeling the effects of the insurgency. Many international non-governmental organizations are active, with Gulu acting as a Northern headquarters for several of them. It gives Gulu an international feel, while at the same time remaining quintessentially East African.

The demographic age structure of Uganda is one of the youngest in the world. More than 75% of the population is under the age of 30 and about half are under the age of 15. Unemployment for 18-24 year olds is around 80%. The fact that Northern Uganda is recovering from 20 years of bloody conflict means that the youths have an extremely important role in ensuring the country’s future, though they face many challenges.

Young solar entrepreneurs can play a key role

Our partner, Plan International, is focused on youths as the future leaders of their country. Their emphasis on empowering girls is bold and essential to Uganda becoming a modern country. Plan International created the SmartUp Hubs to empower the youths, to give them opportunity in the face of 80% unemployment and to build the social networks they’ll need for success.

During the lessons on entrepreneurship and in my discussions with the students, it has become apparent that peanuts, or "G-nuts" as they are called here (short for "Ground nuts"), are a staple food for all of their families. In their families, these students are responsible for gathering firewood and roasting peanuts in a saucepan over an open fire. Their estimates range from 2-5 hours to go collect enough firewood to roast 20kg of peanuts, and then about 5-15 minutes to roast each kilo. The prospect of roasting 20kg in 3 hours on the SOL5 got us thinking about a whole new business model.

The "Human Solar Concentrator" excercise: 12 people using SOL5 mirrors to reflect sunlight...
...and each student gets to experience the warmth at the focal point before getting into the assembly.

The students are all very excited about GoSol technology and especially about the prospect of soon having gainful employment. Many of the young women who are participating have previous baking experience which should make the bakery component of the training straight forward. I’m very much looking forward now to facilitating the incubation of a successful business. In our discussions about seasons, times of year, opportunities during different months they told me that December and January are two of the sunniest months of the year and many celebrations happen during those times, including marriages, Christmas, New Years then graduation season in January, meaning that during those months they should be able to bake cakes all day every day.

The students get trained in mirror fabrication, installation and adjustment.
The students clean the fully assembled SOL5's mirrors for optimal efficiency.

Now that the SOL5 is fully set up we are going to learn how to bake delicious solar breads, cakes and cookies.

Stay tuned, as the future is looking bright indeed!

Solar training in Uganda: Happy Future Entrepreneurs!

Posted Tuesday 18 September 2018 by Lorin Symington.

Two weeks ago I arrived to Tororo, Uganda, to a warm welcome from the Plan International and SmartUp Factory teams. My mission was to train Uganda’s first solar thermal entrepreneurs using our SOL5. Over the short span of two weeks, our education course fully trained the youths in usage, maintenance and entrepreneurial skills, and incubated a solar bakery businesses. The entrepreneurs were not only trained, but were also able to make the first sales of their solar baked goods which generated enough income for them to continue the business on their own! After this training in Tororo I am now moving to the SmartUp Factory in Gulu, Uganda, where I’ll be training the next group of entrepreneurs. I am taking this opportunity to share with you some key moments from the first training course.

The entrepreneurs baked sourdough bread, cookies, muffins and even a birthday cake made to order.

On Monday the Plan International team took me to the Tororo Youth Center, a space on municipal grounds, donated by the Canadian International Development Agency and presently run by Reproductive Health Uganda (RHU). I met 12 young people who were selected by Tororo’s SmartUp Hub to participate to this training and become solar entrepreneurs. 7 young women and 5 young men, about half of whom were alumni of the SmartUp Hub, and 3 of whom are now mentors at the Hub.

Eager students at the first Solar Bakery training at SmartUp Factory Tororo: 7 young women and 5 young men on their way to become solar entrepreneurs.
GoSol's Lorin Symington delivers a class on solar thermal entrepreneurship at SmartUp Factory in Tororo, Uganda.


Back to the basis

After introducing myself and I took the students outside to concentrate the sun. I presented magnifying glasses to each of the students, distributed measuring tapes and asked them to burn some leaves and tell me the focal length of the lenses. The exercise was designed to introduce the solar concentration concept and “break the ice”. It also gave me an opportunity to observe our students. Some were stronger, some were timid, others outspoken, some were natural leaders. I was pleased to see that they all were eager to learn and participate.

Instructor Lorin Symington teaching the students about the power of the sun with magnifying glasses.


Hands on training

Overall the training covers a lot of ground. I taught business fundamentals; physics, optics and properties of thermal energy and how to measure it; baking theory and practical baking skills; the world’s energy history and contemporary economic and ecologic issues; as well as the practical skills needed to operate and maintain the SOL5. When we assembled and disassembled the SOL5 multiple times, each student was responsible for calibrating some mirrors, replacing mirrors, and keeping the oven at temperature while their colleagues mixed dough.

Hands on: The students assembled and disassembled the SOL5 multiple times to familiarize themselves with the order of operations.
Preparing the dough: Students learned how to make bread, pastries and other baked goods.


Crispy cookies and first clients

Early on the mayor of Tororo and several stakeholders from RHU and other organizations present in the space came to see the machine and speak with me and the class. I presented to them the SOL5 and the goals of the collaboration with Plan International and SmartUp. It was great to see the genuine excitement of the mayor and the stakeholders.

Even before we finished the two weeks of training, word had spread and on several occasions our class got to make direct sales during the course to a customer wanting to try our delicious cookies. We made crispy cookies, gooey cookies, lemon cakes, chocolate cakes, colored cakes, sweet bread, traditional sourdough bread, egg bread and more. One client ordered 35 muffin cakes, and another ordered a birthday cake. The SOL5 really has a magnetic effect which makes it great for starting up businesses. In the marketing class I told the students about the Koptige Bakery in Kenya, which opened a café next to their SOL5 to accommodate the many visitors coming by to see the shiny solar concentrator and have a tasty treat.


Discussing UN Sustainable Development Goals

Not only was I a teacher, but I learned a lot as well from the students. One of my favorite exercises was discussing the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Once the students were familiar with the SOL5, and our mission to create the direct solar economy, I gave the students an assignment to go through all 17 of the UN SDGs and bullet points about how the SOL5 can positively impact each goal. Some answers are clear, but others really impressed me. For instance, regarding SDG 16 - ‘Peace and Justice’ one student answered: ‘If there is more economic activity and people have jobs, then men and women will be working all day, then they’ll rest happily at night and men will be happy and won’t beat the women or children.’ As we always have been convinced by the positive impacts of the SOL5, it was exciting to see the students share in our vision of the direct solar economy.


Future solar entrepreneurs

In the final days of the training I barely had to direct the students, they were so self motivated to maintain the SOL5 Oven and bake. The value of the machine was clear to them as they were already running a business making sales to passers by as well as orders. Through participatory sessions we developed the roles and responsibilities for moving the solar bakery forward. The students did market research in the field and we regrouped and analyzed the findings. We also set up the entrepreneurs with a custom spreadsheet where they can track and plan expenses and sales. Based on my experience with our solar bakers in Kenya and Tanzania, the students and I integrated the students’ market research to create financial projections based on the market in Uganda. As usual we proved that the “0 fuel cost” advantage of the SOL5 pays out.

Showcase day! On the last day of training, many guests including representatives from other NGOs, local & federal government, as well as friends and family were invited for the launch of this innovative solar powered bakery business.

Finally, on Friday, September 14th, we held the Demo Day where we invited the mayor, honored guests from Plan International and other organizations from governmental and the NGO sector. The proud students were also able to invite friends and family. We were extremely pleased that Ofwono Apollo Yeri, Member of Parliament for the district of Tororo, joined us and applauded Plan International, SmartUp Factory, GoSol and the Tororo municipality for this innovative project and highlighted the benefits to the youth, environment, economy and Uganda as a whole and the importance of scale-up of our solution.

I am now on my way to the second training course at the SmartUp Factory in Gulu in northern Uganda. I look forward to meeting the next group of soon-to-be solar entrepreneurs and sharing our experiences and outcomes.

Solar baked, packaged and ready for sale! Obwana is very proud of his packaging job, and of the delicious solar cookies inside.
Tasty, golden brown muffins, ready for sale. These muffins were baked without burning charcoal or consuming electricity, increasing profit margins for our new entrepreneurs. .
Solar Entrepreneurs Irene and Grace showing off their freshly baked queen cakes.
The trainees have become entrepreneurs and were able to generate enough cash with the first sales to buy more ingredients to continue their solar business after the training.

GoSol’s full vision starting in Uganda
with Plan International

Posted Tuesday 4 September 2018 by Eva Wissenz, Lorin Symington.

Since the very beginning, the way we see it at GoSol is that we must deliver an efficient and powerful solar concentrator, and a training to users, and… more. Over the past years, we have refined the SOL5 to the point where local entrepreneurs can actually use it daily to save money, increase their incomes, and develop their businesses. And this is happening when it’s sunny, and even on cloudy days depending on the cloud-cover. When it’s not possible to use solar heat in the rainy season, then users can go back to their old system for a couple of weeks. But the impact of polluting industries and climate change’s horrible side effects being what they are (deforestation, drought, people migrating away from the countryside in search for a better life…), something more than a device and training was needed to accelerate the adoption of SOL5: education.

So I’m here in Kisumu, Kenya since about 2 weeks to start a new cooperation with Plan International Finland and Plan Uganda’s SmartUp Factory project. With years of experience building in about 10 different developing countries, after monitoring about 5 baker groups in Kenya and Tanzania over the last two years, with support from Autodesk Foundation to create a construction manual, with a CTO that is also a baker, all our team has build a great educational training course that I’m so happy to share.

It’s good to be back in Kisumu, the team is now autonomous when it comes to producing these solar concentrators and baking equipment. Truly it’s an exciting development and it’s something we’ve been working towards for a long time. So far I’ve been on quality control, checking in with them at their workshop, ordering materials and documenting the progress.

Completion of welding of a SOL5 Oven.

I’ve also been reconnecting with our partners, visiting our newest pilot project and preparing for the upcoming educational and business incubation program with Plan International. I’ll be spending a few weeks at Plan’s SmartUp Factories in two hubs in Uganda. At each location I’ll be working with about 12 young people who are energetic and motivated to have an impact in their communities through innovation and entrepreneurship. Part of the idea with the SmartUp Factories is that Plan recognizes that people from poor communities are uniquely positioned to identify challenges facing their communities and, properly empowered, are the best people to address those challenges.

SmartUp Factory participants. © Plan International.

Given the success of our pilot projects in Kenya and Tanzania, 5 of which are bakeries, we’re going to be teaching a well rounded course combining hands-on training and theoretical knowledge where the students will learn to install, use and maintain our SOL5 concentrators, as well as learn about the science of energy, the impact of our solar thermal tech on environmental and health issues, as well as the baking and business skills needed to run a bakery, or another business of their choice.

A Kenyan solar baker preparing a SOL5 for baking.

In the past we’ve worked with already established bakers, but this time we’ll be training from the ground up. You might remember that I got the chance to bake all sorts of treats in South Africa a few years ago, and I remember the super enthusiastic kids from Greenside Primary School!

In Johannesburg, 300 kids from Greenside Primary School loved the solar baked treats!

I remember also all the creativity of students! Like for example Rorisa, a young entrepreneur. Between that trip and these first feedbacks and today, we are thrilled to see that our vision is becoming true!

On top of this, our CTO Arnaud, has been baking traditional French bread for a couple of years now, developing a deep understanding of the art of baking and the science behind it. He has been coaching me, I’ve baked with our pilot projects, and I’ve started a sourdough culture from scratch that we hope will be pleasing to the people in Uganda because real sourdough bread stays fresh much longer than bread leavened with chemical starters, and so is especially appropriate for a solar powered business.

Preparing sourdough.

We have our ideas about business, but we’re really committed to supporting the students of Plan’s SmartUp Factories to create businesses according to their own ideas of what their communities need. This upcoming educational course is just the first step on a beautiful journey of co-creation.

In the coming weeks I’ll be sharing stories and examples of success stories from the SmartUp Factories as well as footage and ideas of motivated students who are going to help establish the Direct Solar Economy in Uganda!


Stay tuned, subscribe to our newsletter:

In Kenya, rural solar entrepreneurs share on SOL5

Posted Tuesday 29 May 2018 by Lorin Symington.

We’re pleased to bring you the latest footage from our end user entrepreneurs in Western Kenya. Our partners at World Vision Kenya asked the bakers from Afmago Misire Bakery and the Koptige Women’s Group to share their thoughts on their experiences baking with sunlight over the past year.

Misire is using the SOL5 to bake since 2017 thanks to sponsorship from Wärtsilä and Koptige since two years now. For Koptige, it’s always the chief baker speaking. Indeed, David Chepkowny is a very convinced solar entrepreneur, fluent in English and the additional SOL5 his group got since last year will give a good boost.

I’m so thrilled to see our vision for a solar economy becoming a reality. Look how the corn grows right up to the SOL5, using maximum sunlight!

The groups are reporting significant positive impact as well as increased esteem in their communities. They’re very proud to have been featured in one of the national newspapers:

The groups are reporting significant positive impact as well as increased esteem in their communities. They’re very proud to have been featured in one of the national newspapers:


Thanks to Autodesk Foundation, we’re busy planning new innovations and features that our solar bakers have recommended.

We’re really grateful for everyone in Kenya and everything they do to document and share how reliable, safe and affordable it is to go solar with SOL5.

Update from Kenya projects: Training Entrepreneurs

Posted Friday 23 February 2018 by Lorin Symington.

Last week, members from all the GoSol projects participated in a capacity building training session on Village Savings and Loans Methodology organised by World Vision.

The training session covered such topics as microfinance products, various financial calculations formula, savings habits, best habits for transparency and accountability and a number of other tools for entrepreneurs.

From our experiences working with small businesses in the developing world, the more business skills our entrepreneurs have the more they recognize the value of our SOL5. For example, Koptige bakery last year reported electricity savings over 600€. Among all our pilots, Koptige remains the most dynamic ; click here to see the video we made after 1 year of baking with the SOL5..

When entrepreneurs are keeping good records and calculating their various expenditures it makes the energy savings from using solar energy that much clearer!

1 2 3 4 5 6