Team Latrine has been in Tanzania for over two weeks now, supporting a project for the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), and something that has blown me away is the incredible entrepreneurial spirit and drive of the people we have met. I want to share the (very abridged) stories of two of the extraordinary individuals we have met.
First, meet John Haule. In the picture below, his hand is pointing towards a makeshift laboratory in his bedroom. John invited us to his small village and his home so we could appreciate the very simple conditions that most Tanzanians live in—we would never see those from (our modern hotel) the Southern Sun, he admonished. While John is a mechanic, he also is a self-educated scholar on the biodiesel industry in Tanzania. John produces and sells his own biodiesel made from vegetable oil (oft-obtained through underground connections), brews his own beers, and is developing a remedy for stomach ailments using papaya seeds. Given that I have been researching Tanzanian biodiesel for our project, I had been corresponding with John by email several times a day. Visiting his home and realizing that he had no electricity, requiring him to email me from a friend’s house, made this all the more remarkable, making me feel both guilty and incredibly grateful for his help.
Next, meet Michael Mwakilasa–we met Michael at the headquarters of Mafuta Sasa, a biodiesel company started by the formerly US-based renaissance man who had successful careers in law, entertainment, and writing. Michael returned to Tanzania to make a meaningful impact on his country’s economic development. After surveying many industries, he decided that there the right opportunity was in biodiesel, and went about teaching himself the science behind the production process. Michael now runs the first and only profitable biodiesel company in Tanzania, collecting used cooking oil from hotels and businesses, converting it to biofuel, and selling it back to drive stationary generators (an absolute necessity in a country with 15-hour rolling blackouts!). The picture below shows members of our team with Michael in front of his production line. In addition to selling the diesel, Michael is marketing the glycerine byproduct as an affordable household detergent. Beyond these ventures, Michael’s social impact extends to an education organization he’s founded to teach youth about financial literacy.
John and Michael are just two examples of Tanzanians we met whose independent ambition and innovative drive were truly inspiring. Despite weak government policies and minimal investment support (no US/EU-like subsidies), these entrepreneurs have grown profitable biofuel businesses, all while identifying other creative opportunities to diversify their ventures and support their communities. John and Michael’s do-it-yourself spirit and resolve were heartening, building our confidence that the business model we were crafting for LSHTM could be made viable with the right team of local entrepreneurs behind it.