Co-authored by Pamina Mullins
Charmaine Hassen is the Founder and Managing Director of one of Botswana’s most dynamic and future-oriented energy companies, Solamatics Botswana (Pty) Ltd. Located in Francistown, the company manufactures solar water heaters and photovoltaic systems and supplies both government agencies and industry. Established in 2000, Solamatics is a government-recognized industry leader. Charmaine is a member of the government task force on solar energy. Together with her staff of up to 40 experts, Charmaine also runs training programs for City Council and government employees. Solamatics has annual revenues of up to 2.5 million Botswanan pula, which is roughly the same in US dollars.
Pamina & OB: How did your family, experiences and culture influence your entrepreneur’s journey?
Charmaine: My parents taught me the importance of education, and instilled in us a belief that with commitment anything is possible. My father rose through the ranks from unskilled laborer to Factory Manager and my mother had two jobs—as a factory worker during the day and a waitress at night. This enabled them to support five children and feed an extended family.
Divorce, single parenthood and advocating for my eldest daughter who was born with Down Syndrome in a country where even the term was unknown taught me self-reliance and determination, and becoming an entrepreneur in a male-dominated and technical business environment influenced my ability to accept difficult challenges.
Pamina & OB: Why the renewable energy industry - what lead you in this direction?
Charmaine: In order to be able to account for the performance of the solar energy company I worked for at the time I needed an in depth knowledge of its operation. I also found myself working with qualified engineers, marketing professionals, and installation staff, so it made sense to learn as much as I could from this pool of professional expertise.
On my first visit to Botswana in 1998 (she is originally from Zimbabwe) this growing passion for renewable energy was fueled by discovering that a Botswana Government mandate required all city council, schools, clinics, defense force, and police premises to have a solar water heater of a specific size. As Botswana has the highest solar radiance in Southern Africa this seemed like the perfect place to start.
Pamina & OB: What obstacles have you faced as a female entrepreneur, what challenges have you encountered along the way, and how have you dealt with them?
Charmaine: Oh, there were plenty! When I started researching the viability of this business in the late 90’s, the Internet in Southern Africa was not such a useful tool, which meant several road trips to Gaborone, Botswana’s capital—a 1,200km journey. There having been no solar manufacturing plant in Francistown, it was impossible to find staff with any solar experience. I had to train them from scratch. Selling the new concept and the language barrier were part of the challenge too, so initially I was responsible for production, installation, sales, advertising, finance and human resources. It was also difficult working with men who were initially very skeptical about my abilities.
So launching a start-up business in a foreign country, with language, gender bias and shortage of knowledge and resources thrown into the mix was tough but challenges are part of the territory when considering any business opportunity.
Pamina & OB: As well as all this, you were also a single parent. How did you manage?
Charmaine: In the beginning it wasn’t so easy, but Solamatics is now a family affair. All three children are involved in the day to day running of the business, so it really is a team effort.
Pamina & OB: What are you most proud of?
Charmaine: I’ve covered a lot of ground; from a cash-strapped accountant and single mother to a government recognized leader in the Botswana solar manufacturing industry, who regularly presents technical papers on solar thermal methods in a very definitely male-dominated industry.
We developed a vigorous six month training schedule. Staff turnover was initially high, which was very frustrating, but we persevered. We now have a strong, loyal team who has been with the company for over ten years!
Pamina & OB: Tell us where your business is now, and where you want it go in the future.
Charmaine: Solamatics is one of only two major manufacturers of solar water heaters from an African mineral, copper in Botswana. Our manufacturing base is in Francistown. The emphasis is on simplicity; the product range is directed specifically at those systems best suited to conditions in Botswana, and the region.
The company runs training programs for city council and government employees. I am a member of the task force appointed by Botswana’s Government to review solar industry standards. During the course of its existence Solamatics has employed over 40 workers who have been drawn from the pool of unskilled youths. Today, some are skilled workers still employed by Solamatics, while some are running their own businesses. In the future I would like to see Solamatics establish an export market to countries like Zambia, Zimbabwe and Namibia.
Pamina & OB: What has your entrepreneur’s journey taken in terms of skills, business strategies and personal qualities?
Charmaine: My early research paid off. It established that Botswana was economically and politically sound, and had a market for solar powered products. But the learning never stops, and acquiring a sound knowledge of your product is essential. Building a strong, loyal team is one of my greatest triumphs, and embracing challenges has become a way of life.
Pamina & OB: What advice would you give to someone with a vision similar to yours?
Charmaine: Once you’ve put in the groundwork, if you have the courage to explore unknown territory, the patience to build a strong team, curiosity to keep learning, and the tenacity to keep going, when the going gets tough, you’ll succeed. My journey from struggling single parent to successful entrepreneur over the past 16 years—through the pitfalls and opportunities, mistakes and the victories, in a male-dominated and technical business environment, I think is largely due to the fact that when they wouldn’t take me seriously, it just made me more determined to prove them wrong.
Pamina & OB: Indeed! Thank you for telling us about your unwavering path to industrial leadership and success.
Charmaine: Warmest thanks and gratitude to the both of you, as well. You know, for me failure was simply never an option.