In 2017, Tonye Irims was struggling to keep his solar energy company – Wisolar in business. After having only three clients in the first year of business, he was ready to give it up and sell it for 120,000 Rand but no one even agreed to buy it for that price. A year later, Wisolar raised $4000 seed capital and turned its story to become a frontline solar energy company.
Education and career choice
On the 2nd of December, 1970, Tonye was born in Port Harcourt, Rivers State Nigeria to Captain B.T Irimagha, a mariner, and Mrs Muriel Irimagha, a businesswoman. The first of six children, Tonye attended Corona nursery & primary school, Apapa, and Imola Day primary school, Alasia, Lagos. He had his secondary education at Command Secondary School, Jos, Nigeria.
There was no structured system that provided guidance or professional counselling to young students as per what course of study they should choose. While Irims admired his father’s career as a sailor, there were no schools in Nigeria at the time that offered courses that could have led him to such a career.
He eventually settled for marketing as a course of study. “I was not keen on the sciences and so management sciences made more sense to me. It was either banking and finance, accounting, marketing or a few other options. Many people were going for Banking and Finance and Marketing was not a very popular course at the time I choose it but I don’t regret picking it up” he said in an interview.
He graduated with honours in Marketing from the University of Port Harcourt, Rivers State and later studied Clean Power at the Imperial College London, in line with his business interest. He has also taken several courses at the University of Maryland College Park, University of Virginia Darden School of Business and Harvard Law School. Tonye also has a Blockchain specialization from INSEAD.
A rough career start
Tonye Irims did not have a smooth career start when he got to South Africa at age 23. He had to do menial jobs, before he got a sales position at a houseware company which gave him the opportunity to travel around South Africa. From there, he ventured into commercial print modelling for some years.
Through a friend, he got introduced to Nigerian business mogul Dr Mike Adenuga, and he offered to so some volunteer work for the mogul. This both expanded his knowledge base as well as his network so that when he decided to start a business in 2006, he had something to build on.
Murky waters of entrepreneurship
In 2006, Irims started Wikiglobal, a company in Johannesburg, South Africa, which introduced the first dual SIM semi-feature phones with the nucleus O.S, through its mobile arm Wimobile. Though the innovation was commendable, not many saw potentials in it and so the founders had to trudge through the early years of rejection calls and discarded proposals.
“The office manager at our first rented office in Johannesburg, Karen said to me when she heard of our dual SIM phones “why in the world will anyone want this” Irims recounted.
The brave early adopters of the product were justified when in 2011, Irims licensed WiMobile to a company in South Africa and took a “sabbatical” from the day to day operations. This was an option Irims had to opt for as big players were now buying into the ‘dual sim idea’ and were ready to use their size and funding advantage to edge Wimobile out of the market.
He moved to the United State of America shortly after and tried his hand on a social payment app but this also fell through resulting in even more discouragement.
The venture into clean energy
Irims recalls that right from his secondary and even university days, he was always worried about the safety of the kerosene lamp which students had to use to study.
“It was one of the requirements in school that you had to come with a kerosene lantern and I was worried about the damage to the eyes, the smoke and other environmental implications of using it. I remember that even back then, I always thought that there had to be a cleaner source of energy out there. The NEPA electricity was there but it was highly unreliable and there was never any power except for those in the university hostel. I made up my mind then that as soon as the technology was good enough, I wanted to focus on a cleaner and more reliable source of providing energy,” Irims said.
After his first degree in the early 90s, he travelled to South Africa where the use of coal was still the major source of electricity. He returned to Nigeria in 2012, and to the reality of outrageous electricity bills, and reconnection fees despite the unreliable power supply. This reawakened the dream for clean energy and four years later, he decided to make a business out of clean energy since reliable and clean energy was a problem, both in Nigeria and South Africa.
He made some trips to China to work on a solar prepaid prototype and by 2016, he was fully ready to go into Solar energy. “We imported a few inverters but it was a very rough start. Many people did not see the value and then, they did not even have the means to purchase it” he explained.
In the first year of operation, the company only carried out three installations, and Irims almost gave up on this business again. He tried selling it but could not get a willing buyer for the R120,000 he was offering.
The company’s major break came from two major events in 2018. First Wisolar raised $4000 seed capital and this gave it a major boost. Also, the demand for coal energy in South Africa experienced a major dip due to crisis in the coal industry. The South African power utility’s plan to effect load-shedding in South Africa for the next five years, as a means of tackling the imbalance between supply and demand of electricity, meant that the situation of power in the country would get worse.
With some consumer education, demand for solar energy picked up and WiSolar fully came alive.
By 2020, the company added Solar financing option to the offerings to make it cheaper and more affordable to users. In Q1 2021, WiSolar entered a partnership with Ooba home loans to provide an optional augmentation of new and existing homes with solar electricity for homes purchased from Ooba. This will allow homeowners to enjoy low-cost uninterrupted power with less impact on the environment. WiSolar also partnered with LG for high efficiency black photovoltaic panels in a bid to make the electronics giant a provider of solar panels for LG and WiSolar’s customers.
“We are trying to find a way now to make solar even cheaper. we are in talks with property developers so that it can be installed along with the building, and they can just pay for it based on usage. Once we have a prototype in South Africa, we have the mind to bring it into Nigeria as well because we need cheap, clean, affordable and on demand electricity,” Irims said.
The company received the 2020 MEA business award and was described as the most Innovative Clean Energy Company in Africa. Irims has hinted that company might be gunning for a stock exchange listing in 2025.
Tonye Irims became the first Nigerian franchisor in South Africa when he opened up his business for franchising. This, he said, is to unlock new value chains cross Africa and usher in clean electric mobility. Currently, WiSolar pilot franchise brings in about $65,000 to the company monthly – a lot more than the 120,000 Rand he almost sold the company for.