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5 Questions for Rolf Huber, Managing Director, Siemens Stiftung

April 20, 2019

In March, Siemens Stiftung, a nonprofit foundation created by Siemens AG, the German multinational conglomerate, established WE!Hub Victoria Ltd, a social enterprise based in Kisumu, Kenya, to bring innovative solutions related to drinking water and energy supplies to communities on the shores of Lake Victoria. Branded as WeTu ("ours" in Swahili), the initiative also plans to bring electric vehicles to rural Africa for the first time.

Recently, the folks at Sympra, a Stuttgart-based consulting firm, spoke with Rolf Huber, managing director of Siemens Stiftung, about the project.

Headshot_rold huberSympra: Why did Siemens Stiftung establish WeTu?

Rolf Huber: We strongly believe in a business approach to social and environmental problems: self-sustaining, environmentally-friendly business models can be used to meet sustainability goals and achieve social development in rural Africa. This is why WeTu is a social enterprise with clear goals pertaining to social, economic, and ecological outcomes. The business model is based on technology solutions that have been specifically developed for rural Africa.

In our experience, self-sustaining and financially independent solutions are possible when the ideas contributed by local communities are matched with regional and international networks and knowledge. Through our Impact Hub network, we've set up several entrepreneurial centers in African cities. And we were actively involved in We!Hub, the previous version of this project on Lake Victoria, meaning we know the region, the communities, and the potential business models quite well.

Sympra: How would you describe the situation on the ground?

RH: It's a bit of a mixed bag. On the one hand, we see enormous potential. There are many, highly-motivated young people who want to improve their quality of life. They want to seize opportunities and they have a real entrepreneurial spirit.

But on the other hand, there is 20 percent youth unemployment in the region — toxically frustrating for such a young society. Beyond that, access to basic goods is not always guaranteed. The drinking water situation is also dire. Many people continue to drink contaminated water straight from Lake Victoria. Pollution threatens the livelihoods of local communities that depend on income derived from fishing in the lake. There is poor infrastructure in rural areas: streets are bad, if they exist at all, which create challenges for transporting goods like food or drinking water. These are significant hurdles when it comes to development.

Sympra: You utilize a wide variety of technologies at WeTu. How were they selected?

RH: The technologies we are going to provide have been carefully evaluated to make sure they're suited for the needs and conditions on the ground.

For example, the fishing lanterns were developed specifically for WeTu. They are very durable, and their lithium-ion batteries will replace the lead batteries and oil lamps that are often used in the region and are harmful for human health and the environmental health of the lake.

For filtering water, we decided on a product from Solar Spring, a spin-off of the Fraunhofer Institute. They make robust, low-maintenance water filtration systems specifically for developing rural regions. The system has a four-stage filtration process, making it ideal for the consistent provision of the best and safest drinking water.

In the e-mobility sector, we're planning on testing a few products. They include the electric aCar, a simple, small electric truck made by the Munich startup EVUM. The trucks will be used to make WeTu water and battery deliveries in remote areas. Electric cargo-bikes from anywhere.berlin, another startup, will be able to take on logistic tasks related to agriculture and tradecrafts. And electric boat motors from Torqueedo will drastically reduce pollution on the lake from fishing boats. Of course, solar panels that provide cheap, clean, and reliable energy will keep everything charged. I'm confident we're  going to see encouraging technological leaps quite soon in the e-mobility sector in East Africa.

Sympra: Which partners are you working with on the project?

RH: We work with a few technology partners and are also planning on linking up with the local startup scene. This is why we set up the company at the Lake Hub entrepreneurial center in Kisumu. Beyond that, we're working on a German-Kenyan research network to accompany the expanding technological infrastructure and to develop new business models. These could include rental concepts and concepts that generate more local production and jobs.

To increase our impact, we're also working with NGOs such as KWAHO (Kenya Water for Health Organization). Their activities include hygiene promotion in partnership with schools and local health officials.

Networks tend to be more innovative, because members learn from one another. And we can share what we've learned working on the ground in Kenya with other partners and the countless social entrepreneurs in our global empowering people. Network. We need new ideas in development, and this is how progress is made.

Sympra: What does the future hold for WeTu?

RH: Initially, we are focusing on expanding the core business areas, WePower and WeWater. Then we want to add WeMobility, expanding e-mobility solutions to include local production.

The goal will remain the same: to introduce reliable products and provide better basic services for tens of thousands of people and their families. It's also important that we contribute to environmental protection and sustainability, and WeTu does that by helping to reduce water and air pollution in the region. 

In the future, the technological solutions we provide will be better-suited for local production. By shifting the value creation to the local level as much as possible, lots of new jobs will be created.

And because we work closely with our partners, we also hope to develop stronger relationships with the public sector as well as additional organizations and businesses with local and international experience.

Rolf Huber is the managing director of Siemens Stiftung. Sympra is a communications consulting firm with offices in Stuttgart, Munich, and Berlin. A version of this Q&A was originally published on the Siemens Siftung website.

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