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Turning Lights on in War-Torn Rural Somalia

The sun rises and sets in rural Jowhar, Somalia, the same way it does in Phoenix. In order to make sure both places get the most out of it, Guled Wiliq has to start with the basics.

The sun rises and sets in rural Jowhar, Somalia, the same way it does in Phoenix. In order to make sure both places get the most out of it, Guled Wiliq has to start with the basics.

“People don’t believe you can make electricity from the sun,” he says. “It’s just kind of a challenge for them to understand. And I don’t blame them.” Wiliq’s family fled a collapsing Somalia in 1991. Now, the Somali-American is founder and CEO of Power OffGrid, a small energy company in Jowhar aiming to literally empower far-flung people in a country with little infrastructure.

With a company backed by his own funds, along with those of friends and family, Wiliq has brought electricity to 1,000 people so far through installing 70 kilowatts of solar panels. 

He hopes to chip away at the international development model driven by governments and nongovernmental organizations. “I’m somebody who is not into handouts or aid-dependent, so I wanted to change that,” says Wiliq, 39.

Decades of war have forced many Somalis to leave their homes — Somalia ranks fifth on a United Nations list of countries that produce the most refugees. 

Wiliq, like many Somali immigrants, has decided to devote time, effort and money into rebuilding their homeland. Some have done so from abroad, while others have returned.

The country’s current president, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, spent years living in Buffalo, New York, working for the city’s municipal government. Scott Paul, a senior policy adviser at Oxfam America, says remittance payments have been a critical part of Somali life since civil war first broke out. “The diaspora is really the economic engine keeping Somalia as together as it is,” Paul says.

Wiliq has a degree in civil engineering and expertise in water resource management, but he made his money in real estate. In 2006, looking for work, he followed his friend Bashir Ahmed Hassan, a fellow immigrant he’d known since they were 10 years old, to Arizona. 

In Somalia, Wiliq’s family had been relatively well-off. He grew up in Mogadishu, spending his summers at a farm in the countryside. 

The civil war drove his family to Pakistan, where Wiliq continued his education. Yearning for adventure, he set his sights on America. “When he came to Arizona, Guled by and large was penniless,” Hassan says. “And today he has flourishing real estate investment in the valley.”

Wiliq made a fortune and became a U.S. citizen. But doing business in Somalia is far different than doing business in America. 

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The cities are patrolled by contingents of heavily armed African Union soldiers. In the countryside, militants and bandits roam the deserts and often demand taxes of the locals. Running Power OffGrid from Arizona, Wiliq is careful by necessity.

“We don’t travel when it’s not day,” he says. “Most areas where we work [are] quiet … not in areas where there’s an extreme or terrorist element.”

While solar panel installations provide Somalis with off-the-grid power, they have also allowed Wiliq’s customers better access to the communication grid to take full advantage of the information age. Reliable electricity allows them to get news and connect with outside communities. 

There are few banks in Somalia, making digital money transfers critical via mobile apps like EVC Plus. And those phones have to stay charged.

Digital technologies frequently collide with rural realities. Most of Wiliq’s customers pay in installments, as they can’t afford solar panels outright. Sometimes he has to take a mix of money and goats to get a deal done; given the high upfront costs, Wiliq’s solar home system has just six customers. Power OffGrid recently acquired a smaller solar company, Wiliq says, with $60,000 in sales.

Green energy is a relatively new market in Somalia. Power OffGrid’s main competition is Mogadishu-based BECO, which bills itself as the country’s largest energy provider. 

Formed in 2014 by a collection of small and medium-size electricity suppliers, BECO has supporters at the U.N. and within the Somali government. 

The company has touted efforts to invest in solar and wind power and has lobbied for the Somali government to impose stronger regulations on the energy sector. Wiliq says BECO, which is still fossil fuel-reliant, is lobbying to regulate competing startups like his out of business. BECO declined to comment.

Wiliq notes that the U.N. Development Program can be a competitor of sorts, as it offers free solar energy kits to rural Somalis. But Wiliq also points out that the agency rarely offers much hands-on instruction or long-term support, which amounts to a handout with little long-term benefit.

Launching a business of any kind in Somalia is tricky. Post-9/11 efforts to disrupt terrorist financing make it harder to transfer money there. And with American banks cooler on risky investments since the financial crisis, loans for Somali ventures are almost impossible to come by.

For instance, in 2014 the Treasury Department slapped Merchants Bank with a cease-and-desist letter warning that it wanted verification that all money transfers to Somalia were for “legitimate purposes.” 

At the time the bank handled as much as 80 percent of U.S.-Somalia remittance payments, transferring an estimated $200 million annually. As the February 2015 deadline approached, the bank announced it would cease all remittance payments to Somalia. 

“It’s a huge amount of money for Somalis but not a huge amount of money for banks, so there isn’t much incentive for banks,” Paul says. “Right now [a lot of] the money is being transported in suitcases.”

More recently, Somalia was part of the Trump administration’s travel ban, another damper on joint business ventures, not to mention friendly relations. Wiliq says the travel ban “could be keeping out the next Steve Jobs” — the late Apple co-founder was of Syrian descent — but he remains optimistic about Somalia’s future. 

Wiliq has already launched a new company, Jiko BioGas, to begin bringing solar techniques to Somali farmers. So far, the venture has five clients — and 300 more on a waiting list. 

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