This article previously appeared on News@Northeastern. It was written by Ian Thomsen.
Natasha Ibori launched her solar company, Uwana Energy, with the goal of providing clean and affordable electricity to her homeland of Nigeria. She was elated to learn that she had won an inaugural $10,000 Innovator Award from Northeastern's Women Who Empower inclusion and entrepreneurship initiative.
”Being able to do a grant application that focused on you as a person—as well as how viable your business is—was really important to me,” says Ibori, who earned her Northeastern degree in international affairs in 2018. “Especially in this very patriarchal country, I have had people just completely doubt my capability and my credibility. So having been able to show myself as a person on this application, and not just that it is a female-led business, is really, really important.”
With several partners, including two from Boston, Ibori launched Uwana Energy—Uwana being the Efik word for brightness—which sells, installs, and maintains rooftop solar panels. Ibori's company has been trying to break in by marketing its solar panels to small-business owners, with the eventual goal of being sold in stores throughout Nigeria as a safer alternative to fuel generators.
The awards recognize 19 women who are graduates or current students at Northeastern. They are receiving a total of $100,000 in grants to help fuel 17 ventures.
“I'm so grateful for the opportunity to be amongst such wonderful businesses that are doing so much for the world,” Ibori says of her fellow winners and applicants. “It's amazing to feel like somebody is believing in what we're doing.”
Ibori took a class in global social entrepreneurship at Northeastern that changed her career direction and helped prepare her to become co-founder of Uwana Energy.
“Natasha is incredibly organized, highly focused, and exceptionally gracious,” says Carol Rosskam, sustainability program manager at Northeastern, who supported Ibori's work on the university's Trash2Treasure recycling initiative. “One of Natasha's attributes is how her soft spoken, melodic voice works in tandem with her fierce strength, intelligence, and convictions.”
Ibori also participated in the McCarthy(s) Venture Mentoring Network, which pairs Northeastern entrepreneurs with mentors.
“Natasha is an incredibly passionate and dedicated entrepreneur,” says Wendy Eaton, program analyst for the network. “She has a passion for her product and a desire to make a tangible difference in the community in Nigeria. I am excited to see all that she will do.”
Ibori was still at Northeastern when she began developing her plans to return home to Nigeria, where she says more than 20 million households create their own electricity with gas-powered generators that are expensive, polluting, noisy, and unreliable.
There is an urgent need for clean, affordable energy in Nigeria, where Ibori says 110 million people face daily blackouts, and more than 11,000 people die annually from air pollution. The COVID-19 pandemic added to the difficulties for her startup, she says.
Uwana Energy offers loan-to-own financing that enables people to make payments that enable them to eventually own the solar panels. The $10,000 Innovator Award grant is helping Ibori's company improve its solar product and recruit more lenders to support Nigeria's energy transition, she says.
Establishing her company in the marketplace will require a long-term commitment, Ibori acknowledges.
”The biggest hurdle is getting customers to understand the value,” says Ibori, who says the $550 price of the solar panels is roughly equal to the cost of using a gas-powered generator for one year. “That's a lot of money for a lot of people, [especially] if they're not aware of the financing options.”