Alexandre Tourre

A South African accountant, a New York liberal, and a French engineer walk into a classroom… It might sound like the start of a joke, but, for Alex Tourre, this scenario took place during a master’s programme in New York and triggered something much more life changing. The encounter kickstarted a journey that took him away from the comforts of Paris, London and New York and into the exciting opportunities of Sierra Leone. 

Alexandre Tourre

As Alex recalls, this journey was triggered months earlier, when he was still working in corporate finance: 

I had an ‘aha’ moment when I realised my life at the time was essentially dedicated to helping rich people become just a little bit richer.

Alex had studied engineering at Centrale-Supelec, one of the top colleges in Paris, where he specialised in energy and communications, and also became President of its Student Union. Alex, however, is not someone to rest on his laurels. He exudes a driving curiosity, and this might have contributed to an ambition to broaden his horizons. He left Paris behind and made a move to Imperial.  

The change wasn’t simply about moving to London. He also switched his attention to advanced computing. His master’s studies at Imperial College London focused partly on artificial intelligence, which in 2008, was a far cry from the advances offered by Open AI and DALL-E in 2023, but a lot of fun nevertheless. 

The timing of his graduation meant he emerged into the job market shortly after the global banking crisis. This offered limited options, especially in engineering and, unexpectedly, he gravitated towards a career in finance and consulting. The exposure to corporate finance and mergers and acquisitions provided an early insight into the prospects of commercial enterprise. It was just that this industry wasn’t the right fit. 

Alex admits: “After a few years in consulting I was keen to go in a new direction. Then I was unbelievably fortunate to have a long conversation with the economic advisor to the president of the European Commission. It was a complete revelation. I came away thinking, wow! It’s possible to have a job where you wake up every morning feeling ‘Oh my god, I’m in an exciting job, which I love, and I can’t wait to get to work!’ I understood the concept, but I’d never felt it in practice before. But, by seeing one person living that truth, I began to believe I could do it too.” 

Alex writes on a glass wall in his office

Making the Break  

I always had an interest in public good, so I explored opportunities in politics and policy. I approached a bunch of places but, with a background in engineering and finance, it became pretty clear I’d be making coffees for two years before making any serious headway!

Alex appreciated that, if it was going to take two years regardless, spending that time studying wasn’t such a bad idea. He signed up for a master’s in International and Public Affairs at Columbia University in New York. It changed everything. Before long, he met Eric Silverman and Nthabiseng Mosia who became his co-founders of Easy Solar

“It started in the classroom, looking at ideas for a tech-for-positive-innovation project. The three of us couldn’t have been more different. Nthabi is a South African Ghanaian with an accounting background who was already working in West Africa, Eric was a liberal arts major who had been in the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone and, of course, I’m an engineer. It doesn’t always make for the smoothest meetings, our perspectives push us to look at issues from multiple angles, and we often disagree. But, when we come up with a solution, it’s been investigated from every direction and has a much better chance of succeeding.”  

“It became apparent that what started as a classroom project had real potential, so we pushed ahead – entering hackathons here and winning low-level grants there. The real change, however, came when we won the University’s end-of-the-year entrepreneurship competition, along with a £30,000 cheque. We looked at each other and said: ‘Alright, so we’re doing this then!’” 

Alex and colleagues holding a check for $30,000

Alex (left), Nthabi (centre) and Eric (right) win Columbia University's entrepreneurship competition in 2016

Alex (left), Nthabi (centre) and Eric (right) win Columbia University's entrepreneurship competition in 2016

On the back of this success in 2016, they managed to raise a further $50,000 from friends, family and professors. With cash in the bank, they ordered a wide array of solar equipment and three tickets to Freetown, then jumped on a plane to West Africa where they’ve lived ever since. 

Being clear on what people need  

There are many reasons why launching a business in Sierra Leone is not for the fainthearted. As one of the poorest countries in the world, finding a business model that works there takes great perseverance and an open mind. 

In the beginning, we brought a lot of ideas to the table, but Eric would usually shoot them down! With the benefit of his previous experience, he’d explain why they wouldn’t work. There’s usually a reason why something hasn’t worked before, and not learning from that is just foolish.

“We had to flip our mindset. We realised our view of the world, built from a western perspective, had plenty to offer, but it was poorly positioned to really understand what clients in Sierra Leone required. The only way we could make this work was to listen to them, and build a model designed around what people needed and which fitted how people in the country lived and operated.” 

“We started the first two years of the programme by calling every solar and last-mile distribution company we could find. We asked them about the ventures they had been involved with, what worked and what failed. We also surveyed the communities extensively to understand why it was that only 16% of the population had access to power and how the other 84% lived.” 

The approach has not been perfect and, as Alex confesses, the business has had its fair share of trial and error, but over the past seven years Easy Solar has managed to equip nearly 200,000 homes with solar energy. Given the number of occupants in each household, this means well over a million people now have access to lights, TV, and the ability to power their phones (and consequently access to the internet). It represents around 15% of the population, which, together with the pre-existing 16%, means more than a third of Sierra Leone now has access to energy. 

Alex and his colleagues at an Easy Solar office with members of the local community

Easy Solar's three co-founders visit Bakar Mansaray, their first agent, and his customers in Songo, Sierra Leone.

Easy Solar's three co-founders visit Bakar Mansaray, their first agent, and his customers in Songo, Sierra Leone.

Alex Tourre
Alex Tourre
Alex Tourre in front of the easy solar sign at his office

Creating a model that’s built for growth 

The business operation has matured to provide a very structured model. It is supported by 300 staff on payroll, based all around the country, backed up by a further 600 people working on commission. Together they provide a network that delivers a sales and distribution capability for the company.  

Alex standing in front of a mural in his office

Traditionally, the biggest hurdle for most customers has been the cost. Having to pay upfront for solar equipment has put energy access beyond the reach of most. To combat this, the company offers an option to purchase the kit through a financing model, much as you might buy a car or a sofa in the UK. Monthly payments are determined, agreed and spread over a period of time which seems realistic for the client. By the end of the contract, 100% of the ownership passes over to them. 

We didn’t do this alone. A really exciting dimension has been convincing investors to put money into Sierra Leone for the first time. This is a country typically associated with blood diamonds, civil war and Ebola. Getting backers to look beyond the negative headlines and see the country as a credible opportunity has been really special.

Where NGOs fear to tread 

Alex suggests that too often, the focus in the poorest countries is on helping through aid: “Don’t get me wrong – it’s very valuable in certain cases, but it’s limiting. There are also a number of inefficiencies and inequalities in the approach, which often prevent those initiatives from operating at scale and perpetuate a situation of dependence on foreign aid for those countries.” 

“It's a sensitive subject, but I believe that social enterprises and more broadly responsible private sector companies must be at the centre of any effort to deliver impact rapidly, sustainably and at scale. It's sad to see that too many NGOs still operate in a silo without being equipped with the tools and resources to develop effective partnerships with the private sector.” 

Easy Solar’s results show that taking a commercial, user-centric approach is helping to deliver strong, long-term success, and that focus on the user has led the team to change the accepted language. For instance, they insist on calling their consumers clients, not beneficiaries.  

Alex with his colleagues

From left to right: Zorah, Eric, Nthabi, Alex and George at Easy Solar's headquarters in Freetown in 2021

From left to right: Zorah, Eric, Nthabi, Alex and George at Easy Solar's headquarters in Freetown in 2021

The team has grown to appreciate the strength of its network and realise how the distribution model can be leveraged to deliver much more than solar power. Easy Solar is teaming up with other companies to sell third party products and services through its established channels. That way, it can offer solar cookstoves (to reduce coal use), water pumps and freezers, etc., or alternatively phone finance options (to further open up digital connectivity) and access to micro insurance products. 

Our goal is to light up lives - to improve how people live, work and play. Witnessing the impact this has firsthand, and seeing how it helps people get a few steps closer to living up to their full potential, is a definite motivator. I also can’t help being inspired by my surroundings. In a way, working in Sierra Leone also brings you closer to reality. It strips away the layer of disassociation you experience in a screen and ads-dominated, western society. I feel closer and more connected to the people all around me in a real way.

As Easy Solar expands its operations to neighbouring Liberia and Guinea, providing it keeps listening to its clients and developing a model which fits what they need, Alex sees a promising future that offers real transformation to millions of people and importantly is 100% self-sustaining at the same time. 

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