The Kenya-born Amar Inamdar describes himself as “non-linear”, a “scientist, explorer, entrepreneur and emerging markets investor”.
“I’ve had the privilege to work all over the world with some amazing businesses over the last 25 years. I spent a good part of my career with big corporations – in the US with the IFC and in the Netherlands with Shell – but always on the frontier of what is possible and in emerging markets,” he said.
At heart, Inamdar says he is always in “lean startup mode”
“I’m happiest when I’m working with a crazy-dedicated small team trying to do something that everyone says is impossible,” he said.
Right now, he is doing just that in his role of managing director of KawiSafi Ventures, a for-profit impact fund founded in 2016 and sponsored by Acumen. KawiSafi aims to catalyse the emerging high-growth potential off-grid solar energy ecosystem in East Africa, with Inamdar saying it builds on 10 hard years of experience with very patient capital investing in off-grid energy.
“Acumen’s leadership had the prescience to see that the time is now to create a for-profit, commercially-minded fund that will attract the kind of capital that can help businesses to scale and grow in a way that will impact millions, not just thousands, of people,” he said.
The fund may be young, but it is moving fast.
“We’ve built a great team here in Nairobi and we’re backed by a remarkable group of investors. We’ve achieved a successful second close and deployed about a third of our capital already into four great companies – BBOXX, d.light, Lendable and Redavia. We sit on the boards of all four, and we’re keen to do more to help build businesses in East Africa and help them achieve their goals,” Inamdar said.
Currently, KawiSafi is focusing on finalising its capital raise, supporting its existing portfolio, and developing its pipeline by making some new investments.
“We have a tight investment thesis that’s focused on decentralised, renewable power. We see tremendous opportunity from tech-driven trends for the private sector to solve one of the biggest challenges of our time – achieving universal energy access,” said Inamdar.
KawiSafi’s team is very excited about the development of the African tech space in general, and the off-grid solar market in particular.
“We’ve never seen anything like it in our history. Energy and the internet are becoming cheaper and more accessible every day; creating a self-reinforcing trajectory for people to create opportunity and build markets,” Inamdar said.
“I’m willing to bet that, just like cellphone leapfrogged landlines, decentralised power will leapfrog the grid. And the amazing thing is that it’s going to happen here, in East Africa, before anywhere else. We’re leading the way. My team is constantly inspired by the incredible people we meet who are dedicating everything that they have to creating innovations that have the potential to reach millions of underserved people around the world.”
However, for many companies, what is lacking is the ability to translate a great product into a great business.
“The best technology is just a black box until you can work out how to connect to people and markets. It’s all about execution. And execution is hard in Africa. The biggest challenge I see is not a lack of money, but the lack of people experienced in understanding and creating value for the customer in East Africa,” said Inamdar.
Yet those people are slowly increasing in number, while the amount of funding available is also on the rise, albeit from a small base.
“We need to demonstrate that we can bring companies to scale, make them commercial and enable investors to exit with reasonable, competitive returns,” Inamdar said. “It’s easy to invest money. The hard part is getting it back to your investors. When we can do that, we will start to attract much more interest and appetite to African businesses and entrepreneurs.”