Hi everyone, Spiffy here, your one and only interplanetary journalist reporting from Planet Earth. I’m thrilled to be in Nairobi, Kenya to meet an entrepreneur working to make the world a better place. Pulkit Shamshery, the director of Illumina Africa, is making a huge impact on UN SDG 9: Industry, Innovation, and Infrastructure. Are you ready to be enlightened?
Spiffy: Welcome, Pulkit, let’s jump right in! What challenges are you addressing at Illumina Africa?
Pulkit: It’s great to be here, Spiffy! Illumina Africa’s mission is to provide sustainable energy and water infrastructure to every single individual on our planet and the wider universe. Currently, we build, own, and operate, solar photovoltaic power plants and provide low-cost sustainable electricity to industries, offices, residential and off-grid individuals.
Spiffy: This sounds exciting! Can you talk a bit about what motivated you to do work in the field of sustainable energy and water infrastructure?
Pulkit: ‘What difference will I make to this world?’ is a question that motivates me every day. Africa, with its wealth of natural and human resources, is at a turning point of unprecedented growth and advancement. Amidst limited infrastructure and despite political volatility, I see untapped opportunity and want to dedicate my life to building the region discounted by the rest of the world. Close to 660 million Africans lack access to basic amenities of food, water, or electricity. My vision is to catalyze sustainable growth through innovations in renewable energy, clean water, and agriculture.
Spiffy: How would you say you and Illumina Africa are working to make the world a more equitable place?
Pulkit: Well, Spiffy, did you know that 1% of the population owns more wealth than the bottom 92%? This is a statistic that annoys me daily. Through Illumina Africa, we aim to provide sustainable electricity infrastructure to rural communities in Africa that never had access to these basic amenities. I believe electricity is key for any community’s economic growth as you can leverage electricity to power critical infrastructure in health care facilities, schools, pumps for clean water and irrigation, and power other production equipment. We are also very deliberate in our hiring policy, ensuring a 50-50 male to female ratio—to build our projects and conduct solar vocational skills training programs where we train, educate, and motivate individuals of all educational backgrounds and races.
Spiffy: These things are huge, Pulkit! What other types of initiative are you working on and what kind of impact do you anticipate it will have?
Pulkit: A very recent initiative that Illumina Africa started is a vocational skills training program that trains individuals to think macroscopically about climate change and think innovatively about solutions to solve them. We then dive deeper into solar electric basics and design principles and complete it with a full install on a live project to give everyone practical skill sets. We use this as a funnel for our hiring process and also provide individuals with skill sets to build their own solar projects or find employment elsewhere in the solar industry.
Spiffy: Can you share about a time when you faced failure and didn't give up? What did you learn from failure?
Pulkit: At the early stages of Illumina Africa, we struggled. We struggled with clearly defining our customer target. We struggled to make money, which was compounded by our family’s push to give up our dream and find jobs. It felt like a long, lonely road but we weren't alone. We bonded as co founders during these struggles. We listened to everyone that said no to us and really understood why they were saying no. Really deeply dove into all the factors that were affecting our success and we pivoted. We went after initial clients who would take risks on young entrepreneurs, hired the best, pivoted on who the main market we would tackle would be initially before going after rural electrification.
Spiffy: What is something you've unexpectedly learned from someone recently?
Pulkit: "What matters most to you?", a question asked by my 7-year-old niece, has been the greatest question anyone has asked me. It seems so naive but is an extremely difficult question to answer and I could only find part of the answer after deep reflection and self-reflection. I do what I do, I did what I did, and I will do what I will do—grounded in the fact that what matters most to me is making a difference in the lives of individuals that have been left behind by humankind, and help them prosper. If I am able to positively impact even one life, that would mean success to me—but hopefully, I will impact billions of lives.
Spiffy: I have a hunch you’re going to light up the world, Pulkit. Thanks for taking the time to talk to me, it’s been an honor!
Pulkit Shamshery is the director of Illumina Africa Limited, a venture that focuses on delivering turn-key solar PV and clean water solutions for residential, commercial, industrial, and agricultural projects in Kenya and East Africa. Pulkit holds master’s degrees in mechanical engineering from the University of Cambridge and MIT School of Engineering, and an MBA from MIT’s Sloan School of Management. (First published on the Ladderworks website on September 17, 2021)
© 2021 Ladderworks LLC. Edited by Jill Landis Jha. Spiffy’s illustration by Shreyas Navare. Follow Spiffy’s interviews of founders building a more equitable world here.