Next year, solar ovens will appear in the Ugandan market, and a new manufacturing plant will be launched in January, thanks to the entrepreneurship of Ugandan-American businessman Ronald Mutebi. After his company won $100,000 in the African Diaspora Marketplace, a competition sponsored by Western Union and USAID, Mutebi has piloted an assembly plant in Uganda to produce the ovens, which will be sold initially at $170 each. The parts come from Sun Ovens International, an American company based in Illinois.
The ovens are made with reflectors of anodized aluminum, which do not rust, a plastic outer shell, an aluminum inner shell, as well as fiberglass insulation. The ovens are produced in the U.S. but used around the world, including 100 developing countries. The ovens will benefit from the frequent sunshine in Uganda, and one oven can feed a family of eight. A solar oven, created by Sun Ovens. Mutebi’s passion and concern over deforestation in Uganda was a major factor in wanting to start a business that will produce and distribute the solar ovens. Ugandans who use the ovens will not need firewood or charcoal, both of which have caused the loss of tropical forests throughout Uganda.
“Uganda, as well as Africa as a whole, is losing its forest cover at an alarming rate, primarily due to fuel for cooking,” Mutebi told Ugandans Abroad. “This is what especially the population at the bottom of the pyramid rely on for their daily survival. Deforestation and its impact to global warming mean nothing, because to them it’s a matter of eating or not.” Mutebi became involved with the solar ovens when he learned about them at a Rotary International Conference in 2004. The inventor of the solar ovens, Tom Burns, is a longtime Rotary member, and Rotary runs solar oven projects on five continents. “Everyone who has seen the performance of the Sun Oven wants to get one,” Mutebi said.
The entrepreneur is from the Buganda region of Uganda, and is the nephew of the Kabaka, Ronald L. Muwenda Mutebi. He was raised just outside of Kampala, and attended Kasubi Family Primary and Mengo Senior Secondary. He went to Makerere University for undergraduate education, and followed his college degree with an additional degree in accounting in Kampala. He started his own custom metal fabrication business in 1997. He left Uganda to pursue further studies in the U.S. at Chicago’s Loyola University in 1999, and has a home in Chicago today. He is very involved with the Ugandan community in Chicago, and likes to play football with the Chicago Cranes, their diaspora team.
Since 1999, Mutebi’s perception of his culture and motherland has changed a great deal. “Before I travelled outside my culture to leave the country, you could not show me the wealth of my culture and heritage,” he said. “You know, the feeling of the grass being greener on the other side of the fence. But now, after living in the United States for over ten years, I am a big advocate for celebrating our culture in the diaspora.” Today, he runs the Tek Consults Group, a Chicago-based consulting group that helps professionals and companies do business in East Africa, and which won the $100,000 grant from the African Diaspora Marketplace to launch the solar ovens in Uganda. In addition to the Tek Consults Group, Mutebi also started the Ugandan American Global Initiatives, which coordinates and harmonizes humanitarian activities back home with American friends he has developed over the years in the U.S. At the end of the day, for Mutebi, being a Ugandan that lives in America is all about opportunities, challenges, and expectations.
“Opportunity is the fact that I live in the West, and can have many guarantees to the basic necessities of life,” he said. “Challenge in the fact that the many resources and opportunities cannot easily be transferred home. And expectation of the people left home that things just happen to you because you live in the West.” This festive season, demand for the solar ovens is keeping Mutebi busy—he’s traveled all over Uganda, working on the project. Once production is in place, he plans to split his time fifty-fifty between Uganda and the United States. He says that it feels great to be home, “but these days it is hard to tell where my home is.” Mutebi says that at least 1,000 individuals in Uganda have expressed interest in purchasing the ovens.
“Everyone who has seen the performance of the Sun Oven wants to get one,” Mutebi told Ugandans Abroad. “This is regardless of gender, class, or educational background.” Ronald Mutebi, near the White House in Washington, D.C. In November, Mutebi did a demonstration of the solar oven to Vice-President Gilbert Bukenya. “In a few minutes of seeing the oven cook and the temperatures that it was accumulating, he literally pulled out his wallet and paid in U.S. dollars for four ovens to be delivered to his country home,” Mutebi said.
“Overall, there has been a tremendously positive reception of the ovens not only in Uganda, but in all other countries where the ovens have been tested.” Ultimately, Western Union and USAID gave $1.4 million in grants to fourteen businesses, all run by Africans in the diaspora. 700 African immigrants applied, and 90 were selected as finalists. Judges looked for businesses that tapped into botht he knowledge of Africans in the diaspora and their local partners back home.
Many investors also attended, including representatives from the World Bank. USAID is encouraging its missions around the world to also offer technical expertise to winners in the competition. Mutebi hopes that other Ugandans living abroad will want to start, expand, and invest in businesses back home. “The message is simple. The time to build our continent is now!” he said. “Africa, even in the global depression, is still posting close to six points in growth, compared to the one to two percentage points the West is posting this year. Those who know this are running in droves to be part of the action.”