Posted on

The route to being an entrepreneur was not a straight line – Samuel

The route to being an entrepreneur was not a straight line – Samuel

Share

The route to being that elusive, enigmatic creature, an entrepreneur, was neither a straight line nor a conscious choice for Herbert “Haz” Samuel, the Anthony N Sabga Caribbean Awards for Excellence Laureate in Entrepreneurship in 2015.{{more}}

Samuel’s innovative web app, Welectricity, has been called a “game changer” in the energy conservation movement, and has users in 112 countries. (The app can be found at www.welectricity.com )

Samuel was born in St Vincent and the Grenadines, and attended UWI, St Augustine, where he qualified as an industrial engineer. He returned home in 1982 to work as the first energy officer in the government of SVG, thereafter with the island’s electricity authority, VINLEC, and from there to a regional engineering firm, CEP and then to CARILEC in Saint Lucia.

He has worked as an independent energy consultant since 2007 and he currently works with regional and international clients. These include the CARICOM Renewable Energy Development Programme (CREDP-GIZ) and the World Bank, where he is a member of a team building out a global network of innovation centres that empower entrepreneurs to build businesses tackling energy and climate-related problems.

Samuel’s first entrepreneurial venture was done without any expectation of reward, or even the knowledge that it was a venture, which was a good thing, as it turned out. Samuel describes himself as a “jazz fanatic,” and lived in St Lucia at the time the St Lucia Jazz Festival was launched in the early 1990s. These were also the early days of the Internet and, he says, looking for information on the festival on the Cable and Wireless website, and finding none, he decided to build his own website for the festival.

This was purely for his own edification and as an incidental public service, collecting information on performers and venues and putting it online for the benefit of others like him. At this point, these were the early days of the worldwide web, and the value of Internet presence was not recognized by the authorities, so Samuel maintained the website for several years. Eventually, he recalls, “I approached the St Lucia Jazz Festival to purchase the site, but they did not agree. So, I continued to do it for myself.” They did eventually purchase the domain name as the scope of the Web as a promotional tool grew.

But this was a revelatory moment for him. To be an entrepreneur in the Caribbean is to be a Columbus-like figure:  a man or woman driven by an idea which he must convince an often unyieldingly skeptical investor is viable. The ideas themselves come from a number of places, from the mundane to flash of insight, and might be pursued in isolation for years before it is commercially viable, if that moment ever comes. The whole process is fraught with failure. “The culture of the Caribbean needs to change,” says Samuel. “People need to be given the chance to fail, without any stigma attached. Sometimes it’s the failure that leads you to the success.”

For Samuel, the insight which led to his creation of Welectricity came when a friend asked for help to size a solar electricity system for a home he was constructing. Analyzing the energy consumption of his friend’s household (four people) compared to his own (two people), Samuel realized that the relation was not simple arithmetic: that is, two people in a similar housing situation did not consume half as much as four – and that the difference was driven by behavioural factors.

This insight into the asymmetric relationship between consumption, population and resources was not unique. Samuel notes that the insight was first described in the work of the 19th century British economist, William Stanley Jevons, who proposed a paradox in his 1856 book, The Coal Question, that increasing the technical efficiency of an energy consuming system would not necessarily reduce energy consumption.  

Samuel realized that logic and moral suasion would not deter unnecessary energy consumption, a matter of critical importance to people living on islands and reliant on imported energy. “The thing is,” he says, “a flat screen TV might be left on, not because you want to see a show. It might be left on because it is attractive to look at.”

Coupling this insight with the increasing interconnectivity of local and non-local populations via the Internet, and the increasing trend to “gamify” everyday activities (to introduce an element of game playing), the fundamental innovation of Welectricity was born: a website that tracks domestic energy consumption, but introduces elements of social interaction and competition.

It was conceived in 2009 and, funded by an IDEAS Energy Innovation award from GVEP International and GiZ, was built and launched in 2010. It has been exceptionally well-received, attracting international attention, and winning new global innovation awards. It now has users from 112 countries.

In 2010 the UK-based WWF, the world’s largest independent conservation organization, named Welectricity as a “Green game-changer;” GE awarded it Best Idea for the Millennial in its 2010 ecomagination smart grid challenge and in 2011 it was judged Best New Sustainability Innovation in the Knowledge@Wharton/Wipro Innovation Tournament at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.

Welectricity, says Samuel, could not have been possible without the connectivity of the worldwide web. The original iteration of the app was built in 12 weeks, with inputs from a team of programmers based in Barranquilla, Colombia and in California.  Now, five years on, he is entering into ventures in the Far East, in countries like Malaysia.

But the effect of Welectricity is much more than technical. In creating it, Samuel has proven that living on a small island is not a constraint to creativity or thinking globally. This is the lesson he hopes that will accompany his achievement.

Herbert Samuel joins 26 other laureates in Science, Arts, Public and Civic work, and Entrepreneurship who have been awarded with the Caribbean Awards for Excellence prize since its inception in 2005. A brief bio-video and interview with him can be found on the Caribbean Awards YouTube channel (ANSCAFE), and an autobiographical essay can be found in the publication, The Excellent Decade. Further information about the Caribbean Awards can be found at www.ansacaribbeanawards.com and on Facebook.

LAST NEWS