Clean Energy Comes To Somaliland. Meet Nigel Carr.
You can take the boy out of Maine, but you can’t take Maine out of the boy. Nigel Carr’s Northeast roots inspired a deep appreciate of nature early on and piqued his interest in generating energy using clean resources. He started his career with a company building solar projects on contaminated land — a great fit. However, after a serendipitous meeting with a fellow Amherst College classmate who had recently returned from Somaliland, the idea for Qorax was born to provide affordable, environmentally friendly energy to the people of Somaliland. A visit to the region sealed the deal for Nigel. He shares his journey over the last three years, the good and the bad, and asks us the tough question of where we’d be without the energy to power the every day devices we hold dear.
Talentedly: How did Qorax come to be?
Nigel Carr: Qorax is the product of a collaborative vision. It has evolved dramatically over the past year, but Christian Desrosiers and I originally incubated the idea at a restaurant in Cambridge called Charlie’s Kitchen. He had just returned home after two years in Somaliland, the diplomatically unrecognized northwestern region of Somalia. At the time, I was working for a start up development company building utility scale solar projects on contaminated land. Christian had witnessed an unsolved problem: extraordinary high local energy costs and low energy access rates. With our combined experience, we knew we could enable more affordable, environmentally friendly energy access with renewable technology – and create local job opportunities in a global growth industry in the process. A native Somali, Abdishakur, joined us in completing the founding team, we were off and rolling.
TLY: What is your role at Qorax?
NC:Our core management is composed of myself and two partners who are gifted leaders, so we tend to share duties where we can each have the most impact. My role is not easy to categorize, but it involves spending time primarily in front of other people. Internally and externally, we have large audiences to communicate with, for various purposes. To this end, our strategy and direction needs to be clear. After four months in Hargeisa helping launch Qorax’s portfolio company Enersom, I focus on driving our expansion strategy and finding partners to help fuel that growth with the necessary resources.
TLY:Where did your interest in providing affordable and accessible energy stem from?
NC: When you are born and raised in Maine, you tend to develop a strong affinity for the natural world at an early age. I am no exception. It’s a deep appreciation and the root of my belief in generating energy using cleaner resources. I couldn’t have asked for a better start with Brightfields, but visiting Somaliland for the first time during Qorax’s incubation stage was critical. It opened my eyes to the ability to make huge social impact with a for-profit clean energy business.
Energy is the keystone of economic development. How would you expect to be productive without light? Without charging for your phone? Your computer?
The need is considerably smaller in Somaliland, but high costs and unequal access for this fundamental service have held the region back for decades – even after they successfully emerged from a protracted civil war. The opportunity for solar here is huge. Just like the mobile phone revolution, off-grid energy can leapfrog traditional grid infrastructure and fossil generating assets. It is cleaner and more affordable. Ironically, mobile technology is also the foundation for our payment system that enables us to eliminate the upfront financing burden for our customers.
TLY:Were you always interested in pursuing entrepreneurship?
NC: Most of my family members have built careers in the art world, which is a less straightforward exercise than other professions. Exposure to these more nuanced trajectories made me aware of the possibility that I could work for myself. I’ve always been interested in it since. But the path to entrepreneurship was not clearly defined.
It involved a bit of luck and a high tolerance for instability. The intersection of my experience and Christian’s was circumstance, and Qorax is a product of leveraging the opportunity that was presented. It’s a rollercoaster, but the ability to get in on the ground floor of a growing business is exciting because you can follow your passion, and your reward is the possibility for greater financial independence than you would find in a salaried position. We just need to be careful how we perceive entrepreneurship. Lately, many of the most well funded ideas are really just marginal improvements on convenience for primarily wealthy audiences. Our definition of success can’t continue to be that founders become billionaires. It leads to inflated egos and overestimated value creation. We need to focus more on solving real, tangible problems.
TLY:What has been the most rewarding part of your job?
NC:We are challenging conventional perception by proving it is possible to build a resilient business in post-conflict states. Witnessing the impact we are making first hand has been the most rewarding part of my job. Somaliland and Somalia are among the poorest regions on Earth. They also have the highest retail electric tariffs in the world. It’s an extreme combination. 35% of income is spent on energy. Consider that. If it were the same in the US, someone with a median income of just over $50,000 would spend nearly $1,500 per month on energy. Locally, our portfolio company Enersom cuts these costs in half during the first year and the following years are pure savings. To use the analogy again, what possibilities would an extra $8,000 give you? What would it mean to your livelihood and to the local economy?
TLY:What is your top takeaway from building a company from the ground up?
NC:Never give up. We spent years refining our approach. It doesn’t always take this long to find success but the extremes of the ups and downs wears on you – socially, financially, and mentally. Relationships are strained. Bank accounts are drained. It’s not so much a question of if you’ll get knocked down – because you will – things won’t go right and there will be problems. It’s really a question of how willing you are to get back up and try again. Developing perseverance is your biggest asset.
TLY: If you could talk to yourself the day you graduated Amherst, what advice would you give yourself?
NC:Take advantage of opportunities as they present themselves. Travel more. See more. Looking back, I find that you regret the things you didn’t do more than the things that you did. Experience creates perspective. Ask yourself: what kind of impact do you want to make on the world?
My advice would be this: consider what you are really passionate about. Take a calculated risk to make it your career. I’m paraphrasing, but Steve Jobs said it best: If you focus on doing great things, success will follow – put a dent in the universe. Even if it’s smaller than you intended or you die trying, the ride in and of itself will be worthwhile.
TLY:What has helped you excel in your role at Qorax the most?
NC:Balance. I learned it the hard way. Without a formal working schedule, it’s easy to get consumed by a growing business. We are on our devices. All the time. There are no longer clearly defined boundaries for a work day. We are expected to be accessible at all times – and furthermore to be responsive at all times. It is harder to do when you’re managing communications across 10 time zones, but being selective about when to unplug is critical for maintaining your passion and drive so you don’t get burned out. That can lead to an array of fatal problems – reduced motivation, a lack of productivity, strained communications, you name it. As a founder, you always need to be conscious of driving growth, but it can’t come at the expense of a healthy social life. Rome wasn’t built in a day.
TLY:Quote or mantra you live by?
NC:“Know the rules, so that you may break them effectively.” I have no siblings and Amherst to thank for a habit of questioning the underlying reason for why some things are as they are. Somalia is the world’s most famous failed state. It is often overlooked because of risk perceptions. But the reality is that these are overgeneralized and exacerbated by a handful of Hollywood films. In the abstract, everything would have told us to avoid this region, but experience suggested otherwise. It’s not that the rules don’t apply, it’s that opportunities like this are hidden by accepting convention.