Preparing for a career in sustainable energy

Abdishakur Ahmed

“To me, renewable energy is personal. It’s a problem that needs to be solved,” says Abdishakur Ahmed, MA SID’20. “I was born as the Somalia  civil war broke out. As a young person, I thought electricity was a luxury thing. I thought it was something for well-off people.”

That’s why, after graduating from college, he founded SomLite in 2014, a social enterprise dedicated to providing cash-constrained Somalis with high quality, accessible and affordable solar lighting to rural off-grid villages using mobile money technology.

But working closely with remote, underserved and marginalized communities helped Ahmed see that addressing the energy supply chain alone would not lift them out of poverty. He needed to gain the skills, knowledge and experience to develop and implement sustainable and holistic solutions that also address access to education, health care and livelihood pathways, which led him to Heller’s MA in Sustainable International Development Program.

“Going back to these rural communities that I used to be a part of, made me witness the many of the other social problems they are facing,” says Ahmed, who received the Jake Jagoda Memorial Scholarship Endowment. “Heller not only had the SID program, but also the environmental conservation concentration that I wanted.”

Ahmed’s family fled to Ethiopia when he was just a baby, where they lived in a small village called Duryo. Eventually the family moved to a rural area in Somaliland, a breakaway and internationally unrecognized country in northwestern Somalia. Lacking access to modern electricity, his family used only a single kerosene lamp until he moved to the capital city at age 11.

But even in the capital, Hargeysa, the electricity was still very expensive—something that came starkly into contrast when he traveled to Djibouti and Ethiopia, where power was “very, very cheap.”

In college, he decided to research this issue as a major social problem, looking first at urban centers, then expanding into rural areas.

“That’s when I understood that these people are spending a lot of money on energy anyway. Charcoal, firewood, which have health impacts. I decided to start where I could make small changes,” he said.

He created SomLite as a last mile solar off-grid product distributor. SomLite aims to make solar technologies affordable and accessible to those in rural communities.

At Heller, he’s participated in social entrepreneurship pitch competitions like SPARKTank and the Heller Startup Challenge, winning grant money to fund a feasibility study for irrigation systems in Somaliland. Over the summer, he worked in Israel, with Gigawatt Global, a utility-scale solar energy developer focused on expanding access to electricity in developing countries. His goal was to gain experience in energy project financing, which he was able to do through building a financial model for Gigawatt’s off-grid project in Burundi.

Once he graduates in spring 2020, his goal is to return to East Africa to promote increased accessibility to sustainable energy solutions in the private and public sectors.

“My coursework at Heller and summer internship are preparing me to address sustainable energy challenges in Africa from a global perspective,” he says.

Learn more about Abdishakur Ahmed’s work with SomLite: