WAGA: How ‘the wanted man’ brought light to rural Tanzania

Founder and CEO of WAGA, Gibson Kawago

What you need to know:

  • Growing up in a home that relied on kerosene lamps, Gibson learnt early on how much risk these lamps posed, in addition to the discomfort that the blackened walls and fumes brought. He made it his mission to bring electricity to rural homes in Tanzania that faced this challenge.

For those of us who were committed and fortunate enough to live our childhood passions, it must be both humbling and satisfying when looking back.

Such is the story of Gibson Kawago, the founder and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of WAGA.
Born and raised in rural Iringa, Gibson and his family lived in a home with no power, reliant on kerosene lamps for everything.

Detrimental as this was to their health, home and even the environment, the family had no alternative, but little did they know, a little genius resided among them.

“Overtime, using the kerosene lamps turned our houses dark with smoke and soot and with time, I wasn’t happy with the situation because of all the risks that came with using kerosene lamps in a home; any small spill could result in everything burning gown and us losing our home,” Gibson shares.

“I started looking for ways to get alternative lighting for our homes. We had battery-operated radios and when they were empty, we’d put them out in the sun for partial recharging, crush them with our teeth and then use them again.”

This process drained the battery of all its power and eventually, they were thrown out. Gibson would then collect all these tossed-out batteries, put them in series, connect them together – about 5 to 10 at a time - and the small voltages that were generated could light a bulb briefly.

He experimented with different ways to create a better power source such as with sticks, rubber bands and wires to create some type of power bank and when he saw this idea worked, he started collecting more used batteries and connected them to light up different rooms in their home.

That interest started growing and he was constantly thinking outside the box, but with limitations such as a lack of resources and the environment he was in, he couldn’t go beyond where he was.

By the time he was in primary school however, he expanded his curiosity to motherboards from radios, televisions and other devices.

“I wasn’t sure what exactly I was looking for from these motherboards at the time but I was very interested in them and how they worked,” he shares.

“Eventually, I started repairing radios because everyone had a radio and I had already figured out the basic connections such as the speaker, antennae and batteries and because many were common problems, I learnt how to repair them pretty early on.”

“In secondary school, I picked an interest in physics and spent most of my time in the lab, so much so that even when others were out for games, I’d ask for keys and spend my time running experiments,” he adds.

The experiments that kept him occupied were to help him learn how to create his own radio channel. A common experiment for most talented young electronics tech enthusiasts would often be to create a radio channel.

“I was in a seminary, Don Bosco Seminary in Mafinga, and I once made an amplifier for my class, so the teacher would speak in front and the back-benchers, who had a speaker, would hear clearly,” he shares. 

“This was a happy experience and their support was encouraging because I was one of them. With time, I started repairing mobile phones and that became a business.”

“I did not study how to do any of these things, I was just a curious and interested kid who observed and experimented and with time my passion grew and I started building my own devices,” Gibson shares. “I had already built a reputation as ‘fundi simu’ and ‘fundi redio’ but even as a repairman, the goal was to be able to make my own devices and bring light to my village.”

Gibson was working all along in his father’s garage and had an array of other non-technical gigs and because of the demand of his various services, he was nicknamed ‘the wanted man’ and his workshop became ‘the wanted garage’.

The names were merged into WAGA and it grew into a company and brand that now designs and builds sustainable, renewable, durable, and cost-effective solar & battery solutions for the day-to-day problems that millions of people around the world face.

Gibson then came to pursue tertiary education at the Dar es Salaam Institute of Technology (DIT) where he took electrical engineering and specifically wanted to learn how to make his own battery.

What he learnt was that in order to make a proper power bank, he needed to have lithium-ion batteries, but where to source lithium-ion batteries was the challenge because the option that he had was to purchase them online.

This would have increased production costs because getting them to Tanzania would be very costly and that would make it difficult for people in rural homes to afford them.

Using recycled lithium-ion batteries, often found in used phones, laptops and other devices; WAGA takes them through sorting, processing and builds battery packs to light up homes and build power packs for other uses.

Lithium-ion batteries are a crucial part of our everyday lives, powering everything from mobile phones, lights, e-bikes, e-vehicles, drill machines, and laptops; but they also make up a large portion of electronic waste.

As such, another pillar that sets WAGA apart is their drive to promote clean energy solutions to help mitigate the impacts of waste as well as mining operations to the environment.

“By recycling and repurposing old and trashed lithium-ion batteries, we reduce the need for newly mined materials, reducing the strain on the earth,” Gibson shares. 

“The process of recycling these batteries is quite cumbersome. We get many of these batteries from the Machinga Complex and other vendors and then sort them to see which ones are still viable for use. After that, they are taken for testing and the testing process alone runs for 6 hours,” he explains.

“In the case of power cuts, we face a setback as we would then need to start the process all over again.”

“We have been able to build more advanced, affordable battery storage systems which have helped villages that are not on the electrical grid. These evolved into more innovative battery-powered products that helped reduce electronic waste, recycle batteries, and create sustainable solar-powered systems beyond just storage for electronics,” Gibson shares.

WAGA Packs are capable of powering electrical devices from TVs, radios, mobile phones, and lights and are recharged by solar panels. PHOTO | COURTESY

WAGA now builds, sells and installs light packages which come with one WAGA battery pack called PAWA Packs, four light bulbs, a solar panel and wiring.

The battery packs are capable of powering electrical devices from TVs, radios, mobile phones, and lights and are recharged by solar panels. 

Today, homes in places like Karatu, Arusha town, and even his home village in Iringa are beneficiaries of Gibson’s curiosity and dream to provide homes in rural Tanzania with light.

For businesses, they provide efficient PAWA Packs with lamps to help local businesses conduct business at night for up to 14 hours, replacing the use of kerosene lamps.

They also build customised battery packs for wireless speakers, modems, VFD machines at a client’s required capacity and voltage.

While his journey was a series of learning and growth inspired by having to grow up in a home with no power, it has also helped him see just how challenging the tech space is, especially where resources are concerned.

His journey has also shown him that there is a regulatory gap that challenges many techpreneurs and because of unclear policies, investors are also still wary of funding these young techpreneurs.

However, his efforts have also not gone unrecognised as the United Nation’s Office of the Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth named him one of the 2022 cohort of Young Leaders for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Gibson’s story, while still evolving, is a reminder to let kids be kids and allow them the room to experiment on what they find interesting.

Their curiosity could be the change society needs someday.