Few people work in the business of bringing both literal light as well as the figurative light of Christ to Africa. But for Thomas Bell, the transformation of Uganda begins with light—light in the form of solar panels on grass huts.
What began as providing microfinance loans in South Sudan has morphed into an incredible journey of innovation and entrepreneurship. While working in South Sudan, Thomas was astonished at the total lack of energy in the area. The absence of large-scale power sources came from a diesel generator. Other middle-class families resorted to even worse sources of power: burning kerosene lamps, candles, even grass.
“The No. 1 thing our customers say is their kids are doing better in school.”
“Not only are all of these really expensive, but incredibly unhealthy,” said Thomas. “Half the kids have asthma. It’s also physically dangerous because they are burning open flames, and every other day one of our customers would have a house literally just burn to the ground.”
Thomas wanted a solution for the problem, and realized solar energy would work well for the 30 million Ugandans living without power. But the high upfront cost made it impossible for these people to obtain access to power. Thomas then found a way to make it affordable through a pay-as-you-go system.
“In these developing areas, they can’t afford $50 to $100 to buy a solar lantern,” he said. “But they’re forced to pay $3 worth of kerosene to get them through the next few days.”
So Thomas joined WorldVenture in 2008 to do business as mission through Transformational Ventures. He essentially gave his customers a loan that they’d pay back over the course of many weeks. If they didn’t pay, their power was shut off.
Thomas has since relocated from South Sudan to Uganda shortly after starting Lumi, his solar energy business in 2012. Since then, Lumi has directly impacted well over 10,000 people with access to power. The 30-plus Lumi agents make 40 to 60 sales per day, and as of now, the company has more than 1,500 paying customers.
Lumi has created a reputation for changing lives in Uganda.
“The No. 1 thing our customers say is that their kids are doing better in school,” said Thomas.
The unique ability to interact weekly with customers also makes Lumi an ideal ministry. Lumi agents collect their customer interactions through their smart phones so they can track and gauge interest in the Gospel.
“We don’t want to just say we’re sharing the Gospel, but measure it too. And we can do that because of the nature of the business.”
“This is not that we’re hitting them with a bunch of evangelical messages, but we’re following up with them,” said Thomas. “That frequent interaction lets us have an organic, long-term relationship; we’re in their community and we’re in their lives.”
Lumi is also working to provide customers with audio content delivered in their homes, whether that’s Bible studies or other evangelistic materials. In addition, Lumi produces big events in the villages to attract people to their innovative product.
“It’s given us a very captive audience to share the gospel. We have a new product line to deliver our media to the customers.”
Thomas’ future goals for his business include growing his customer base to at least 20,000 customers, and in the next five years, he hopes to reach more than a million customers. But for now, Thomas knows he’s on the right track.
“This is what God has designed me to do—this is what he put me on this earth to do,” he said. “I’m having the time of my life. I couldn’t be happier, but I never could have planned this or predicted this.”
To learn more about solar power in Uganda, please view our video featuring Thomas and his ministry.