Charmaine Hassen: Failure Was Never An Option

charmaine hassen

By Pamina Mullins

What are the odds of a cash-strapped Zimbabwean accountant and single mother becoming a government-recognized leader in the Botswana solar manufacturing industry and an expert on solar thermal methods in a very definitely male dominated industry?

Unlikely? Yes.

Daunting? Certainly.

Impossible? Clearly not!

“On my first visit to Botswana, my innate curiosity and commitment to social empowerment triggered a passion for renewable energy,” Hassen explains. “So I threw myself into researching my new home. The journey hasn’t been an easy one, and is not yet complete, but challenges are to be expected when considering any new business opportunity.”

The 60-year Zimbabwean was born in Harare to devoted and ambitious parents, although not educated beyond primary school. Life was full of opportunities for those who strived for success in the then Rhodesia. Her father worked for a cigarette-producing company and her mother had two jobs—as a factory worker during the day and a waitress at night. “Although there were five children to feed and extended family members to support, we were comfortable,” Hassen recalls happily.

Married in 1979, Hassen’s first child, a daughter, was born with Down syndrome. In spite of the challenges, she met some wonderful people and together they formed the first Down Syndrome Association in Zimbabwe. After the birth of two other children, the marriage ended in a messy and costly divorce. “I needed to start over and began looking for a country where I could make a fresh start with the children.”

“When they wouldn’t take me seriously, it just made me more determined to prove them wrong” she laughs, “failure was never an option.”

Solar-comm, the Zimbabwean company where Hassen worked at the time was in the process of setting up a manufacturing facility producing photovoltaic solar panels—the first of its kind in Southern Africa. “While studying the history of government policy, I was excited to learn that a mandate stated all councils, schools, clinics, defense forces, and police premises were required to have a solar water heater of a specific size.”

A light came on.

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Hassen with government officials

Hassen spent days on the road between Harare and Gaborone, Botswana’s capital—a 1200km journey—assessing the market potential. Her relentless efforts revealed there was a viable market for a solar-power business and she was determined to grab the opportunity.

After she had saved enough money for six month’s business and living expenses, she was ready to take a gigantic leap of faith and negotiated the purchase of a number of old, discarded machines from her then employer. Armed with a list of international suppliers and technology information, she set off for Botswana in the company of Jeffrey, a young, vibrant trainee.

“When I first arrived there was this idea that whatever happened in Europe was good for Africa,” Hassen notes. “But I realized a fundamental difference was the radiance of the sun. Different continents should develop different technologies and as Botswana has the highest solar radiance in Southern Africa, I thought why not make use of this plentiful resource.” Hassen’s problem was to prove her theory and get people to listen. To do this, she had to register with every government agency. It was a daunting task—but not impossible.

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It took 18 months for Solamatics Botswana (Pty) Ltd to become a company.  After months of waiting for resident and work permits, operations launched in 1999, the day of her eldest daughter’s 19th birthday. Her research indicated that it would be impossible to find staff with any solar experience as there had never been a solar manufacturing plant in Francistown. So she decided to search among the unskilled labor pool to find those with an aptitude and a willingness to learn, but she hit brick wall after brick wall when trying to break into the local market. So she hired a qualified, mature man, with relevant experience to do the sales and marketing.

“A couple of months down the line, I was left holding bar bills; no sales, and had to dig into my personal reserves to clear the company’s reputation,” she says, adding ruefully, “Lesson learned!”

In the years to follow Hassen did everything herself: production, installation, sales, advertising, finance and human resources. She believed in building a respectful team who worked well together, and most importantly had an unshakable loyalty to the company. It was difficult working with men who were initially very skeptical about her abilities. The language barrier was also a problem.

“I developed a vigorous six-month training schedule, but staff turnover was high. It was frustrating to train and lose staff, but we persevered. Today we have a strong, loyal team who’ve been with the company for over ten years” she exclaims.

Go Solar

Hassen credits her rise from single parent to successful entrepreneur—through the pitfalls and opportunities, mistakes and the victories, in a male-dominated and technical business environment—to her finely honed ability to accept and relish challenges. “When they wouldn’t take me seriously, it just made me more determined to prove them wrong” she laughs, “failure was never an option.”

Today Botswana has two major manufacturers of solar water heaters. Solamatics is one of them. Hassen is a member of the task force appointed by the Botswanan government to review solar industry standards. The company is also a family affair, with all three children involved in operations. When asked what the next step is, Hassen responds, “I would like to see Solamatics establish an export market to countries like Zambia, Zimbabwe and Namibia.

This 60-year-old who has overcome any challenge thrown her way offers some advice for the entrepreneur-in-making among you:

“My journey hasn’t been easy but it’s only beginning. Once you’ve put in the groundwork, if you have the courage to explore unknown territory, the patience to build a strong team, curiosity to keep learning, and the tenacity to keep going, when the going gets tough, you’ll succeed.”

You can follow Solamatics Botswana on Facebook and connect with Charmaine on LinkedIn.

Pamina Mullins is Zimbabwean based, born in Zambia, and has lived in Mozambique, Tanzania, South Africa and the United Kingdom. She is a Corporate and Personal Stress Management and Life Coach, Hypnotherapist, Cognitive Behavioral Therapist and NLP practitioner. She uses these inter-related methodologies to develop, motivate and guide her diverse clientele toward reaching their full potential. Pamina’s coaching focuses primarily on Stress Mastery, Change Management, Developing Human Capital, Emotional Intelligence and Cultural Diversity. She is a blogger for the Huffington Post Business series Africa’s Women Entrepreneurs author of the kindles Stress Free You! and Unlock Your Emotion Code and contributing author to Modern-Day Miracles by Louise L. Hay and Friends, The Coaching Gurus, and Radiant Survivor. Find out more at www.breakfreeandreclaimyourlife.com   

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