From Rwanda to Riverside: How the solar industry provided new opportunities for an immigrant entrepreneur

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For Methode Maniraguha, ongoing consolidation in the solar industry — most recently, Sunrun’s acquisition of Vivint Solar — does not signal a lessening of robust competition and innovation in the market. Born in Rwanda, Maniraguha — whose first name is pronounced like the English “method” — was about 5 years old in 1994, when the country descended into three months of genocidal strife that left an estimated one million people dead.

He does not talk about how his family survived beyond saying he was blessed to grow up with both of his parents, but he seems to be one of those eternally optimistic people who see challenges as opportunities.

So, when the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic hit his two-year-old solar engineering startup — Current Renewables Engineering in Riverside, California — he called his small staff together and told them he was not planning for any layoffs or furloughs.

“No, we are here,” he told his employees. “We will closely monitor what’s going on, and if we need to pivot, we’ll pivot.”

“We’ll pivot”

Thus, as engineering jobs fell off, Maniraguha and his team refocused on research aimed at developing solutions to ongoing industry challenges such as managed charging of electric vehicles, and smoother integration of renewables on the grid. He has also spun off a new software company, Koa Analytics, as part of his ongoing research and entrepreneurial efforts, and was recognized by the Greater Riverside Chamber of Commerce as its 2020 Emerging Entrepreneur.

Maniraguha credits his mother for pushing him to pursue an education that would give him more options than existed in his rural agricultural community, where he recalls doing homework by candlelight. A love of math and science led to middle- and high-school opportunities — rare for children from his village — and a full-ride scholarship to California Baptist University, also in Riverside, where he earned an engineering degree. A senior-year internship turned him onto engineering opportunities in the solar industry and led to jobs at pre-Tesla SolarCity and Sunrun.

He started Current Renewables in 2018, to provide engineering services initially for the residential market but has since expanded into commercial and community solar installations as well. In the following interview, Maniraghua talks about his path from Rwanda to Riverside, California and solar entrepreneurship, the importance of customer experience and his views on equity and access in the solar industry. Answers have been condensed and edited for clarity.

pv magazine: Coming from the poverty and genocide of your childhood, what was it that drew you to the solar industry and starting your own company?

Methode Maniraguha: From a young age, problem solving was embedded in me. I always wanted to solve problems. I became a licensed engineer when I was working at Sunrun, but I realized that I could accomplish more by starting my own business. Coming from a stable, poor family and being here in the U.S. for many years, and just seeing how things are changing globally, I noticed that income inequality was getting wider and wider. But in my head, I was like — Is there a way that we can build stable, growing businesses and strong families and reduce income inequality.

So, knowing what I know, I thought — what are the existing problems in solar installation from start to finish? With my license as an engineer, I could start an engineering company to create a service for small companies where they don’t have the ability to hire engineers full time. For bigger companies, when they get (seasonal) spikes, they can hire me as a subcontractor. I started by myself, but now we have a few engineers and support staff.

pv magazine: You’ve been in business two, going on three years now — as the solar market has become increasingly mature and competitive. What have been the opportunities and the challenges?

MM: Yes, it is very competitive but that can be a positive too, depending on how you look at it. I don’t think we are even where we need to be as an industry for us to really reform the sustainability of our energy consumption. When I drive in my neighborhood, I see many houses are not solar — in sunny California.

Customer experience is the driving force. If I go solar with a company and I have a bad experience, probably I will tell my family, my friends. It can be a big negative for us, for us as an industry. If I am caring for my customers, responding to their requests or building infrastructure to help them manage their projects, they pay me well; they recommend me so I get more business. So we are focused on building a stable, sustainable, customer-centric business.

pv magazine: At this point, it is impossible to talk about the solar industry without talking about social and economic equity issues. African Americans make up only about 7.7% of the solar workforce, and often live in lower-income communities with little access to solar. What has been your experience in the solar industry?

MM: I see this issue of race in America, in the U.S., from the lens of someone who came here not many years ago. That is a big gap. I don’t have grandparents who experienced the discrimination of Jim Crow or segregation in the past. I haven’t experienced that.

If you look at the Black community right now, they live in inner cities; these neighborhoods are less developed, so for our industry, there is no opportunity for making money. That means kids from the neighborhoods, they won’t have exposure, won’t know that solar jobs exist, that solar is a thing, that solar is good. That affects who we hire, how we hire. We don’t reach into the neighborhoods to get talent.

pv magazine: Where do you see your business and the industry going over the next five years?

MM: The only way to sell solar, I was taught, you need a human being to go to individual homes. With that approach, you can only grow linearly, depending on how many people you can afford to send out. But because of advances in technology, you can sign up online to buy solar, send a drone to do the first survey on a house, sign a contract online, and we can send a crew to install a system, and all that can be done in less than 50 days. If that continues to expand, and the cost and policy are in sync, the sky’s the limit for the industry.

Battery energy storage systems will also play a critical role in where the solar industry goes from here. For example, solar sales in California are coming with storage, and consumers are demanding it. There are now good investments being made in R&D of battery chemistry and its advancement will play a critical role in giving solar providers and consumers the ability to shift energy to when it is needed the most.

pv magazine: Wait, earlier you were talking about the importance of customer experience, which traditionally is about good human interactions. How does that jibe with increased automation of sales?

MM: I think you can create a good customer experience with minimal human interaction. When I am talking about customer experience, what I mean is, is what I have been promised what I get. That’s number one.