WASSHA Inc provides LED lantern rental services in unelectrified areas of East Africa using payment and hardware control technologies. They currently have 4,000 agents in Tanzania and Uganda, and this strong agent network is one of the core reasons why WASSHA is competitive. As the company accelerates its business, one of its challenges has been the acquisition of good management personnel. We asked CEO Satoshi Akita, Director and CFO Yuki Ueta, who joined the company in 2019, and UTEC HR Hirofumi Oki to reveal how UTEC supports WASSHA in terms of human resources.
WASSHA, Inc. CEO
WASSHA, Inc. CSO
UTEC HR Senior Manager
SECTION 1 Electricity for All
Why did Mr. Akita, who originally worked as a business consultant for emerging countries, start an electricity service in East Africa? We interviewed him to get to know more about him, including his first encounter with UTEC.
- Please tell us how you started your current business.
It all started when I met Professor Rikiya Abe of the University of Tokyo, who was doing researches on digital grid technology that transmits and receives electricity in packets. In 2012, I was running around trying to commercialize this technology in East Africa, but after conducting some research there, I was met with the reality that there was no use for it yet.
On the other hand, what I heard from the locals was, "If you are going to run an electric power business, I would like you to run an LED lantern service that I can rent at a reasonable price.” The countryside in East Africa is still unelectrified. If we provide a service to rent lanterns there at a reasonable price, people without regular income will be able to use the lights. They suggested that we create a system to do so.
Back then, electronic payments were not yet widespread in Japan. However, mobile money is a widespread as a means of payment in Africa, and by combining this payment technology and hardware control, we can build a system where people can use the lanterns only for what they have paid in advance. Even if the lanterns are rented out for a very low daily rate, the scale will be tremendous if the 700 million people living in the area used them every day. Professor Abe was also willing to help, "We should do what's needed most," so we decided to commercialize it.
- At what point did you encounter UTEC?
We established the company in June 2013. A little before that, I was introduced to UTEC by someone I knew from the University of Tokyo, and we decided to work together to apply for the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry's "Jump Start NIPPON (Connoisseurship and Support Human Resource Development for New Business Creation)" project. Back then, investors often laughed at us saying, "Africa? Are you sure about that?", but Mr. Goji, the Managing Partner and President, showed his interest saying, "It is more interesting to expand electricity in Africa where no one in Japan has done, compared to in Japan where there is so much competition." After going through a review of commercialization, we got our first investment in February 2014.
At that time, I hadn't been a part of UTEC yet, but Mr. Goji hads told me that "the fact that the project was appealing because it stemmed from the University of Tokyo and was centered on solving global issues.
In fact, UTEC had already by then introduced some people to work for us. Just like the “Venture Partner” system now, we had two accountants come work for us from the Ernst & Young ShinNihon LLC with the support of UTEC. If we approached accountants ourselves at that time and asked them, "Would you be our CFO, we will be doing business in Africa," no one would have come. The support from UTEC meant so much to us.
SECTION 2 Need of a “Wolf” to Grow Our Business
We launched the LED lantern service, but it was going slow for some time. What was required to break the ice was the presence of a "wolf".
- Mr. Ueta joined the management in 2019. Can you tell us how you guys met?
We had about 10 or so members in our team in Japan. When we were discussing how we should expand from there, Mr. Sakamoto, who is in charge of our company at UTEC, pointed out that our organization needs someone who can drastically increase business and sales. As our company's business is focusing on solving social issues, people with strong interest in philanthropy and social business tend to come join us. I was told “If you are going for IPO, we can’t just have sheep around. We have hire a wolf” and I thought that’s exactly right.
We found Mr. Ueta when Sakamoto asked me to find someone who could drastically increase the business and sales. He was originally doing electric power business at Marubeni, then he joined an electric power startup as the first employee. Having served as an executive officer there, we thought he was exactly what we needed for WASSSHA. I went to see him thinking he was the one.
I was in search of another job after I had quit my previous position. When Mr. Oki contacted me, I thought he wanted me to work for a venture capital. But then once I saw him, he went “What do you think about WASSHA?” (laughs). I had known about WASSHA before. This was after I had left, but my first company Marubeni invested in WASSHA. So I was like, “Okay, that company.”.
At the time, I was looking for a company that was searching for a management layer to drive their business as a startup. Another condition I was looking for was that the company I would work for will do a business in an area I had not done before, bringing me a broader perspective. WASSHA was operating in Africa, handling hardware with own assets in its rental business, which are very rare characteristics for a startup. Hence, I thought it met my desired conditions.
Once Mr. Oki contacted me, I saw Mr. Ueta right away. We thought “This is the wolf we were looking for. We should definitely make an offer,” so we did everything we could to have him join us.
First you wanted to offer him a compensation that was about one fourth of the market standard right? But there is no way he would accept that. I remember giving thean advice, “Mr. Ueta will bring an impact greater than the reward."
That’s right (laughs). I only had experiences with hiring staff positions so I didn't know how to make offers. It was very helpful to learn A to Z of how to recruit management-level professionals.
Since we are a startup, I wasn't expecting a high compensation. When they offered me the compensation package I felt that they did their sincere best and I understood well that they had the strong desire to change the management. So I decided to join in February 2019.
SECTION 3 From Startup to Company
After having the “wolf” join, there were three major impacts on WASSHA. What did HR support by UTEC bring about?
- After Mr. Ueta joined the company, what type of impact did you experience?
First, it was great to be able to look at the economics of the business. At that time, actually, we only had around 1,000 agents, and we didn't really know when to steer the course of expansion in terms of profitability. Then Ueta joined, saying “This is worth the investment. We could get the fund from the bank," and so we made a major turn toward growth. If he didn't make that judgement, we wouldn't have 4,000 stores now.
Most recently, Mr. Ueta has been contributing in finance and development of corporate structure. As you can see that his title was the New Business Manager when he first joined the company, we had planned that Ueta would be in charge of the front line work on the business side. However, he volunteered to rebuild the corporate structure for the company's growth. Without Mr. Ueta's appointment as CFO, it may have been difficult for our organization to go up a step further.
We are still in the middle of corporate restructuring. From now on, we need to establish a compliance system and prepare for an IPO with audit firms and securities companies. The corporate team needs to be replenished from top to bottom, so I would love to have UTEC's support on that once again.
- What kind of support are you getting from UTEC in terms of HR currently?
I had discussions with Mr. Oki about our organizational chart and corporate culture to prepare for listing, and in terms of a small detail, he also taught me how to write job postings.
As for recruiting of key personnel, we ask Mr. Goji and Mr. Sakamoto to meet the candidate before we make an offer to check from a different perspective. UTEC is not only an investor, but is truly another member of the management team.
We are now in a transitional period where we should start calling ourselves a company instead of a startup. In near future, there will be many things that we don't understand in the process. With the advice of UTEC that looked after the growth of various companies, I would like to build the team that would realize our mission.