William Ponela
William Ponela, current Chief Executive Officer and Founder of Zonful Energy. Ponela has graduated with a B.Sc. Civil Engineering Degree and a postgraduate Diploma in Business Administration. With more than 20 years working experience, he has founded several companies, which include Hume Pipe and Co., Factel Industries and Lighmart Investments.

Mentoring insights, Part 3

“The best way to grow a business is to have a serious customer obsession” – says William Ponela, CEO and Founder of Zonful Energy
Inclusive business models and strategy
Sub-Saharan Africa
21. Jan 2020

Zonful Energy is a Zimbabwean last mile distribution company for solar products that was ranked among the top 360 inspiring companies in Africa by the London Stock Exchange in 2019. After gaining traction as an entrepreneur and winning a prize with Technoserve, CEO William Ponela decided to pass along his experience to others and became a mentor. Today, he spends about one and a half hours every week on mentoring young aspiring entrepreneurs.

What attracted you to becoming a mentor?

It was my own experience. I grew up in poverty and with the usual problems that most Africans face. At some point, I was asking myself why it was always people from outside who would come here to provide a solution to our problems. As a mentor, I can change that and trigger local talent to use their own knowledge, so they can bring forward solutions to solve the problems we face as Africans.

What is your personal approach to mentoring?

The way I mentor is that I give people tasks and just find out whether they have done it. I want ambitious people who can learn things very fast, who have persistence in whatever they are doing and can take rejection in a positive way. An entrepreneur should not be a clock-watcher. If a mentee works after hours, even in the middle of the night, that’s what a startup has to do. Most of the time, I do the mentoring outside of working hours myself.

What challenges do you observe with your mentees and how do you overcome them?

The biggest challenge is fundraising. Many entrepreneurs run into trouble when they try to follow someone else’s successful path to fundraising, then get depressed when they get rejected on an application. Other entrepreneurs have a product which does not have a market fit. The best way I go around this is to educate the prospective entrepreneur, in terms of how they can handle these experiences, and to tell them that a business is an experiment. It is something that can bring out both positive and negative results.

Speaking of mentors, what makes a great mentor in your opinion?

Whomever you're mentoring, you need to make them improve their thinking process. People in business should have a proper timetable that reserves them time to go to a private place and think. Some do the thinking while they're bathing, others do the thinking in the early hours of the morning, and so forth. But you have to figure out the perfect time for you to think about certain areas and a mentor can help an entrepreneur think in a different way.

As a mentor, do you find it useful to draw on your own experiences, and if so, how do you approach this?

You have to draw on your experiences, but more importantly, you do not really get experience from success. Experience can only be found in setbacks. I would not want to say failures, because I do not believe in failures. When you are not getting the results that you want, it is not as if you are failing. You are getting feedback that there is something that you are not doing right and that you need to correct. That is the job of the mentor; to make people think in a different way, and to start from a different point.

Can you tell us how mentorship is influencing you in your own journey as an entrepreneur?

To me, mentoring is a give and take situation. There is always an exchange of knowledge between the mentor and the ones whom you're mentoring. I get challenged by certain ideas that some of these young, upcoming entrepreneurs are bringing out. This causes me to think differently on certain aspects. Therefore, I see mentoring as a blessing in disguise: Half of the time, I will be passing on the knowledge, but I'm also learning, and this has really influenced me in a very positive way.

Can mentorship be helpful to businesses in order to leapfrog certain learning processes?

Yes, mentorship can help with innovation. Innovation is the ability of an entrepreneur to lift themselves from wherever they are to the next stage. In order to find innovation, I usually tell the people I am mentoring to listen to the pain the customer has. As a businessperson, you have to find out what your business is all about and what it is trying to address. The best way to find out about that is to ask. If you ask the customers what pains they have, you always get an answer.

Whatever you do, you have to put the customer at the center, because the customers are the people who are going to pay your bills and wages. An entrepreneur should not be worried about a competitor. He does not need to focus on other people's ideas. If you go by other people's ideas, you will have many problems to make those ideas yours.

Is there anything else that you want to add?

I simply want to say, every entrepreneur should have a vision of perfection for him to be successful, especially in regards to customer service.

More information on Zonful Energy

Zimbabwe’s fastest growing off-grid energy company Zonful receives major boost from Persistent Energy Capital