This week I want to profile a social venture which was shared with me by a reader. Thanks for sharing. I hope more of you will by filling out this online form. The idea is one which was started by a couple who both had a passion for something different – one for women empowerment and the other for clean technologies. But together they shared a passion for making the world a better place and decided to merge their ideas into one common cause. The result was Empower Generation, a non-profit which is spreading clean energy in Nepal one woman at a time. They are still small but growing, to date they have sold 825 solar lights reaching more than 4000 homes in Nepal. They have also been featured in Scientific American and other blogs.
WHAT IS THE BUSINESS ABOUT?
Essentially Empower Generation is selling solar technology they call WakaWaka Light and WakaWaka Power (nice play on the popular Shakira song 2010 World Cup song) in the developed world at a mark up price which is used to finance a fund which helps finance the distribution by women entrepreneurs of the same lights to rural communities in Nepal. The women entrepreneurs receive low-interest 5-year start up loans used to pay for the technology which in turn they sell in their communities. Once all of the product is sold the money is repaid to the fund which is used to pay for another woman entrepreneur in another community to buy and sell the solar technology to the people who need it most.
HOW DID IT START?
The idea was born out of the passions of a couple which met as undergraduates at Columbia University in New York City. One was passionate about women’s issues in developing countries, particularly those vulnerable to slavery and human trafficking. The other about how to enable widespread adoption of clean technologies in developing countries. After a trip together throughout Asia looking for ideas they finally settled on the idea that their ideas could combine to spread clean technologies through women entrepreneurs and that a good place to start would ne in Nepal. For more on their love story click here.
WHAT IS THE SOCIAL NEED IT ADDRESSES?
The problem Empower Generation is trying to address is reliable access to clean energy by the poorest 20% of the world’s population living in rural parts of developing countries such as where they are focused in the Tarai region of Nepal. In doing so they are hoping to reduce the poisonous respiratory effects caused by traditional sources of energy such as firewood and kerosene. They are also trying to promote women as entrepreneurs to give them and their children the opportunity to access a better life.
WHAT IS THE BUSINESS MODEL?
- Value Proposition – It seems that there are three principal customers. There are the first world customers who buy the solar chargers/LED lights for pleasure but also who gain utility by knowing that they are helping women in Nepal and the same time. For the women entrepreneurs they are providing them with access to a unique product and already existing financing mechanism which makes it easier for them to just focus on sales. And for the end-user in Nepal they are providing new sources of clean and hopefully affordable energy.
- Channels – This is the unique innovation, as there are many low-cost solar programs out there the real challenge is how to get the solar technology distributed to the people who need it most. Empower Generation is solving this using the women entrepreneurs who essentially bring the technology into their communities on their backs and thus eliminate a huge part of the distribution challenge in countries like Nepal.
- Revenue Streams – Revenues come primarily from the purchase of the product in the developed world, which are used to finance and subsidize prices and distribution in Nepal. As it is a non-profit all profits are reinvested
- Cost Structure – The technology (which I assume is purchased from a third-party) and its transportation to Nepal is principle cost. There is also I am assuming the cost of training of women entrepreneurs as sales agents and also of local maintenance Otherwise the model has extremely low costs.
- Key Partners – The business relies heavily on solar technology (D.Light) and microfinance partners (Microcredits for Mothers). Without which their would not be a business.
WHAT ARE SOME CONCERNS I SEE WITH THE MODEL?
- Technology/competition – I am by no means an expert in this technology but I do know that there are a lot of small players out there similar to Empower Generation which are trying to distribute similar products. What makes this product different and is it the one most suitable to address the key energy needs of the final customers. Do the solar lights and chargers provide enough energy to make a meaningful productive difference in the communities they will be used? Or will they just be treated as gadgets? Also will the technology continue to evolve? What happens when a better solar technology comes along?
- Cost – I didn’t see anywhere how much the units cost the end-user in Nepal or how it compares to other sources of energy on a per dollar basis. I am guessing the technology is expensive and relative to the meager incomes that the rural poor earn, how can they afford this technology? WIll it give the expected return on investment they need? Sadly their primary concern is not clean energy but energy itself.
- Maintenance – What happens when the product doesn’t work or stops working? Is the technology something that can easily be repaired by the user?
- Marketing – Maybe it is just me but the website, logos and explanation of the business are a bit hard to follow at first. Especially since it is merging so many distinct but important concepts; e.g. women’s empowerment, clean energy and access to finance. A typical customer is not going to want to spend much time reviewing the site to decide whether or not they want to buy. I would just focus on the key messages, buy these solar chargers and you will be helping women entrepreneurs in Nepal gain access to clean energy.
- Binding constraint – Finally I might want to know more if this solution is actually addressing the most pressing social need of the rural poor and women entrepreneurs in Nepal. Is providing solar light and energy addressing the issue which will lift them out of poverty or would money be better spent on something else?
WHAT DO YOU THINK?