“Charity money has only one life but if you transform it into social business money, it becomes a life of eternity.”
Muhummad Yunus, Nobel Peace Prize Winner, Founder of the Grameen Bank
“Charity money has only one life but if you transform it into social business money, it becomes a life of eternity.”
Muhummad Yunus, Nobel Peace Prize Winner, Founder of the Grameen Bank
Just two weeks after SunnyMoney opened its new office in Senegal, the BBC is today reporting the death of nine school children in that country. They died because one of the kids was studying by candle light and knocked the candle over, starting the fire.
This fire took place just 24 hours after I addressed an audience at the British Museum in London and showed them this picture of the graves of 12 girls, killed in exactly the same kind of incident, at Idodi School in Tanzania. In my speech, I pointed out how common these incidents are across Africa and how, at that precise moment, children would be risking their lives across Africa in order to study for a better one.
How many more children will die this way before we can bring safe, clean, solar lighting into every home and school in Africa? What can you do to help us achieve this goal sooner? For every $3 donated to SolarAid right now, we are able to sell a solar light (valued between $8 and $35) in Kenya and Tanzania.
My article which appeared in yesterday’s Guardian newspaper in the UK.
Two weeks ago I attended the World Bank/IFC Lighting Africa conference in Dakar along with some colleagues.
At breakfast on the first day, we speculated as to whether SunnyMoney is the biggest last mile seller of solar lights in Africa; or whether that accolade still sits with the French oil giant, Total. Total sell portable solar lights in a number of African countries, through their petrol station forecourts, as well as via other distribution networks they’re working hard to establish.
At SolarAid and SunnyMoney, we have huge respect for the work Total are doing – and will do all that we can to encourage and support it – but it’s hard not to be a bit competitive! So we smiled when we learnt that they have sold 111,000 solar lights in the last three years. Here are our latest figures:
We believe this makes us the biggest last mile seller of solar lights in Africa; probably by a big margin if you look at our current run rate. We’re very proud that a small social enterprise has knocked an oil multinational into second place. We’re not just proving that we know how to sell solar lights; we’re proving that social enterprises can be an extraordinarily powerful force in today’s economy.
Last summer, SolarAid’s Trustees agreed to the seemingly bonkers idea that the organisation should adapt a new mission: to eradicate the kerosene lamp from Africa by the end of the decade.
In management speak, this is what is known as a BHAG – pronounced bee-hag – a big, hairy, audacious goal (a term created by Jim Collins and Jerry Portas in their fabulous book, Built to Last). A good BHAG needs to feel almost impossible. So big, so hairy and so audacious that everyone instinctively gets that it isn’t going to happen through business as usual. That everyone needs to step up and be more creative and more urgent; bigger, bolder and braver. That normal rules no longer apply.
Perhaps the most famous BHAG of modern times (although the term hadn’t been coined then) was when JFK stood before a joint session of the US Congress on May 25th, 1961, and declared,”that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth.”
The USA was in a huge propaganda battle with the Soviet Union at the time. And the USA was losing because the Soviets had just been the first to put a man into space. JFK responded by setting this truly extraordinary goal. And what we now know is that the Americans achieved it just six months before the deadline JFK had set nine years earlier.
SolarAid’s BHAG requires the elimination of a technology that has been used for decades by 110 million families living in Africa. It is deeply rooted in the culture and lifestyle of those people who have no access to grid electricity. And, at the time of writing, we have 7 years, 6 months and 2 days to get rid of it.
In future articles, I will tell you more specifically why we believe we can do this and what an extraordinary impact it will have on Africa when we do (more than you could ever believe!). But for this piece, I’d like to share some general thoughts about what the BHAG means to us and how it is changing the way we work. I believe it is the most powerful management tool that I have encountered in my 25 years of working life.
Almost from day one, my management team experienced how the BHAG changed our body language and our energy levels. Overnight, our important and worthy vision, ‘a world where everyone has access to clean renewable energy’ became more focussed, more tangible and more urgent. Tomorrow, we will have one less day to achieve it. The clock is ticking.
As the Reverend Martin Luther King said, when explaining his own BHAG on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, “This is no time to engage in the… tranquilizing drug of gradualism.”
JFK’s BHAG was powerful because it had an absolute target; and a non-negotiable deadline. Unlike most promises and goals set by politicians, the whole world would know if the USA succeeded or not. The same will be true if we fail here at SolarAid. In his speech to Congress, JFK went on to say, “If we were to go only half way or reduce our sights in the face of difficulty, it would be better not to go at all.”
Wasn’t that fantastically brave of him? Can you imagine the humiliation the Americans would have suffered, in the face of Soviet laughter, if they had failed?
This points to an important quality of a good BHAG. It doesn’t work if you keep it secret. You need to shout it from the rooftops. Tell the world what you’re going to do. Be prepared to fail publicly… and thereby make sure that failure is not an option.
I’ve seen the smirks on people’s faces – old hands that have worked in this market for many years – when I tell them of our BHAG. I can almost see their hand wanting to reach out and pat me on the head; smug in their mild amusement at our little NGO’s naivety. But here’s the thing. We need those people. We need people to doubt and smirk at us. It will make us dig deeper, commit harder and work longer hours. They’re an essential component of our BHAG community!
Our BHAG has changed things here at SolarAid in extraordinary ways; sometimes in slightly spooky ways.
As well as becoming more urgent, we’ve become a lot more creative. We’ve had to start putting together plans to expand into 40 countries in the next 6 years. I’m not sure any NGO or social enterprise has ever attempted growth like this. We’re going to have to be more dynamic than pretty much any company before us, never mind NGO. We’re going to have to create new structures and approaches; marrying the best of the for-profit world with the best of the non-profit world.
Although our ambitions for our company, SunnyMoney (retailer of solar lights), are mind-bogglingly huge; what the BHAG told us straight away (yes, our BHAG speaks… more on this in a moment) was that we cannot – obviously – do it alone. We’re going to have to inspire other NGOs, companies, philanthropists and Governments (western and African) to join us. And we need to inspire the global public to help out too. Not ‘doing their bit for the environment’ but doing a lot.
There’s a great story about a visitor to NASA in the 1960s stopping and asking a cleaner in a corridor how things were going. To which that cleaner replied that he was doing great, ‘We’re landing a man on the moon, you know.’
Realising that we cannot do it alone has changed our attitude to other players in this space. Whereas before we were like most organisations; instinctively competitive and defensive of ‘our space’; now we realise that this mindset will backfire on us and prevent the BHAG happening. Now we greet news of exciting new players entering our space with relief. Phew. Hopefully they can knock a few millions customers off the target!
Our BHAG also demands humility from us. There are thousands of people who were engaged in this sector before us… or who have still never heard of us. When our BHAG has been achieved, we cannot and will not be able to accept responsibility. And yet if it is not achieved, we will totally have to accept the responsibility of failure. We are not passive passengers in this mission.
I said that our BHAG sometimes speaks to us! A very common phrase to be heard amongst my management team is, “Well what does the BHAG suggest we do here?”
Time and time again we have asked the BHAG this question and her answer has come immediately and categorically. She always points us down the more urgent, more creative, more risk-taking or more collaborative road. She’s an inspiring character to have around, our BHAG. She’s the invisible member of our management team and she makes things happen.
I said that some of the things that have happened since we agreed the BHAG have been a bit spooky. Well how about these, for starters. Within three months of agreeing our BHAG, these three things happened:
Of course these things would have happened if we hadn’t adopted our BHAG… but I’m not sure we would have grasped their significance quite so quickly. And pursued their potential with quite the same enthusiasm.
Every day I go to work with our BHAG by my side. In my 25 years of managing projects and businesses, I have never encountered a management tool that comes near it.
In May 2012, our business SunnyMoney sold 21,208 solar lights, more than we had sold in the whole of 2011. Next year, we think we can sell a million. The BHAG sits behind this extraordinary growth. But believe me, the BHAG will not be achieved just through SunnyMoney growth… this is just one small sign of our intentions and capabilities with the BHAG beside us.
If you have got this far in my article, then thank you… and I leave you with two questions:
Whichever route you chose, good luck!
4 vital features of a good BHAG:
In May 2012, SolarAid’s social enterprise sold 21,208 solar lights in some of the world’s poorest areas. That’s more then we sold in 2011.
How’s that for a fast growing social enterprise?
Huge congratulations to all my wonderful SunnyMoney colleagues. Your hard work and inspiration is having an incredible impact.
This article on the BBC last week is the latest of many to salivate over Soccket, the ingenious invention of Harvard students that brings a smile to the faces of anyone who hears about the idea; and has garnered plaudits from the world’s media, to TED, to President Clinton.
The technology is smart. The idea is seductive. Kids kick a football around for a couple of hours and before you can say “Penalty Shoot-out”, the ball can be taken home and has become a generator, capable of running a range of electrical devices such as small lights or mobile phone chargers.
Working here at SolarAid, I understand how tough life can be for people without access to electricity. I’ve seen how life stops at sundown; how kids can’t study for school; how people are bled dry by the brutal cost of kerosene lamps; and how children are burnt and killed on a nightly basis as kerosene does more than just light up their homes.
I also understand the power of football in young people’s lives. I live in Nairobi, Africa. Inspired by my eldest son, Ethan, my family have adopted a local football club where talented young boys from the Rongai slums keep themselves busy and out of trouble by playing football; and dreaming of scoring goals for Chelsea.
I get the problem. And it’s easy to see why football can play a part in the solution.
So maybe you’d expect me to be celebrating this wonderful little piece of life-changing ingenuity. To join the BBC’s reporter, Clark Boyd, in rejoicing. “And what could be more worthwhile,” he says, “than using the ball you scored the winning goal with to light your room and study for tomorrow’s exam?”
Quite. What could be more worthwhile than that? But I’m afraid when I think of Soccket, there are two words that come to my mind: Play Pumps.
This was the product that involved children’s roundabouts doubling up as water pumps. As the children happily span around, grateful for their shiny new toy, the roundabout pumped water to the surface for Mum to carry the short distance back to her home. Kids are happy! Mum gets water without having to walk! Western donors pat themselves on the back for being so damn smart and generous!
But start writing ‘Play Pumps’ into Google and one of the first search terms that Google suggests is the slightly ominous, ‘Play Pumps failure.’ Dive deeper into the web and you will find that Play Pumps – whose light once shone brightly in the the world of development – has closed its doors. Watch this fantastic speech by Kevin Starr of Mulago and you will start to understand why. When spinning that roundabout becomes a daily chore, it ceases to become a toy and all that ends up happening is that Mum is bent over, turning that roundabout when all sorts of other technologies are more convenient, more effective… and don’t break down rendering the well completely useless… and forcing Mum to now walk several miles to a not-so-nearby well. And the pumps are expensive (costing four times more than the traditional hand pump).
When big white man shows up to do his evaluation, the kids are rushed out to skip merrily around the Play Pump, smiling for the cameras and making the whole world a better place.
“Somewhere along the way,” writes Laura Freschi for AidWatch, “PlayPumps stopped being a smart homegrown idea and became a donor-pleasing, top-down solution that simply didn’t fit many of the target communities.” Ouch.
And so back to Soccket.
Here are some questions I think the organisation, ‘Unchartered Play’, need to answer:
1) If ten kids are playing football, what happens in the homes of the nine who don’t get to take the football home that night? What technology will they be using?
2) What if you have no kids… or your kids don’t like football?
3) The Nigerian Government is apparently looking at buying them for schools. Is that one per school? Errr… so who actually gets to use the light here? I can see head teachers enforcing kick-abouts so that they, themselves, can charge their mobile phones that evening.
4) What happens if kids don’t want to play football that night? Does Daddy force them out to have a kick about for two hours so that they can then do their homework?
5) When the football breaks (have you seen nine year old boys having a kick-about?), who is going to mend it? What is the supply chain that gives local people the incentive and ability to get this thing fixed? The BBC article points out that, “Others will have visions of broken and unwanted Socckets littering roadsides,” and says that the inventors acknowledge this as a difficult question. D’oh. So what is the answer?
6) The business model is one where primarily donors will pay for their purchase and distribution. Whether that’s the Nigerian Government or American consumers getting a warm and fuzzy feeling through their ‘buy one, give one’ retail strategy. But if the idea is so good, why don’t they just sell them to those Nigerian families? If the product is such a God-send, the demand for them will be the proof of the pudding. I acknowledge this won’t be easy but it’s possible. SunnyMoney, SolarAid’s retail business selling solar lights, is selling 20,000 lights per month. Selling. If the poorest people don’t trust them, don’t like the warranties (does Soccket have a warranty?) or don’t know how they will be fixed when they break, guess what… they don’t buy them.
I feel a bit bad writing this blog piece. Here at SolarAid, we like to take our inspiration from the sun. To exude bright, positive, happy values. There might even be some frowns from my colleagues that I could write such a negative piece! And the people behind Unchartered Play are clearly inspiring and motivated young people.
But here’s the thing. This is people’s lives we’re talking about here. It’s not good enough to be smart and well-intentioned if you just end up diverting attention and investment away from the solutions that actually might work. And donors deserve better than this.
I’m greatly disappointed to predict that the Soccket is unlikely to make much of a dent in the challenge of bringing energy to the world’s poor. This is as predictable as England losing to Germany on penalties. It’ll continue to create some excitement amongst donors until the whole thing fizzles out. When the inventors are forced, tragically, to pick up their ball and go home in disappointment.
It’s an own goal. A dull nil-nil draw. A straight red card.
And I don’t get any joy from saying that.
Several years ago, long before TED became a household name, someone sent me a link to one of their videos.
It totally blew me away and remains the best TED video I have watched. Inspirational is a term that is banded about a lot these days. But this is full-on, blow your mind, knock your socks off, gob-smacking, fully capitalised, INSPIRATIONAL.
It introduced William Kamkwamba who as a 14 year boy, growing up in Malawi, was forced to drop out of school. He started hanging out at the local library, found a book about ‘windmills’ and decided to build one to generate electricity for his parents’ home. Watch the video (for the first or tenth time) and I defy you not to be in awe and/or sit there grinning.
Several years later, now working for SolarAid, I was kicking my heals in Dar Es Salaam airport and bought this book, ‘The boy who harnessed the wind’, William’s autobiography. It’s a great read.
William’s story is all about ingenuity, tenacity and hope. And how a 14 year old boy can challenge us all to think bigger about our future.
Two weeks ago I represented SolarAid at the finals of the Hult Global Case Challenge in New York. Six teams had battled through regional finals around the world to be there; to present their ideas on how our business, SunnyMoney, can sell 1,000,000 lights next year.
Well, you can imagine my surprise when William turned up as one of those students (he’s attending Dartmouth College, one of the Ivy League universities in the USA)! I was practically star struck.
The HGCC finals was an astonishing event at which I got to shake the hand of a US President (Bill Clinton) and a Nobel Prize winner, Professor Muhammad Younus (champion of the world’s poor and inventor of micro-finance). But despite all the extraordinary people there, meeting William KamKwamba, the boy who harnessed the wind, was a true highlight for me. Paying for his Big Mac (I know, I should know better) at 4am in the morning after the post HGCC final… well that is a slightly surreal memory that will live long.
I’m hugely excited about this new video, launched by SolarAid last night. It tells the story of what we’re doing and why through the eyes of a young Tanzanian boy, Sele.
Huge congratulations to my colleagues for their vision and creativity; and to Brad and Anna Bell of Brad Bell TV.
The video was filmed on Chole Island in Tanzania. The bats at the beginning were part of the shoot, not taken from a Hammer House of Horrors movie which is what it looks like!
Please share the video as widely as you can, through this blog or by linking directly to it through YouTube.
I’m sitting in the reception area of the Sheraton Towers Hotel, five minutes walk from Times Square, New York.
In the last couple of hours, I’ve been introduced to students from France, Dubai, Pakistan, the USA, Denmark and Iraq. And over the next few hours, students from many other countries will continue to arrive. The excitement is building. The formal proceedings start at 7pm tonight.
They’re all coming to do one thing. To give the pitch of their lives and walk away as winners of the 3rd Hult Global Case Challenge.
These students have come on a long journey already. They’re the winners of Regional Finals (and an online event) that took place in February this year in Boston, Shanghai, London, Dubai and San Francisco. They’ve already won this all expenses paid trip to New York and the opportunity to meet President Clinton tomorrow night. Now they need to win the final and walk away as champions.
This is the extraordinary world of the HGCC; an international competition in which business students compete for who can develop the most exciting and credible strategies to solve some of the world’s great social problems.
This year, SolarAid’s business, SunnyMoney, has been one of three organisations lucky enough to have been the focus of the HGCC. Students have been tasked with telling us how we can sell 1 million solar lights in Africa next year. Whichever team wins this competition, it is clear that SunnyMoney will be the greatest winner.
The experience so far has been extraordinary. And humbling. And that’s before we see the final presentations of the top 6 teams that are gathering as I sit here and watch.
For the last three months, hundreds of young business students from nearly every corner of the world have been thinking about how to grow our SunnyMoney business. They have come up with extraordinary insights and beautifully simple ideas; and they have fearlessly made contacts with some of the world’s biggest corporations to seek partnerships and alliances. They have opened our minds to new approaches; inspired us with their energy and passion; and shamed us with the contacts they have made on our behalf!
My colleagues and I have also learnt about the power of crowd-sourcing. It’s giving us new ideas about how to run our organisation in the future.
If SunnyMoney can harness half of these students’ ideas, their energy and their focus, I have no doubt we will sell 1 million lights next year. 1 million lights that will change people’s lives and take us on a huge step towards our goal of eradicating the kerosene lamp from Africa by the end of this decade.
And here’s the best thing… for all the glory of winning, the trip to New York and the meeting of Presidents, it is clear that what really motivates these students is changing the world. Having an impact. They’ve got under our skin and they understand why what we do is so important.
Ahmad Ashkar, CEO and Founder of the HGCC is walking around the hotel reception as I write. He’s in his element. A Palestinian born American, he’s the embodiment of what this competition stands for; hugging students as they arrive… and sitting them down to give them a final briefing.
His loyal team of Hult colleagues and students have put on an extraordinary event. We feel so privileged to be a part of it.
Good luck to all the competitors. Whatever happens tomorrow, you’ve already made a very big impact on SolarAid.