Had a great time giving a talk at Berekeley’s Blum Center for Developing Economies yesterday. Thanks to Sean Burns, Paula Zamora and their team for organizing this fun event, and also the chance to meet separately with some of the faculty and students where I learned about some of the fascinating products and social enterprises that have been developed in this incubator which they call “Big Ideas”. There is a CNN award winning “Solar Suitcase” developed Laura Stachel that is used to fight maternal mortality at off-the-grid hospitals in Africa. There is a device call “CellScope” that turns a cell phone into a diagnostic quality microscope, facilitating remote diagnosis of infectious diseases. Two graduates, Khaitan and Dickinson founded Gram Power, which has cracked the code for solar energy storage in remote villages in Indian.
There is an interesting divergence taking place in this space, and one that FINCA is currently reviewing to gather ideas for our “FINCA Plus” initiative where we seek to partner with Social Entrepreneurs who have developed promising innovations in the areas of healthcare, water and sanitation, renewable energy, education and small scale agriculture and value chains. Some of these interventions are “village level”, and involve higher investments and demand a greater degree of organization on the part of the beneficiaries to make them sustainable, both in terms of the long term financing model (via user fees) and physical maintenance. These are two areas that most often doom this type of initiative over the longer term. Others are “family level”, and involve products that are affordable for a single household, examples being solar powered lanterns and water filtering systems.
In either case, this whole space is gathering momentum, which is good news for millions of currently vulnerable families, whose progress out of poverty (owing to interventions like microfinance) can often be sabotaged by a family health crisis.