I had lunch with Jonathan Lewis the other day, and it was fun to catch up. Jonathan is a serial social entrepreneur who founded, among other things, Opportunity Collaboration, an annual gathering of about 300 social entrepreneurs down in Ixtapa, Mexico. He’s also belongs to my club of “favorite people” owing not only to his sharp mind but his irreverent sense of humor. Our laughter rocked the walls of D.C. Coast restaurant long after the lunch crowd had gone back to work.
One of the things we talked about was the proliferation of “gadgets” that have been designed by social entrepreneurs seeking to solve health, housing, clean drinking water, type problems or otherwise improve the lives of poor people in developing countries. Jonathan is one of a number of people who have noted how difficult it is in practice to get poor people to actually purchase these consumer products that are “good for people”, not only because of the absence of purchasing power in this segment of the population, but also because poor people — like all of us – often have other priorities or preferences as to where they will direct their limited resources. (see his article) Jonathan recently launched a Nairobi-based start up, copiaglobal, that is taking a catalogue-based approach to marketing not only products that are good for people, but also products they want.
I really appreciated Jonathan’s advice, as FINCA is entering the scale up (we hope) phase of a renewable energy “gadget” next door, in Uganda. Our Sunking solar-powered lantern has a seemingly killer value proposition for an off-the-grid poor family in rural Uganda, delivering several different benefits: 1) it illuminates the home so the kids can do their homework after dark (education), 2) it reduces or eliminates need for kerosene lamps, whose fumes are harmful in confined quarters (health benefit plus savings on kerosene expenditures – and shall we throw in the environment? Why not) 3) it can recharge a mobile phone (communication plus micro business opportunity). So it can’t miss, right?
“It’s 20% the product and 80% the distribution,” Jonathan warns.
Personally, I think I have the distribution down. I was explaining to two people from Microvest, one of our funders on the debt side, at a breakfast this morning and they both put in orders. I’m two for two on my pitch/sale ratio.
I recently became aware of another interesting start up: Crowdmission. This company has operationalized a concept I have been thinking about for a long time, an offshoot of microfinance which I call “micro equity”. As it’s name denotes, it works with a “crowd funding” model– like Kiva or Kick Starter – but invests in social enterprises that offer a real return to the micro investor, versus merely a psychic one. I’m going to watch that one closely.