Highlights from Real Life Execution Challenges in the Social Enterprise (Oct. 29th Salon Dinner)
During the SF+Acumen Salon dinner on October 29, 2013, we were excited to have four social entrepreneurs speak about their experiences in building enterprises in the education, technology and energy space. Despite being in different industries, there was an underlying theme of “powering a world of creativity.” Feykena, Juabar, HubAccra and Gham Power are organizations that aim to fit into existing ecosystems, providing a key resource and letting communities thrive. This discussion sparked a means of inspiration and challenges that each entrepreneur crosses from the origins and growth stages of their organizations’ development.
We started off with Dwalu, an enthusiastic software architect and entrepreneur, who sought to volunteer as a teacher in his home country of Liberia. Dwalu was inspired to go back to Liberia after the civil war to utilize technology in schools as a force for change. He discovered that Liberian students were failing assessment test and with the lack of resources and ability to find information. While teaching in a class, Dwalu saw a woman using her cell phone and he came up with his idea for a social enterprise. Feykena is a service where students can text deterministic questions or words on their cell phone and the service would reply with an answer. See an example below from our live demo session below.
By leveraging an existing tool students had and utilized frequently, Dwalu tapped into existing behaviors and amplified users’ cell phones to provide them with the information in real time. A key hurdle Dwalu encountered was the priorities of his students and where education fell amongst their needs. In a country where other basic needs like housing are not fulfilled, education often falls by the wayside. Secondarily, Dwalu learned that the adoption rate for his solutions took longer than expected. Preparing a longer adoption rate for your product or service can provide useful feedback to iterate and improve your solutions. In order to scale Feykena, Dwalu is reviewing opportunities to build a self-sustaining model and crowd source funding to expanded the service. As students’ assessment scores improved, Dwalu continually looks for ways to support a free education system with his ultimate goal of building a “world curiosity site” for these students. Just like we have search engines like Google – we look forward to the new solutions that Feykena will provide the feature phone users in the developing world.
Next up, we hear from Heather of Hub Accra which is a workspace environment for budding entrepreneurs in one of Africa’s fastest growing economies, Ghana. There is a key belief that education is a way out of poverty in developing countries. Ghana has a stable political system, an English-speaking and educated population which allows us to see a different side of providing opportunities to people once they’ve been through the education system. What is the next step? With a high-level of unemployment in Ghana, Heather and a group of friends decided to partner with the local community and foster an innovation fund to support the unemployed. Hub Accra is currently providing a workspace with critical operational tools like wifi for 40 start-ups. By supplying key resources and allowing this population to be productive and contributing back to their community, the Hub Accra team provides the tools and then watches what happens.
Working on the ground in Ghana has enlightened the Hub Accra team on how to build a consistent presence to support the community. Having a strong concept of the team and how they could build their own ecosystem as some team members may decide to go home and back has been a strong learning lesson for the founding team members. Persevering and maintaining sustainability through government partnerships and outsourcing work to experts in the field has let Hub Accra improve their services. Heather also spoke about continuing to streamline your business by investing in women who often recirculate money back into the local economy along with training your staff so we can pay the expertise forward. She encouraged the audience and fellow social entrepreneurs to accept the pivot in your project or organization lifecycle as a building block to success. Finally, with all the experience that Heather has, she encourages us to always keep track and monitor performance while never lose sight of new information and research to improve your organization and team.
Juabar is an organization based in rural Tanzania delivering solar-powered charging kiosks. Sachi, a designer turned social entrepreneur, is Juabar’s Director of Connectivity aiming to facilitate connectivity in rural Tanzania. Sachi expanded her skill set beyond design and also manages areas like supply chain which was unexpected with her design and strategy background. With the public-based social charging solution, data is very important to Juabar. Sachi’s team constantly seeks feedback to improve and eventually expand their network throughout Tanzania. As the Juabar kiosks are being manufactured in China, Sachi’s team encounters manufacturing and supply chain issues to delivering their products to Tanzania. By leveraging a diverse group internal and external resource, Sachi continues to negotiate the path that generates the best solution for her team and communities served. As Sachi continues to work with her strengths of design strategy and sustaining the Juabar team, Juabar looks to deliver services beyond Tanzania in the future.
Our final speaker of the night was Sandeep, a serial entrepreneur and software expert, spoke about how he founded Gham Power in Nepal. After a successful career in Silicon Valley, Sandeep reached a turning point where he wanted to give back. Areas of Nepal commonly encounter black-outs 16 hours a day in extreme cases and this was a basic need that Sandeep wanted to tackle. Introducing a new form of energy like solar power to an underserved population required a lot of education and patience in dealing with a slow adoption rate. The upfront cost of solar power is high but it delivers long-term savings above and beyond diesel options. Gham Power was able to lower the barriers to entry a few ways. By becoming a lender and developing a lease financing model, they took the uncertainty of taking a loan off of the potential customers’ plate. Then, communicating the benefits of an ongoing energy supply like prolonged wireless access for information or refrigeration for food provided additional value and incentive to the customers. Due to low R&D budgets, Gham Power wanted to solve a local problem first and then find a new place to scale. To scale, Sandeep believes that the organization needs to be profit-driven and be exposed to market forces. Building a model that is sustainable and caters to the local population drives the adoption rate of Gham Power and continued benefits for the local population.
In hearing about the journey of each of these social enterprises, we find that these entrepreneurs continue to seek funding opportunities to expand their offerings. By being on the ground and building a relationship with local communities, these organizations are constantly learning and improving through the data they collect. Whatever inspires your next step in your life or a germ of an idea, these entrepreneurs inspires us to discover the personal reason of the work you are doing and constantly measure your impact. As these four social enterprises continue to improve their offerings locally, we look forward to what may come out of the newly resourced populations powered by Feykena, Hub Accra, Juabar and Gham Power and how these solutions will reach other rural communities and developing countries.
Thanks to Dwalu, Heather, Sachi and Sandeep for sharing their story with us!