Tuesday, July 29, 2008

H&M: Design for the Poor

H&M is a global fashion brand, with 1600 stores around the world, known for "fashion and quality at the best price." Last week, IDDS had its version of H&M... Hande and Mufute, who came to talk about their work in technology dissemination for the poor in India and Africa. I have a few highlights from my notes below.

Harish Hande is founder and CEO of SELCO, and a widely acclaimed social entrepreneur for his work in bringing solar lights to poor people in India (see my post from Oct 10, 2006). He is also a provocative speaker! His only slide was a picture of rural India: in the foreground is a primative cow shed with one of SELCO's solar collectors on the roof; passing overhead is a government transmission line, connecting to a water pump that has an outdoor light that burns all day and night. This illustrates India's energy problems... and perhaps its solutions. The problems are access, intermittent supply (power outages in Bangalore have already started due to low monsoon rains this year) and waste. As Harish points out, this is supposed to be the IT capital of the world, and it doesn't have reliable electricity.

Harish has used these problems as opportunities, setting up a business that has wired over 100,000 poor households and small businesses over the past 15 years. Children are now graduating from high school who have only known solar electricity! In building SELCO's business, Harish stressed how important it was to come to the poor with a good product, but also "doorstep service" and "doorstep finance". His clients want to know who will install and service the system...and how they will afford it. He also discussed how their financing "piggybacks on the client's cash flow," not an arbitrary payment schedule.

Harish questionned the concept of "design for extreme affordability" that the IDDS participants had heard from Paul Polak, because it “challenges the intelligence of the poor people”. "When it comes to the poor, we always try to standardize it and take away a choice. You can standardize to a “want”, but when it is a “need” you need to customize it." He was also critical of the solar business in the developed world, pointing out that subsidies of solar panels in Germany and California have increased costs and hurt affordability for the poor. "How much help are hybrids and solar panels in California, if millions of people are still cutting down trees for firewood, and burning kerosene for light?" he asked. He also was critical of traditional aid-based international development community, pointing out that they take little risk, but are quick with suggestions for companies like his. "NGOs are always successful, only companies are failures." (I am definitely going to use this quote again!) [for video clip, click here]

Ruth Mufute has had many years of helping implement technologies in Africa, primarily in Zimbabwe and Zambia. She emphasized how technology can empower women and bring more income to communities and families. "Women bear the burden of rural economy," and technologies can make them more productive and reduce their drudgery. But an existing technology/machine is just the start. Ruth helps build the community/economic infrastructure as well. Businesses, bank accounts, cooperatives, etc. For instance, a Ram press can produce cooking oil, which is "gold" in many rural communities. It produced 4x more oil from sunflower seeds compared to traditional methods. At first, Africare gave away the machines, but they weren't used, and collected dust. Ruth convinced her bosses to let her sell the machines... and the results were "astounding." As she said, you must start businesses, not social clubs.

Ruth sees her organization as providing a fire, and allowing others to light their torches from their work. She estimates they have benefitted 20,000 rural households. Ruth also told an interesting story about how technology and culture interact, and how she, as a woman, has a deep respect for tradition. But when she started, women could not get loans. This had to change and other barriers to women are falling. But she emphasized that "nothing is taken from me" by respecting traditions and told how she moves to a very traditional role when she visits her family.

I do see Africare working in a hybrid space. They are donor supported, and choose their markets based on donor interest and support. This (perhaps unintentionally) limits the scale of their impact.

So that is IDDS's version of H&M. But instead of "fashion and quality at the best price," our H&M helped IDDS participants think about designing products which incorporate "function and quality at an affordable price" and to understand ways to disemminate technologies to achieve impact.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Rusty, but Tan

So, I have been away for a while from the blog world, and am feeling a bit rusty. It has been over a month since my last blog post, and I can no longer blame the slow internet connections.

When I started teaching (my 5th anniversary of this career change is August 3), part of the reason I did it was to have "summers off." This was yet another example of my naivete regarding academia, since the first 4 summers were spent working. This year, I vowed it would be different, and was brave enough to tell my wife (a way of ensuring follow through). It is a sad fact, that the last time I had a summer off was when I was 13 (and then it was easier to get by without being paid). This is a summer to do things I think are important, but that I don't have to justify as being "job related" to any employer.

Most of July we spent in the Dominican Republic, in part to try to improve our Spanish and in part to get some together time on some wonderful beaches. I think I did OK on both: I have a "certificado" attesting to my participation at the Instituto Intercultural del Caribe in Sosua, and a pretty decent tan (to keep my Spanish going long after my tan fades, I plan to become a customer of Speakshop, a cool online fairtrade language service). It was also interesting to be a student again, and to have that crazy overload feeling of trying to put too much into your leaky bucket of a brain! However, I used a lot of the strategies my students have used with me, including asking questions I figured might lead to "war stories," proposing coffee breaks, and asking for review sessions.

Last week, I was at MIT for a few fun days at the International Development Design Summit. They were busy days, but saw some good ideas emerging on the student teams, and I hope the Venture Stories* and Venture 3 x 5** exercises help them think a bit about Designing for Dissemination. It was also great to have Rob Katz from Acumen Fund agree to a last minute visit and give a nice talk about what they look for when they invest (here is his blog on the trip). Best of all, however, was having a chance to dip into this swirling pool of wild ideas and smart, passionate people from around the world. To meet Kenny Mubuyaeta, from Disacare in Zambia, who has had some of our GSSE students working with him at his mobility facility for those disabled by accidents or disease. To see Zubaida Bai again, who I met last summer at IDDS and who will be starting with the next cohort of GSSE students in August, and hear her confidently introduce Ruth Mufute and Harish Hande in front of a large crowd. To meet participants like Mark Jeunnette, who is starting with IDE in Ethiopia soon, and hear his enthusiasm about what he is learning at IDDS. Kudos to the team and I'd encourage any BOPreneurs who are in the Boston area to go see the final presentations on August 6.
*Recipe for Venture Stories: Who is your customer? What is your product? Why does it matter? Who's on your team? Tell a story about this, in less than 100 words. [thanks to Andy Hargadon for the idea behind this]

**Recipe for Venture 3 x 5: Based on your Venture Story, pick 3 things your team thinks it is important to accomplish. Figure out how you will measure each. Now set goals for each item for the next 5 years and put them in a 3x5 matrix. Pay attention to the discussion. Pay attention to how being specific starts making you think differently about design, manufacture, resources. expansion, etc. Have your team develop two 3 x 5's and discuss how each option may be a very different organization.