Tuesday
March 13
2012

Yotam Ariel

A Wish for Sharing: Why Social Entrepreneurs Don’t Need A Bottled Genie to Gain

Ever heard the joke about the genie in a bottle?

A man stumbles upon a bottle and a genie pops out. He thanks the man, and promise to fulfill one wish. The condition though, is that anything the man gets, his neighbor will get twice as much.

The man opens his mouth, about to ask for a million dollars, but quickly thinks to himself: “if I get a million dollars, my neighbor will get two million dollars,” he then decides to ask for a big house, and again holds his wish back, as he imagines his neighbor getting two big houses. He pauses, and after thinking for a while, tells the genie: “please take out one of my eyes”.

It would have been funnier if it didn’t prove so close to reality. When I offered a solar social entrepreneur a way to cut his products cost by half, he said no.

That’s because his competitors were to benefit as well.

The way I proposed lowering his cost works like this: a number of social solar businesses negotiate the price for the solar components together, and then the order scale becomes more attractive for the manufacturer. That results in a price drop.

But the entrepreneur with whom I was speaking said that his competitors will be taking a free ride on his purchasing power. And he wouldn’t like to see that.

More often than not, entrepreneurs who share the same mission – ending energy poverty, hesitate to share resources, even if we all benefit. What are we afraid of?

Is it the fear that after sharing knowledge, which took time and money to gain, someone will stand on our shoulders and pick the fruits?

Is it the fear that all our hard work simply paved the way for someone else to get credit for lifting a billion villagers out of energy poverty? Or maybe it’s the bucks we were planning to make while perusing our lofty goal?

Whatever is hindering cooperation, there are other entrepreneurs who choose to share their way to success.

Several months ago, Kristine Pearson of Lifeline Energy and Steve Katsaros of Nokero, two solar solution providers, started sharing business opportunities.

Kristine’s organization used to sell its own solar lanterns, but then discontinued due to cost and supply issues. Now, she integrates Steve’s more cost-competitive solar lanterns into her projects and programs. And in return, Steve points to potential buyers for solar powered radios and MP3s that Kristine is producing.

Already, their cooperation generated a business trip in Kenya and Rwanda where Kristine took Steve to meet prospects for his solar lanterns.

But such cooperation isn’t risk free. What if Steve gets all of Kristine’s contacts and cuts her out of the picture? What if Kristine learns how to make solar lanterns better and re-start distributing on her own? What if one side benefits more than the other side??So with that much uncertainty, why bother sharing?

“I have always felt that we should be embarrassed as a sector of technology or a group of sellers at how little of an impact we had on these 1.3 billion people and their needs.

To be selfish about or to be concerned about fighting for the market share that we have would be very short vision, because none of us have solved this,” Steve told me.

True, sharing resources with competitors creates risks. But it also creates opportunities. When we refuse to share, how can we tell if we aren’t actually refusing a way for faster business growth and bigger social impact?

Categories
Energy, Entrepreneurship
Tags
manufacturing, renewable energy, social enterprise, solar