Andy Lieberman: Social Entrepreneurs, Not Charities, Will Help the Next Billion Out of Poverty

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

This week the world hits 7 billion in population, just 12 years after we reached 6 billion.

Virtually all of these new billion live at the so-called Base of the Pyramid — that segment of humanity that, by virtue of economic and political circumstance, struggles to meet basic food, water and energy needs on incomes of around $2 a day.

Here at the Center for Science, Technology, and Society, we are confronting this problem every day and have come to the conclusion that the old ways of meeting the needs of this new billion — and the next and the next — will not be met with methods that have attempted to serve the underserved in our old world of 6 billion. Instead, we believe that the needs will be met with something many consider counterintuitive: social entrepreneurs selling — not giving away — vital products and thriving on unusual business and financing models.

The 140 entrepreneurs we have trained over nine years demonstrate the range of problems that can be addressed through social entrepreneurship. One example, Solar Sister, is a nonprofit organization eradicating energy poverty in Africa by dispensing solar lamps and other clean-energy products using an Avon-style direct-sale distribution network of women entrepreneurs. This network takes advantage of the fact that African women control the family’s kerosene budget and uses women-to-women social relationships to allow them to replace polluting, dangerous kerosene lamps with solar lamps.

The entrepreneurs admitted into our programs understand local needs and identify or develop appropriate solutions. A recent IFC and World Bank study, Lighting Africa, concluded that current solar lighting technologies can pay for themselves in as little as eight months. With technological improvements, increased production and the rising cost of kerosene, the payback period could go down to as little as two months by 2015.

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