Nathan Wyeth

Weekly Roundup: Warmth and Light

After a couple weeks’ absence, the weekly roundup is returning, in a new weekend slot! This week I wanted to highlight announcements and videos from two increasingly prominent ventures that both came out of a class on “Extreme Affordability” at Stanford’s D-School.

If you’re not at Stanford and you can’t take that class, but you were inspired by Moses’ recent post on entrepreneurship in a recession, I wanted to highlight the the great list of incubators and accelerators for new ventures the Foundation on Youth Social Entrepreneurship has put together (along with deadlines for applying for them!).

Warmth: I’m looking forward to a slew of new 2010 TED talks being put online, but for now was content to be reminded by Echoing Green of a TED India talk by Jane Chen, founder of Embrace. In this video, she discusses Embrace’s $25 incubator for premature infants.

Light: The news from d.Light, the manufacturer of solar lanterns that are similarly extreme in their affordability, continues to be of interest. Last week on their blog, they highlighted an education campaign – “The Right to Safe Light” – that was launched in December in Tanzania after widely publicized fires that killed Tanzanian schoolchildren and were started by kerosene lanterns. Fires from kerosene are frequent however, and solar-powered lanterns of course minimize the risk of fire from lighting.

This campaign raises some interesting questions for me about the role of public education and social campaigns in base of the pyramid businesses. In some cases, public education is necessary simply to inform consumers about the need for and existence of new products. And I’ve heard of examples from things like water purification companies where to differentiate their product from unhealthy water that appears clean to the naked eye, potential consumers must be educated about what’s in their water sources before they’ll pay for clean, safe water.

It is also possible for such efforts to completely ineffective if they’re delivered without regard for how to craft a compelling public message. But conversely may companies not to undertake such efforts because they don’t see the opportunity, or they know they don’t have the ability to execute and do not want to waste scarce dollars on ineffective marketing.

Where a product like a solar lantern can fulfill a social need – like modern energy and light without the risk of indoor air pollution and fires – it seems perfectly appropriate to run something that looks more like a social campaign than a product marketing campaign. But to succeed as cost-efficient marketing efforts, such campaigns must be executed well, and this is a skill-set that many businesses lack. Back on World AIDS Day, Nathaniel Whittemore at highlighted the effectiveness of the justice-oriented public messages used by AIDS activists – the red ribbon, etc. – and in my mind I contrast this with the limited public media efforts that base of the pyramid organizations have undertaken. “The Big Squat” was one such effort, an admirable attempt to highlight sanitation issues in a humorous way. But it demonstrated that there is a long way to go to ignite the world’s imagination around World Toilet Day. And we may have a long way to go if the task that sanitation organizations are putting in front of themselves is elevating something called World Toilet Day in the first place.

There is a mismatch of skill-sets between base of the pyramid investment funds and businesses and public education campaigns, but not a lack of need. Much greater infusions of capital and public support are needed for market-based development approaches. This will probably take individual companies highlighting their products in new ways, as well as sector-wide efforts to raise the profile of new solutions for investors and policymakers.

d.Light’s is doing a good job by seizing on a topic of public discussion and emphasizing rights and justice, where this can be connected directly back to a product. Injustice is not something businesses typically discuss in marketing – and it probably needs to delivered through different channels than would be used for typical advertising. It may even be aimed at audiences that are different than a company’s actual customers, but which are influencers of their customers or enablers of their overall business efforts. In this case, Tanzanian schoolchildren are a great example, and their safety is a public concern worthy of talking about in the media and in schools.

At the end of the day for d.Light, it’s all about the nuts and bolts of selling more solar lanterns. I’ve read a lot lately about the growth of the solar lighting industry in East Africa, but I’ve found that it’s hard to describe to someone what this looks like when they think of solar as an energy technology that only wealthy people in California can afford. In case you need a visual of what the solar energy economy looks like in Tanzania, you can check out this quirky video of the opening of a d.Light store in Dar es Salaam. I love knowing what a solar energy store looks like in Africa, and I love comparing that storefront with a new solar distributor that I just saw pop up in Brooklyn.