Solar Sister operates a pilot project in Uganda to build a network of Solar Sister entrepreneurs, women who sell solar lamps to their communities. The program has two important benefits: providing women with economic opportunity through commissions earned through a micro-consignment program of sales (much like the Avon business model), and an effective “last mile” distribution system for solar lamps, bringing this simple, but transformational technology to the doorsteps of the people who will most benefit from it.
TEM Lab: Uganda – Solar Sister
By Adebayo Adebiyi
Today marks the end of the third week in April, the week which marks the end of our time here in Uganda. Figuring out how five weeks have gone by so fast is one big question on my mind as I write this blog. Sometimes it feels like I woke up from a deep sleep that has somehow morphed into 38 days in a foreign country. The reality though is that our time on the ground in Uganda has been anything but non-distinct. In fact, as I look back over our time here, I see that it has been full. It has been full of discovery of Uganda and our client’s operation. It has been full of brainstorming meetings about challenges, ideas and frameworks that will hopefully provide a solid basis for the future growth and success of Solar Sister.
Even from the comfort of our rooms at the Namirembe guest house in Kampala, we experienced the reality of the Uganda’s energy inadequacy and the need for alternative technologies that can bridge the gap between its energy demand and supply. We have also been constantly reminded of the initiative, industry and resilience of the Ugandan people through the different manifestations of the thriving and boisterous ‘informal’ economy, represented perhaps most symbolically by the ubiquitous ‘boda boda’ riders, who serve as the solitary means of ‘mass’ transportation in Kampala. The combination of these two realities; i.e. an inadequate energy supply and presence of people, who are motivated to better themselves, form the basis for the existence of Solar Sister. In the course of our work with Solar Sister, we visited client sites in Mityana, Ruhanga and Kireka, brainstormed internally and with the client, had workshops and created several documents, tools and frameworks that will hopefully be the foundation for strong Solar Sister success. More importantly however, we have hopefully empowered the in-country staff and provided useful overarching strategic insight to help Solar Sister to reach its full potential in Uganda.
In the midst of all our work, we found time for our weekend getaways to Jinja, Bwindi, Mbali and Murchison Falls. These experiences etched in our minds the beauty of Uganda and the warmth of its people. It gave us insight into cultural and historical antecedents that color the reality of today’s Uganda and holds the key to unlocking its potential. Needless to say that the general consensus on the team is that this trip has been a remarkable learning, cultural and travel experience overall. Our time here may be up but it has definitely been time well spent. We are grateful to ExxonMobil Foundation for the opportunity to be here and also to the remarkable TEM Lab staff and faculty for the assistance that have provided during our time on the ground. In preparation for our long flight back to the US, the team is heading out for one last meal at our favorite Indian restaurant here in Kampala so I have to say goodbye. Ciao!
By Abigail Edelman
There is a great divide within Uganda. There are in fact two Ugandas, the north and the south. The south benefits from being home to the capital Kampala and the majority of the nation’s infrastructure. The north has suffered from drought and decades of conflict between the Lord Resistance Army (LRA) and government forces. The result has been massive displacement of northern Ugandans, higher rates of disease, lower rates of literacy and weak infrastructure, including proportionally less access to electricity. This is one of the primary reasons Solar Sister will be targeting this region in their expansion strategy.
On a recent trip to northern Uganda’s Murchison Falls National Park members of both TEM Labs teams witnessed this stark contrast firsthand. We observed almost no buildings, no electrical lines and limited planting due to drought and poor soil quality. While enjoying the national park, we learned of some of the current realities of the Ugandan political economy. As some people know, Uganda has been in the headlines in the last couple years because of the recent discovery of oil in northern Uganda along the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) border. Some of these drilling sites fall within Murchison Fall National Park. Many park rangers we spoke with were concerned with the effect of the drilling on local wildlife, in addition to the local populations that will be displaced by the drilling and export of the oil. Though many people voiced these concerns, some were hopeful of the economic development that the discovery of oil will bring to the region.
Many T-birds who have taken Moffet and Inkpen’s Global Energy class have learned about the ‘Curse of Oil’ that has plagued Africa and other oil rich countries. Countries like Chad and Nigeria, where large oil reserves have been developed and exported, have seen an exponential increase in government revenues, but this newly found wealth has not been shared with the nation’s poor.
As protests in Kampala are underway against high imported oil prices, these reserves theoretically provide the resources in country to meet the current demand. However, the reality of actually developing these resources for self- sufficiency is still a long way off. This leads me to wonder if the export of Ugandan oil will help to bring the economic development that northern Uganda so desperately needs?
By Frieda Park
Four weeks in Uganda, wow! Time has flown by as we have tried to balance our time between working and exploring the country, getting to know its people, its animals, and its beauty. Every step of the way we are reminded of the adversity people face in their everyday lives. Our work with Solar Sister involves not only coming up with ways for the people of Uganda to overcome the adversity they are faced with, but also to empower them to progress, and hopefully slowly change, a system that has been created not only by Uganda itself, but also by foreigners who have come before us with a similar mission in mind.
As we work to create solutions to empower the Solar Sister Entrepreneur, we are constantly faced with the legacy of aid and the expectations it has created in the lives of Ugandans; those of freebies, handouts and a giver who will not always be there to support them. A legacy in which many organizations have come into Uganda over the years to offer free, but limited, support not only to the government, but also directly to its citizens. The history of aid in Uganda has been one of handouts that have had trouble sustaining themselves, and it is only recently that there has been a switch to sustainable development that provides skills and not just free handouts.
This new emergence of sustainable development builds on an old (and slightly modified) proverb, “Give a woman a fish and you feed her for a day, teach a woman to fish and you feed her and her family for a lifetime”. For example, in one Solar Sister community we recently found out from the Entrepreneurs in the community that a foreign aid organization is giving away similar lights to what they are trying to sell. This is significantly cutting into their potential profits, which would put food on their tables and provide support to their families, as well as light to their community. This juxtaposition between aid and social enterprise reminds us that we are here in Uganda not only to create a sustainable business but also to help provide solutions to help women improve and empower their lives using not only their own hands, but their minds as well.
By David O’Connor
To say we were excited to see the gorillas would be an understatement. We had worked through the previous weekend in order to take a three-day weekend that involved over 20 hours on the “road” (I use this term in the most liberal sense) to catch a glimpse of a few of the last 800 mountain gorillas left in the world. Frieda Park, Kate Robertson, and I met up with Bharath Balasubramanian, Daniel Karr, and Isabelle Strauss of the TEM Lab Uganda: Small Solutions team to journey into the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.
I could write an entire additional entry on the 11 hour drive to Bwindi as a cross-cultural experience, an off-road adventure story, or a testament to Bharath’s ability to sleep in truly any environment. For brevity’s sake, I’ll just say that the ride was an experience and we were all very happy to arrive in the jungles of Bwindi. Since we arrived at dusk we were also able to see rural Uganda at nighttime and were reminded once again of the important role that Solar Sister plays here. Most of the communities along the main “road” to the park were fortunate enough to be among the small percentage of the country that was close enough to access power lines. Despite this, the large majority of houses in these mountain communities did not have any lights turned on due to the high price of electricity or the common power outages. Luckily for us, our lodge in Bwindi was solar-powered so we were able to find our beds and get an early night’s sleep in preparation for our big day.
We awoke in the morning to meet our guide and 2-armed guards (with automatic weapons) who promptly took us on a hike through a local community and up a mountain. Upon reaching the top of the mountain we discovered that the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest was nothing more than a series of mountains and…an impenetrable forest. The next two to three hours of our day consisted of going up and down these mountains whilst hacking (with a machete in our guide’s case) through the brush and falling down repeatedly on the muddy ground. After being told for hours that the gorillas were just minutes away, the allure of hiking in one of the most ancient and virgin rain forests in the world was starting to take its toll.
With little warning however, our once single file line began to scatter as we noticed the trees directly above us were moving a lot more than any of the trees around them. As large black figures began to emerge from the canopy of the forest, we remained as quiet as one could at the time while informing everyone within earshot that we had indeed found the group of gorillas that we had been tracking.
The next hour that we spent with the gorillas was one of those magical hours where time stood still, but seemed to pass almost instantaneously. The 400 pound, 40 year old silverback in the group greeted us by masterfully maneuvering to the forest floor from the top of a 60 foot tree and brushing within inches of us. He then sat down next to a tree ten feet away to chew on some nearby foliage. He knew we were there, but would give us only the slightest acknowledgement in the form of brief eye contact. Meeting eye to eye with this mythical animal who is almost thrice your size, shares 97% of your DNA, has been living (in the form of his ancestors) in these untouched forests for thousands of years, and could end your life with minimal effort, is a truly humbling and awe-inspiring moment. It is impossible to leave an hour with the gorillas without feeling more in touch with nature and changed in some way.
To be quite honest, the rest of the trip after the gorillas was mostly a blur. The hours in the forest and van that came next were a perfect chance to reflect on the experience. By the time we arrived back in Kampala we were overly excited to meet with the other half of our group and share our gorilla experience with them. After having such an intense and enjoyable weekend after three weeks of hard work, we felt rejuvenated and inspired to start our last two weeks of work with Solar Sister!
By Kate Robertson
Frieda Park recently wrote about our site visit to Ruhanga. After surviving the long bus ride from Kampala, we wished we would have packed up our mobile Solar Sister office and set up shop in the green hills of Ruhanga. Late nights working with no electricity in rural Uganda would surely not stop us. All we would have needed were a few Nova solar lamps sold by Solar Sister’s entrepreneurs. They would definitely do the trick of illuminating a makeshift workspace.
Unfortunately, our group’s vision of moving to Ruhanga was short lived. We’d have to survive on the memories of home visits, hikes, and freshly cooked red beans. In fact, here we are on a beautiful morning hike to the top of Ruhanga’s highest hill. To reach the top, we passed through tiny communities and banana plantations and chit-chatted with children we encountered on the way. A couple of us threw out words in the local language, Runyankole. It is amazing how powerful a smile and a simple attempt at ”hello” and “thank you” can be. We were met with giggles and funny looks as we botched the pronunciation of most phrases.
When we reached the top, the apparent lack of oxygen to the brain turned us goofy as we spent much too long choreographing this picture, which hardly does justice to the lush, green hills that surrounded us. In retrospect, we must have come up with the pose to demonstrate our gratitude for being in Uganda and having the opportunity to participate in this Thunderbird TEM Lab with the support of ExxonMobil. If you can’t tell, it spells TEM, Thunderbird Emerging Markets…
Off to see the “go-gos”, otherwise known as the near-extinct mountain gorillas on the border of Uganda, Rwanda and Democratic Republic of Congo. They know we are coming and have told us they will be awaiting our arrival with Ugandan specialties including matoke, red beans, chipati and warm cassava root. We hope they are ready for a photo shoot, “Team Bzungu + 1″ style.
By Frieda Park
When we walked into the bus yard on Friday morning, we weren’t quite sure what we were getting into. As we sat in our tiny bus seats waiting to leave the bus yard (buses in Uganda don’t leave at a specific time, they leave when the bus is full) we saw an informal economy operating in full force. Men and women carrying everything from fruit to shoes to lamps, wallets, belts and soccer balls boarded our bus looking for that eager customer who just happened to be in search of a new pair of kicks or some fruit for the long ride. We had decided to take public transportation instead of a private car to see the way the typical Ugandan (and possible Solar Sister customers) traveled. When we finally took off we learned that the trip we thought would take three hours would indeed not drop off us off at our final destination, Ruhanga (a small village in Southwest Uganda), until after hour six!
During the trip, we collectively battled for space, assisted women with their children, had sticks of grilled meat and bananas thrust through windows into our faces, smelled an array of body odors, passed through three distinct terrains, crossed the line of the equator and even saw zebras roaming the countryside. We were headed on this seemingly endless journey to meet with the Solar Sister Entrepreneurs of Ruhanga to explore their successes and challenges they’ve faced in selling solar lamps to their communities.
Once we clambered down from the bus on the side of the road, exhausted and slightly smelly ourselves, we were greeted with a delicious lunch of lentils and rice and a group of women eager to tell us their stories. From this visit we were able to gain valuable knowledge that will help us create our Recruiting and Training plan for Solar Sister, which is the reason we are in Uganda.
The evening ended with visits to the women’s homes to see the solar lamps in use, which was an adventure in and of itself; climbing up hills through banana plantations to their homes, which have no electricity, and only solar lamps to guide our way. It really brought home why we are here and the purpose of the product we were promoting.
The next morning we awoke early for a quick hike up to the top of a nearby hill. We then jaunted down the hill and resumed our place at the side of the road, awaiting the passing of another bus for the seven hour bus ride back into Kampala.
By Kate Robertson
It is week three and I think its time to talk work. As you’ve been reading, it is clear that our team, sometimes referred to as, “Team Bzungu + 1″, is having a blast working for Solar Sister in Uganda. Team Bzungu was politely named by Timone, a friend of a friend of a T-Bird (we T-Birds are notorious for our global networking skills!). As we quickly learned, Mzungu means white person and bzungu is a group of white people. Conveniently, we are 4 white people + 1 black person, our resident Nigerian, Bayo Adebiyi.
Last December, after our first phone conversation with Katherine Lucey, founder of Solar Sister, we were excited about the upcoming opportunity to serve as consultants to the organization. Unfortunately, we also felt overwhelmed by the potential projects Katherine presented to us. During the following months, between module 1 classes, Team Bzungu + 1 met weekly to understand how we could maximize our teams’ skills to best benefit Solar Sister. We spent weeks defining and re-defining what would eventually become the scope of our work. From the Thunderbird library in sunny Arizona, we were unaware of the on-the-ground realities of Solar Sister and we knew that once we arrived, there was a possibility that everything we had prepared would become insignificant.
Over the past two weeks, we’ve traveled to various communities throughout Uganda and spent countless hours with the Solar Sister team, learning the “ins and outs” of the social enterprise. With help from Solar Sister’s Ugandan team, we’ve modified our initial plans. Following is a brief preview of what we’ve been working on between visiting delicious Indian restaurants, perusing artisan markets, riding on motorbikes and listening to traditional live music.
Recruiting Plan - Creating a systematic recruiting process that requires “buy-in” from participants and that focuses on identifying the highest performing Solar Sister Entrepreneurs.
Training Plan - Developing a detailed and visual training curriculum and manual that will be used by Solar Sister trainers to introduce the organization and present the product. This is the biggest piece of the project.
Organizational Development - Recommending an on-the-ground organizational structure as well as defining the roles and responsibilities of each Ugandan employee as well as an incentive system.
Marketing - Creating marketing collateral for use by Solar Sister in the US and suggestions for micro-marketing tactics to be used by Solar Sister Entrepreneurs in Uganda.
More to come from Uganda! Now, it is off to Ethiopian village for some African dinner.
By Adebayo Adebiyi
Uganda has so far been an interesting study in contrasts. Life in this country seems to oscillate sharply and constantly between attributes which are modern and archaic, urban and rural, tranquil and chaotic. It is a roller coaster experience that is sure to leave the uninitiated travelers utterly dizzy and bemused. Take our ‘3G’ internet access for example, it is provided by the globally renowned UK telecoms giant Orange, and can go from being fast enough to support the largest downloads to being so slow that you sometimes feel yourself growing old using the internet. In a similar vein, our travel experience across different parts of the country has gone from pleasurable, with great sights and views along well paved roads, to extremely testy gyration exercises along windy dirt roads.
The truth really is that this contrast is the common story of most developing countries. The sharp divide that exists side by side in these countries is what makes life, business and travel in developing countries exciting, rewarding and uncertain. Managing the uncertainty of life in emerging markets and responding appropriately to the local reality can often be the key differentiator between success and failure in these markets and it is for the reason that I am grateful for the opportunity of travelling with four of the best Thunderbirds on this trip. Travelling as the lone African on my team, I was unsure about how quickly our team would be able to adjust to some of the continent’s harsh realities. In hindsight, my concerns appear to have been unfounded, as the degree of flexibility and adaptability shown so far on the team has been nothing short of remarkable; a testament to the ever popular and oft discussed Thunderbird Global Mindset.
Before you categorize my statements as a biased team member’s assessment of his team’s ability, consider the following facts; Every member of the team is now conversant enough with the local transport system that we can disperse on one end of Kampala and reconvene on the other end using nothing but the motorcycle taxis (Boda-Boda as they are known here) as our means of transportation. We have a full functional mobile office that we can roll out and pack up in five minutes flat! The system is complete with all our power cords and converters, roaming internet connectivity, mobile white board, improvised pointing devices and individual sound/music systems that facilitate individual ‘break out’ sessions.
Our team’s adaptability has been shown not only at work but also with food and other cultural aspects of life here. Not only have we tried and enjoyed most of the local delicacies of Uganda, we actually took the process one step further this week by creating our own cutlery (yes, we made our own cutlery) as we devoured of a delicious meal of assorted Indian delicacies. Considering that it has only been two weeks since we arrived in this amazing country, the early signs lead me to believe that the coming weeks will be even more eventful. Get all the information here firsthand by following this blog. Ciao!
By Abigail Edelman
In our second week the team set-out on our first site visit ‘upcountry’ or outside of Kampala. Our destination was Mityana, a city 3 hrs from Kampala. The goals of our visit were to understand the dynamics of one of Solar Sister’s most successful sites and get night shots and videos of the product in use.
We were looking forward to meeting the team leader, Eva. Many people have told us she is the driving force behind the site’s success and she didn’t disappoint. A preacher and community activist for over twenty years, she had built and ran seven schools in the community.
She was fiercely committed to providing women a way to generate additional income for their family and protect children from the hazards of kerosene usage. Kerosene lamps and candles are what 90% of Ugandans use for evening light.
We observed Eva complete a training, and then had the opportunity to speak with some of the most successful Solar Sisters one-on-one to identify selling best practices and understand their challenges.The evening was spent seeing the product in use deep within villages that were far from electrification.
We witnessed women using the lamps to do house work late into the night and school children using the lamps to study. Not only do the lamps provide additional hours of study time, but the lamps allow parents the piece-of-mind to leave their children in the evening to sell their garden produce at a local night market. We were told that several local children had died from fire accidents because they were left alone with kerosene lamps.
All in all the team was excited and energized by the site visit and looked forward to our next opportunity to get out into the field. Please stay tuned for more info on our site visits to Kumi and Ruhanga.
Also the team would like to recognize the support of the ExxonMobil Foundation in helping us put our business school training to work and for believing in the power of Solar Sister to help the women of Uganda create their own economic future.