I went to Women 2.0’s conference in SF last week on Valentine’s day! I had gone last year too, when it was at the Computer History Museum. This year it was right by Union Square, at the Westin.
It’s always an amazing event. So many inspiring stories.
The winner of the pitch contest was an incredible company called Angaza Design. Their product: a solar unit that can charge cell phones and power LED lights. Their customers: entrepreneurs and families in west africa, in a region where only 15% of people have access to the electrical grid. Their secret tech: pay-as-you-go energy, where you have to unlock energy with mobile payments. Mobile payments are popular there, and the way that the solar unit gets information about how much more energy has been unlocked is amazing. The unit has a speaker and mic, and the customer holds up their mobile phone to the unit, and the server communicates to the unit through the mobile phone via a series of tones, telling the unit how much more power to mete out. The unit also communicates usage and status stats back to the server. Their team has a signal processing expert on it for this. THIS IS CRAZY AWESOME! Cell coverage is apparently very good in the region, and many people have feature phones (some around here call them “dumphones”)–I think it’s amazing because it’s using available technology and infrastructure in a novel way. I can’t believe they’re doing it like this. As someone who loves it when people find weird new ways of using existing tech, I think this is awesome.
As they pitched it, it sounded like the model for pre-paid cell phones: pay for a unit, then pay for minutes (or, in this case, energy). When asked by the judges, the CEO said that the unit costs the business $35 to make and they are charging $10 per unit, because it’s a significant enough investment that people are thinking about it, but not so costly as to shut out a large portion of their market. (One of the judges asked specifically if $10 was too much for the area.) The point is that you sell the unit at a loss and make money off of the minutes (energy). That night, I was thinking about it more, and wondered if they’d keep making money off of the energy produced by the unit forever, and how it was breaking my brain because the old “charity” way would be to do some kind of Kiva-ish campaign and get people to give out units for free without metering and provide power to a bunch of people … but then there’s this project to fund Angaza on SunFunder, which explicitly states: “When they’ve paid the full price of the product, the SoLite is permanently “unlocked” and our customers get free, clean, reliable energy for the remaining life of the unit.” This makes me feel better. As long as the metering is actually a way to “pay the full price of the unit” — Angaza makes money, it’s accessible to more people because the onboarding cost is way lower, sounds like everybody wins.
It’s a fascinating blend of social good and capitalism. The SunFunder campaign is not Kiva-style where the money or even devices bought by the money go directly to the families in Mwanza — the campaign was to raise money for the American company Angaza, so that Angaza could make the product and bring it to Mwanza and sell it to people there. I guess a benefit of doing it this way is that if you make money doing it, you’ll keep doing it, and you won’t have to rely on public charity. It’s business. It’s… sustainable. (see: tom’s shoes, which has a non-profit and a for-profit arm.)
When one of the judges made a comment about social good, the CEO spent some time saying they didn’t want to get “pigeonholed” into a “social good company,” because the potential for revenue in this business is huge. That was fascinating to me. She said that it was great to help people, but kept mentioning how important it was not to get “pigeonholed” and it sounded like she wanted to make sure people understood how viable a business it is. The pitch opened with a bang, too: she showed some slides that had starving children on it and asked the audience, “is this the africa you think you know? well, let me show you the africa I know and love and work in” and showed a picture of happy kids looking at a feature phone. She said something like, “Africa is not the sob story fed to you by the American media” and something about potential customers.
Fascinating. They were easily my favorite company that pitched, partly because the “use tones from the feature phone to communicate between unit and server” blew my mind so much. But there’s much more for me to learn about doing business in third-world countries with a social good plus capitalism bent and the language to use.