Stories of light, hope and opportunity in Uganda and beyond

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Solar Sister Learns from Avon: Synopsis of “Avon in Africa” by Linda Scott, Said School of Business, University of Oxford

What’s common between a lipstick and a solar light? The answer lies in the way two companies choose to sell their products – one being the largest beauty player in the developing world - Avon; and the other a start-up social enterprise selling life transforming clean energy to rural Africa – Solar Sister. The answer is the power of women’s perseverance and ingenuity to succeed against all odds. The answer is light, hope and opportunity.

Professor Linda Scott from the Said Business School has written an excellent case study “Avon in Africa”.The study traces Avon’s origins in America, subsequent growth as a global consumer brand and success in South Africa. Avon has played a key role in proving a vital opportunity to open new doors of economic well being for millions of women around the world. The lessons, especially from the South African example, are key for anyone concerned with women’s empowerment in Africa (and beyond)– both in microcosm of a woman’s personal economic freedom and in the macro picture of what women’s enterprise can do for poverty alleviation.

Women’s economic empowerment is at the heart of Solar Sister’s mission, albeit with a twist that while Avon ladies are lipstick evangelists of sorts, Solar Sisters are clean energy evangelists, quite literally bringing light to their families and communities. Learning from Avon’s ups and downs is thus priceless education for our growth. The following summarizes key lessons that emerge from Prof. Scott’s case study:

Lesson # 1: Core Values and Mission are larger than the “Product” line  (the former drives the latter and not vice versa) –
Avon’s corporate mission is empowerment of women, rather than being tied to the benefits of a product line as it more common amongst consumer sector manufacturers. Avon is a “Company for the Women”. (At heart of Solar Sister’s own mission is the commitment to reduce the gender - technology gap to build a bottom up green economy that includes women. Clean technology is an important means to an equally important end – helping women as both consumers and sellers of clean energy access related products and services.)

Lesson # 2: Help Your Sales Team Visualize What The Opportunity Means – An Avon group leader shares how she would motivate her team by telling them that one body lotion was equal to a loaf of bread, so if they sold five of them, their kids would have bread for the whole week, and if they sold 10 they could even buy sugar. (In this recent film by Ripple Effects Images, Solar Sister Chatal from Rwanda tells her children that now they can have sugar thanks to her income from Solar Sister.)

Lesson # 3 Have Local Brand Ambassadors (vs. Hollywood celebrities)– Avon learnt this firsthand in South Africa. The case study notes that Avon’s global brand ambassador Salma Hayek failed to leave a mark on the South African target demographic – women of color who simply did not recognize/ associate with Salma Hayek. Likewise, Reese Witherspoon went unnoticed. It was not until Avon brought Connie Ferguson, a local soap opera star, that Avon brand really received wide local recognition.

Lesson # 4: Minimize the Start-up Risk for Low Income Women – There are many direct selling companies with great products to offer, albeit with a daunting start up capital. In contrast, Avon’s start up fees brings down the start up capital (at about $12) to open to business opportunity to a larger group of women. Sometimes, when the women can’t afford even that, the recruiting “upline” loans the start up fees. If a candidate can’t afford credit. Avon lets her start on a cash basis and build up credit, many reps have built their way into the system this way. (Solar Sister uses micro-consignment to reduce start-up business risk for rural African women that it equips with a “business in a bag”)

Lesson # 5: Persistence is a Valued Skill For Developing New Markets despite the market failures  – It took Avon 5 years to become profitable in South Africa, as is the norm when the company enters a new country. This is despite the multitude of challenges like extreme poverty, lack of formal credit checks for new recruits and customers, lack of access to banks In some cases and the need to come up with innovative methods to collect payments (like working with Post Offices and major retailers), dealing with gender based violence, both inside and outside the Avon ladies’ houses.

Lesson # 6 Offer a Variety of Products, Combined With A Creative Marketing Strategy – Customers ( especially in emerging economies) value a variety of products at a variety of price points. Avon agents in South Africa focused on selling deodorants and body lotions to relatively lower income customers who considered these products as “necessary”. The more wealthy customers bought nail care and colored make up items like lipsticks and eye shadows. Avon’s key marketing tool is its brochure ( one of the largest publications in the world, according to the case study!), which is at heart of its sales “campaigns” with variety of price points and “specials” to choose from.

Lesson # 7 Pay Attention to training, recognition and support – Avon recognizes that at the heart of any successful business is its people. It is thus vital to spend time and resources in training and rewarding both financially and in terms of career advancements opportunities. Avon reps compete for prizes and trips, along with bonuses and commissions (note that the original Avon model allowed reps to earn commission only on their own sales). A survey of Avon reps found that they felt they learnt skills that could be used in other employment opportunities as well. Avon emphasized that its reps learn banking skills. The survey found that 92% of Avon reps had their own bank account, a much higher number than an average of 32% for the women of color in the country.

These are invaluable lessons for Solar Sister team as we grow from the vision of our founder Katherine Lucey to a shared vision of our growing staff, Solar Sister entrepreneurs and multitude of partners that support our mission. Patty Berg one of the first 10 women pro golfers said that the best beauty secret is “Always keep learning. It keeps you young”. So the education continues..

Learn more about Prof. Linda Scott’s research on globalization and women’s empowerment at: http://www.doublexeconomy.com/

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Secrets of a Shining Face!

In this laughter filled video, a Solar Sister entrepreneur shares the secret of her shining face. The Solar Sister business has helped her by giving her the opportunity to make some money to meet her needs. She says earlier she used kerosene lanterns which made her clothes grimy, as she inhaled smoke. From her very first income from Solar Sister, she bought herself a solar light. Now her face is shining and when her children are home during the holidays, she doesn’t have to worry about the danger of kerosene any more.  A happy customer is the best marketing for a product or service. And when that customer is a mother and a women whose life is a little better because of light, it is all the more powerful! That is why Solar Sister’s best testimonials comes from the women whose lives are transformed both by access to clean energy, and by the livelihood opportunity it provides. 

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Solar Sister = Safety, Groceries, Friends 

I love working for Solar Sister. This video is one reason why. Actually, make it three reasons. In this video, an entrepreneur shares what being a Solar Sister means to her. One, it means safety of her children who she no longer has to leave in the vicinity of dangerous kerosene lamps when she ventures out for daily errands or work. Two, it means she can proudly contribute money to the family groceries. Three, it means friends for it is the “Sister” in Solar Sister that makes us click as much as the power of African sun. Solar Sister entrepreneurs form such great friendships with each other. They inspire and support each other. They understand their shared hopes and dreams for that’s what friendship is about. To be a part of a social business that brings safety, groceries and friends - now that’s a three in one package! 

Neha Misra serves as the Chief Collaboration Officer for Solar Sister . You can contact her at neha@solarsister.org 

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Viktor Frankl: Why to believe in others

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Solar Sister’s dedicated team at a training session in Mityana, Central Uganda! I wish I’d ever been to a class with each student concentrating as our determined Solar Sister entrepreneurs are in this photo here! 

Solar Sister’s dedicated team at a training session in Mityana, Central Uganda! I wish I’d ever been to a class with each student concentrating as our determined Solar Sister entrepreneurs are in this photo here! 

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Meet Solar Sister Harriet from Mityana, Central Uganda. I met Harriet on my recent trip to Uganda. We were organizing a training program for the Mityana team under the leadership of Evelyn Namara, Solar Sister’s Uganda Program Coordinator, Mary Nankinga, Regional Coordinator for Central Uganda and Eva Walusimbi, Star Solar Sister ( seen translating here). In this video Solar Sister Harriet gives a strong personal testimony filled with laughter, sisterhood and pride on being a Solar Sister. Her message is strong for it reflects what economic empowerment and a green economy can truly mean to a woman. She has been able to pay her child’s school fees with her earnings and is glowing with self-belief!

- Notes from the field by Neha Misra, Chief Collaboration Officer, Solar Sister

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Birds of a feather

Read notes from the field from my recent trip to Kenya

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WHAT IS COMMON BETWEEN THE BATTLES OF A COFFEE QUEEN, A KICKBOXER, A SOLAR SISTER AND AN ORDINARY AFRICAN WOMAN? 

Do you believe in chance or do you think there is a grand design to the way things happen in our lives or do you believe in Rhonda Byron style “secret" that we make things happen with the power of our will or perhaps Paulo Coelho style universal conspiracies( When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it) I’d like to believe in things that are meant to be - and their finding a way to come to us. I’d also like to believe in both our will and willingness to listen and learn. And so, as I was flying from Nairobi to Kampala last evening to meet with Solar Sister’s team to discuss strategy and action, the best possible reading came to me. And to think it came in between munching on a hot vegetable puff served onboard a one hour delayed one hour connecting Kenyan airways flight, writing poetry in the sky ( muse loves flying it seems!) and flipping through the inflight magazineMSAFIRI ( mainly to confirm if the pilot had indeed just announced that we had to pay for the food and how much I should pay - as one does in many American flights these days..turns out false alarm!;) ). As I flipped through the pages on this last leg of a stop, 22 hour flight from Washington, D.C., a bright red page caught my attention with hard to miss headline, and even harder to miss action picture of Kenyan kickboxer Vava Angwenyi (see below).

This picture and the headline is in a way the essence of Solar Sister’s work at large and my trip in particular. Here’s how: 

What do Vava Angwenyi and Solar Sister have in common? Women + Enterprise

Wawa is a kickboxer and a black belt in the new Olympic sport Taekwondo. But sports is not the only arena where she’s breaking ( hope not literally!) stereotypes for women everywhere. Vava is also a social entrepreneur. She is the founder of Vava Coffee, a fair trade coffee company she started to create substantial positive changes for coffee farmers in Kenya and beyond its borders. Beyond the coffee farmers livelihoods, Vava creates jobs along the supply chain - for example, the packaging is done by a group of former street children and a women’s collective in Nairobi’s Kibera slum. Vava specially works with women workers as its mainstay based on research studies that have shown greater impact of job creation for women on the women and their families alike. Like Solar Sister, Vava is working hard to create a new reality of Africa - one painted by power of women’s enterprise and not by legacy of old boys clubs and aid. 

Great. So why is Wawa battling bankers? Putting money where the mouth is and never saying never! 

The article went of to explain that Vava started her business with $45,000 personal savings and has sold over 5000 packs of her distinctly packaged brand - each bag comes with potted life story of the farmer who grew it, hence the company slogan “every bean a story”. Vava Coffee has also won BBC’s competition for top business start-ups. So much promise of growth. Sales are rising. Yet Vava is struggling because for all the talk of venture funding, when the push comes to shove ” banks only want to help you when you are on your feet and running” . What about those baby steps that a sapling that has grown from a living seed ( a real business - not a figment of someone’s imagination) needs to grow into a flourishing plant or a small business?

Start-ups need support ( $$ and business support) to grow anywhere in the world. In a world full of talk of impact investing, this is all the more true of triple bottom line start ups like Vava Coffee working in emerging economies. Many banks in Kenya advertise their commitment to small businesses but Vava notes that when she went looking for a loan to expand her growing business, one bank told her to come back after two years when production line is in progress - a catch 22 for how will she set the production line without the money to begin with! If you do get a loan, you are expected to pay interest rates as high as 24-25% which can put entire balance sheet for a nascent business in a disarray. 

If a strong and smart woman like Vava is struggling, think of women across rural Africa - without formal education or a black belt or any such accolades under their belts! Women’s financial inclusion can play a key role in development at all levels - whether it is the very first step to a green collar business through micro-consignment like Solar Sister’s model ( read my recent blog piece for CGAP blog ) or through much acclaimed micro-finance related work of Grameen Bank in Bangladesh or through support for small businesses like Vava Coffee for stepping up the ladder of growth. 

Building a clean, green and an all inclusive future means nurturing hundreds of more flourising Vava coffee businesses and thousands of Solar Sister entrepreneurs across Africa. Vava say , ”  I have fought everyone and everything to bring my business up and running. I am not giving up now. ” NOT GIVING UP - this is what we are committed to do despite the odds. And we shall overcome. For the universe does bring our perspirations and inspirations together if we are listening closely ( it helps flipping through in flight magazines!)

So here’s a wish, a promise, a commitment to making change happen - in this case - the Solar Sister way - as I return to the Pearl of Africa. 

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We ,
The Goddesses with broken bones
the Mona Lisa smiles
that hide or give away
the sorrow and the ecstasy of life

A cross on our hearts
A trident 
and a lotus in hands too
A sponge absorbing
more than it was made to hold
but holding up still, somehow anyhow
a weight on these hearts of gold
we float in dreams of zero gravity globes

Nights and days on our side
An ocean twirling behind the eyes
as we ride on these wild tides
for sometimes the bones are broken
to keep the boat afloat
this old breeze feels young though
and we smile on.

We who paint our lips red to live grey lives in technicolor
We who start where the film credits end
We who hum the song many moons from that night at concert hall
We who beat on after the last beat is beaten : on and on and on
We who talk of tomorrow’s weather walking on historic stones
We, the Goddesses with broken bones

- Neha

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As the Chief Collaboration Officer of Solar Sister, one of my key tasks is to co-create an eco-system of innovative partnerships connecting the dots between life transforming technologies ( and people making them), development players ( governments, impact investors, foundations, individuals) and people who we ultimately exist to serve ( which is right now our team and customers in East Africa) in our mission to solve energy poverty through a market based, gender inclusive, grassroots approach.

Quite a mouthful isn’t it? Yes, it is for change is mouthful.

Change is complex. Change is about creating a new future while incorporating lessons from our past. Change is about society and about individuals who make that society. Change is about a value system. Change is about creating new rules. Change is about unlearning as much it is about learning new things. So where do we start if we want to address a complex transnational issue like global energy poverty and climate change? How do we create the network effect across complex networks spanning digital and international boundaries of the 21st century? The question is important for any organization committed to making a lasting impact on the shared future of our planet and Solar Sister is most definitely one such organization.


Change Cloud : Plexus 2012

The search for answers took me to one of the most thought provoking, challenging and fun conference I have ever been to : Plexus 2012: Patterns, Processes and Possibilities.  In Life sciences/Anatomy Plexus is defined as any complex network of nerves, blood vessels, or lymphatic vessels or an intricate network or arrangement[ from Latin plectere to braid or plait]. The Plexus Institute is one such diverse social network of scientists, business executives, artists, teachers, journalists, researchers, physicians, nurses, college students, community leaders, and thinkers intrigued by and unraveling the science of complexity to create a better world. To me, the central question of Plexus 2012 was how do we create a social enterprise that keeps pace with change? What works and what does not? What does complexity theory teach us?

One of the best answers I found during the conference came from Ori Brafman, the coauthor of The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations. Brafman is a life-long entrepreneur whose projects include a wireless start up, a health food advocacy group, and a network of CEOs working on public benefit initiatives. After five years of research and work with a wide variety of public and private sector clients, Ori came to the conclusion that organizations are like spiders or starfish. Traditional organizations, like spiders ( think Encyclopedia Britannica), have a rigid top down heavy handed hierarchy, and new evolutionary organizations, like starfish ( think Wikipedia), rely on the power of peer relationships instead of an iron hand. If the head of a spider is cut off, the spider dies. If a starfish’s leg is cut off, the starfish grows a new leg, and the amputated leg grows a new starfish.

Solar Sister has the advantage of being a young and agile laterally networked organization rooted in our effort to be a starfish rather than a spider. At the heart of our network approach is women’s social capital - starfish like peer to peer networks to improve energy access in village after village in Africa and beyond. Trust is paramount in this network as is respect for individual voices. As a social enterprise, the challenge is as the starfish grows in size at scale to have a meaningful impact the issue at hand, ensuring :

a) Translating the values at scale: all nodes of the multi-layered starfish network work share the same value system that the baby starfish did. To achieve this, training of our staff, team leaders and Solar Sister entrepreneurs ( who are independent saleswomen working on commission)

b) The “Unleader” leader? the simplicity of relatively flat organization comes from complex systems running smoothly. Often this is not an absolute lack of leader as such but leaders who are catalysts and who believe in autonomy and not control, leaders who can inspire all the moving parts of the organization to work towards the common goal driven not just by extrinsic motivation ( of financial reward for example) but tapping on people’s intrinsic motivations and need for meaning ( spreading light, hope and opportunity for example).

c) Listening : a starfish organization is not a monologue, it is a constant dialogue. Listen to your team, partners and customers. Don’t talk at them, talk to them and hear as much if not less!

Much to ponder about for this starfish. What about you?

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