Meet Martin: driver, linguist, boxer, commentator on Ugandan history, culture and politics, Solar Sister customer and friend.
Martin drove me from one wave of meetings to another in and around Kampala since my first day at the guest house which soon became my home away from home. Martin grew up in Jinja district in Eastern Uganda where his family lives (where the source of river Nile is) and speaks atleast 7 Ugandan languages last time I counted. When I asked him how he learnt them, he told me very philosophically how children’s brains are so plastic and they can pick up whatever languages they hear. He even spoke some Gujarati, an Indian language, given that Jinja is the hub of Indian community in Uganda. Martin informed me that the number of Indians in Uganda is even more than population of some tribes. He said the Indian community in Uganda formed by astute businessman has done good for the country. During the time of Idi Amin, there was an ethnic cleansing of sorts and the Indian community fled to Europe or India. Subsequently, they slowly but steadily returned and are back in booming business.
One day, I saw some people playing a local board game called draft - 5 men and 1 woman were concentrating hard on the blue white checkered board with caps of Mirinda and Coca Cola for coins. I asked Martin what the objective of the game was. Martin had an answer ready - objective is to pass time! ( let’s call this Martinism for isn’t that the objective of pretty much every game under the sun - to pass time!)
Martin also happens to be one of great Solar Sister customer and a dear friend . He got one of Solar Sister’s best selling products - d.light design’s Nova ( or S250 in case you have a thing for the alpha numeric names!) which is a portable solar light PLUS a mobile phone charger few months back from Katherine ( Solar Sister Founder and CEO). During one of our many journeys on Kampala’s bumpy roads, I asked him about his user experience and suggestions for Solar Sister. Here is an excerpt:
Me: Martin, are you happy with your solar lamp?
Martin: Yes, I am very happy with my solar lamp as it gives good light and also charges my mobile phone.
Me: How long does it take to charge?
Martin: If it is off completely, just put it in the sun during day and let it charge as much as it can . You see the sun is for free ( laughs)
Me: Do people have electricity in your village?
Martin: No there is no electricity in the village. People use candles and paraffin ( kerosene). It costs 3500 Ugandan Shillings (UGX) /$1.25 per liter. One candle is for about 300 UGX/ 10 cents and it can light for about 40 minutes - it is expensive. We also use this in Kampala ( the capital of Uganda) because of power cuts. Our need (in the city) is temporary. In villages, where people don’t have electricity, they use paraffin much more.
Me: So does that means people will like solar products in the village also?
Martin: You see, this program of solar is new. People have not been having it. If you introduce it to people, they will learn about it and welcome (solar). It is like when the mobile phones came. People first didn’t know about them but then they (the mobile companies) came and told us about the uses of mobile - they really did that well.
Me: So how can we take it to your village?
Martin: You need awareness for people to use solar. At first, mobile phones were very expensive. Only very rich people could have them but with solar I use, even a ordinary person can have ir. For mobile phones, people who had them would brag around and show what it could do. So it was easy for mobile phone company to sell. People from city who were using went back to village and told others. Message spread.
The solar lamp which charges my phone also is very interesting and nice. People who don’t have power spend 500 UGX ( 17 cents) for charging phone daily. It is real inconvenience and costly. If you have a gadget which only charges using sunlight - that is great.
Me: So how can we promote solar products ? Should we use music since everybody loves music in Uganda?
Martin: Advertising through music can be good but expensive as person who will produce the music will charge their rates. Every radio station will charge for minutes so adverts can also be expensive. Best thing is to go to people directly with product. If you get reliable people in a place, very few people can pass these (solar) products. We have LOCs ( local leaders) in every area - these are leaders, you should approach them to gather people in villages. Everybody in village knows LOC’s - sit with them ,sell the idea - tell them you have a good product - sell to LOC first and that person can then sell the idea to his own people. People can make this strong.
I have used it. I am using it. I like it not just for light but charging my phone with sunlight - that’s something! The charger has multiple pins - it can charge very many types of phones.
You see, earlier we had bad impression about solar because we only knew big industrial solar. We feared those as they are very expensive. An average Ugandan won’t even like to know about them as he can’t buy them. He has a small room and doesn’t need it. This new solar is good. I can buy it.
Lessons for Solar Sister: Based on my discussions with Martin, here are some key lessons for our team:
Lesson # 1: Breakdown the economic benefits of Solar - A person in Kampala or a village in Eastern Uganda will buy Solar - not because he wants to save the world as his/ her top priority but number 1 because it makes economic sense ( all other benefits compliment this). Break down the economic benefits. Because people are used to buying candles, paraffin, ride to a phone charging service in small daily/bi-weekly increments, they often don’t know how much they spend on energy cumulatively. Help them understand the money they already spend and how solar lamp would “break even” in lay(wo)man terms.
Lesson # 2: Increase awareness - Don’t presume that people know what and how great solar technology is. Get to the basics.
Lesson # 3: Reach out to local leaders - There is a reason why they are the “leaders”!
One common thread between my trips across Uganda, meeting with Solar Sister entrepreneurs, has been to find the best ways that we can encourage the women to realize their hidden potential and to come out from the veils of shyness : to learn what stops them and what inspires them. This especially applies to starting entrepreneurs. How can the new entrepreneur use the power of persuasion to get customers and how can they learn from “been there, done that” star performers who are not the least shy?
Not every single woman can be a good sales person or a rockstar entrepreneur, but then, many can - if only they can overcome their shyness and not be afraid of a “No”. I know this from experience. As a little girl, I used to be so shy. So much so that if someone gave me a compliment, I would be embarrassed as if they had said something terribly wrong about me!
I used to be an athlete in school but had a class teacher who thought sports was a total waste of time. This, and some cases of cheating that I saw first hand in some zonal competitions, made the idealist me retreat from my sports career ( and there went my dream, which had rerun for many years night after night like old episodes of friends on TV - I am running in slow motion towards the red ribbon at the finish line with the best athlete trophy in my hand and a soft breeze against my face as my ponytail flew left and right). I subsequently turned all my attention to academics, coming at top of my class for many years. My class teacher would call me out as a “case study” when parents of a trouble making student would come and tell them how I was such a nice kid. There are few things I remember growing up, which made me as embarrassed - to be called out of the whole class for being a role model - everyone looking at me - some thinking she is such a good peer and some thinking she is such a bad peer for being so good! I did not like limelight to say the least!
As I have learnt over the years, all it takes is a smile, a gracious thank you and humility in return of a compliment or praise. For every bold fearless woman I know, I know a dozen who are so timid. Why are we so shy as women? Why are we afraid of hearing no? Why are we afraid of a limelight well deserved? Don’t we know that we are resourceful and creative? Don’t we know that every no brings us closer to a yes, albeit somewhere else ?
A Solar Sister in Mityana, Central Uganda told me in her very soft voice that her fear is that she may spend a lot of time, a commodity always in short supply, telling a prospective customer about her amazing products and the person might not buy it. She feels in such a case her time is wasted. Another woman told me that the women are teased. “Teased?! What do you mean?”, I asked. She explained that some people don’t think a woman or the woman in question can be an entrepreneur so they would just ask them hundreds of questions about products and Solar Sister without any intention in the least to buy the product. Sometimes, they do so just to pass their time. In such cases, the entrepreneurs would feel discouraged and might retreat in her shy-shell. I told the ladies that be sure that you WILL get a no. Not one no but many many nos. But to also remember that we learn from each experience, even if someone is asking us questions without any intention of buying the product - it is like the role play exercise we do in training - so they can know their product even better and be more confident when a serious buyer comes. I was so happy to hear a Solar Sister in Kumi, Eastern Uganda who said ” At first I used to be shy, but now I am Solar Sister - no one can disturb me now!”. And there are many others like her, who say that at first they were shy to go out and try to sell a solar lamp to family, acquaintances and strangers but with every successful sale are becoming more and more confident.
Lessons please? I think the bottom line is for us to :
1) keep reinforcing the strong messages of self-belief and sisterhood in the Solar Sister entrepreneurs. To tell them that they are not alone, we are with them to support them and to help them become not just better saleswomen but confident women as such - no one can disturb them now!
2) share testimonies from Solar Sister entrepreneurs from across Africa on how they overcome the shyness, how they learnt to take a no and open doors for many more “Yes, I want solar because I want to save money and help my children study better. I want solar from Solar Sister because it is a seal of trust and service”!
3) conduct more roleplay exercises by being a) the easy customer b) the iffy customer c) the “teasers”
I am reminded of these powerful lines by Marianne Williamson in Return to Love: Reflections on a Course in Miracles:
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
As for me, I have my moments of fear. I take a deep breath. I open my heart and mind to adventures and misadventures. I pick strangers as friends. I get up in a room full of thousands and am not afraid-of-being-afraid of asking a question, even if the heart does what it does - beat faster and faster, even if it might seem silly to the old me . And I smile. I hug. I say thanks for the good, the bad, the ugly. Shy no more.
What is common between a bride and solar power? I found the answer at Solar Brother Joshua’s ( yes, we have Solar Brothers too!) wedding with Jean ( even their names rhyme!). Weddings are such a great way to immerse in any culture and I am so glad that the timing of my visit to Uganda coincided with Joshua’s wedding. Mary and I reached in the evening just as the reception was beginning. The bride and groom along with the entourage of bridesmaids and groomsmen were seated on a raised platform as one by one close family and friends raised a toast. Here are few highlights of the evening:
1) Salute to Organization Power: The first thing I noticed as I found space to sit by the table closest to the entry was a copy of the program.This wedding reception had an agenda! Not the hidden kind but uber well-organized, minute by minute kind. And what organization! There was the speech by the Chairman of Organization Committee - In my many years of hopping in and out of multitude of Indian weddings I have not seen a Chairman ( or woman!) in a single case. Indian weddings are like India itself - seemingly chaotic with a huge undercurrent of order anyhow.These days there are wedding planners who will take care of everything as long as you keep making the purse lighter. Nevertheless, nothing beats the sense of organization and timekeeping by and large that I saw at Joshua and Jean’s wedding reception. The bride and groom’s employers got to make their speeches and give their blessings as also both sides parents and close family. I am just imagining a steering committee meeting for a wedding ( I have been through many committees and would like to imagine this to be very different!)
I loved the “entertainment interludes” with traditional dance and music as well. Music and dance has a universal language - no matter where in the world you go, people love it. And then, what wedding is complete without music?!
Joshua’s employer is the Mother’s Union of Uganda, which is one of Solar Sister’s key partners. The guests from the Mother’s Union came in the front while two girls from the team got a huge gift and kept it strategically as the assigned speaker from the group rose and said to the effect ” Dear Joshua and Jean - your marriage is unique. Its unique because you both are unique. Joshua and Jean have never been married. No matter what your neighbors do, what your friends do, don’t forget that your marriage is unlike any other marriage, because you both are unlike any other two people. You are you.”He added,” Love is an act of will and that is why during the wedding vows you are asked ” will you” and you say “yes, I will”. Its beautiful I think.
2) Bride & Groom Eat. They Eat First!: Soon after the speeches and toasts, the Bride and Groom were accompanied to kickoff the dinner program ( that every wedding attendee in every part of the world eagerly waits for!). The Bride and Groom are first ones to eat and then comes rest of the wedding party. Only after everyone has eaten, the gifts are given in person. Why is this special? Because in Indian weddings the bride and the groom are almost last to eat ( after guests have eaten, the gifts have been exchanged and notes of who gave what packet made for future wedding exchanges references!). The close family does wait to eat with them often but given the stalker cameraman, who would not take the camera off the king and queen of this castle, our Indian bride and groom do not quite get to eat to their hearts delight. Can we please take some lessons here? ( Or maybe there is an important hidden lesson in waiting for the food - patience - a virtue for any joint venture! )
After eating, the bride and groom ( as also close family) changed intro traditional dresses made of lovely African fabric.
3) Empowering Girls: I am so impressed with the boldness of Ugandan women, their hardworking and enterprising spirit. It is said that behind every successful man , there is a woman. I wouldn’t hesitate to add that behind (almost) every successful woman, there is a man - a father, brother or husband who told her yes, you can! One of Jean’s uncle (who put in a word for her current job at the parliament ) said how he was so proud to see an increasing number of university degrees in this family and that Joshua should add to that by encouraging Jean to get a Master’s degree as well. If every man would encourage his daughter, wife, mother, sister to study - our world would be a better place for sure!
So what is common between a bride and solar power? In his toast, Jean’s uncle Fred told Joshua that Jean is like the solar system which brings light. The lady of light - now his wife.