A few years ago, on a vacation in Africa, we took a break from safaris and drove a few hours into the deep bush to meet a small village of Samburu people. One of the mothers invited us into her hut to show us how she prepared food for her family. I’ll never forget that moment. As we sat there, listening to her stories, the smoke from the tiny central fire began to burn my eyes and then my throat. It shortly became difficult to breathe. I asked her about it and she shrugged and said they were used to it.
I later learned that hundreds of thousands of people in Africa die every year from the fumes and fires associated with wood and kerosene lighting. I learned that 1.3 billion of the world’s rural poor have no electricity at all. I was so stunned that this kind of inequity could still exist in our world, it has become one of my biggest personal missions to find ways to help. It turns out, I’m not alone. Some of the brightest and most innovative people in the world have been working on the same problem for years…
Fast forward to the TED 2017 conference where I met an amazing woman, Jacqueline Novogratz, the CEO and Founder of the widely respected anti-poverty organization, Acumen. Jacqueline’s perpetual smile exudes energy, intelligence, and drive. But it was the clarity and passion of her mission – changing the way the world tackles poverty – that made the biggest impression on me. One of Jacqueline’s big goals is to bring electricity to the rural, poor areas of Africa. Acumen has a unique fund dedicated to this. The fund’s name, KawiSafi, means “clean energy” in Swahili. That initial meeting at TED sparked an amazing set of conversations which, in turn, led to a life-changing invitation.
In August 2017, I joined Jacqueline and a small group of equally passionate people on a week-long journey across Rwanda and Kenya. Helping lead the trip was KawiSafi’s Managing Director, Amar Inamdar. Amar moves with light confident steps and his arms open wide as he talks. His glasses and graying beard hint at his PhD after graduating from the University of Cambridge where he spent years on the Kenyan plains studying elephant behavior. After school, Amar worked at both the International Finance Corporation and then the World Bank. Most recently, he was a part of Shell’s new venture group working on innovative energy projects across the world.
Acumen and KawiSafi operate by a set of principles, three of which struck me as truly unique and suggest a new and better way to systematically reduce poverty.
First, they believe the best way to address poverty is to move beyond gifts and grants and one-time charitable donations. They invest in entrepreneurs whose businesses address the needs of the poor but do so in a commercially scalable and profitable way – they are basically the intersection of venture capital and social impact. I’ll talk more about this in another blog but the entrepreneurs they fund are as capable, passionate and sophisticated as any I’ve worked with in the US. For now, I’ll just say that Acumen could arguably be credited with planting the initial seeds that have since grown into tens of millions of people enjoying off-grid electricity solutions (KawiSafi was created to build on this initial success).
Second, Acumen believes that single, spot solutions aren’t sustainable. Instead, they work across a group of organizations that, together, form a complete ecosystem. Equally important, Jacqueline and her team actively engage with government and NGOs to compliment the commercial ecosystem with enlightened regulations and government support. On our trip, we met with some of the most senior business and governmental leaders in each country – government ministers, CEOs of the largest regional companies – it’s hard to imagine a more influential network. In some cases, Acumen’s meetings were the first time a few of these local leaders had been in a room together.
Third, Acumen believes in getting out of the office and seeing the people and the businesses directly. We spent very little time in conference rooms. We visited warehouses, retail storefronts and, most important, we drove hours outside the cities to visit the people whose lives are being changed by things like solar lighting, solar irrigation, and even solar-powered TVs. The stories we heard changed my view on just how much good is being done and how much more there is to do (more to come on that in another blog).
I cannot thank Jacqueline and Amar enough for inviting me to join them. Our small group only spent a week together but the experiences left us all friends for life. More importantly, the trip brought us all closer to a part of the world that is less about poverty and struggle and more about resiliency and pride. As I post some of these stories and the associated pictures, I hope to share just a small glimpse of the beauty and amazing potential of the people of Africa.