OK, so it’s not Perrier or San Pellegrino.  And distribution is limited to Southern Wisconsin.

But it’s for my favorite cause–SociaLite–and that’s what I care about.

So how did this happen?  It started in April with a call from Chris Nwakalo, a student at the University of Wisconsin, Whitewater, who at first I thought was trying to sell me something.  Chris explained that his entrepreneurs club was launching a bottled water company called Liquidity H20.  They will be selling bottled water spotlighting various socially entrepreneurial ventures around the world.   50% of their proceeds will be donated to the featured cause.

Chris has heard about my involvement with SociaLite through a mutual acquaintance, Meredith Elliott of the social venture fund E+Co.    The students loved the idea of teaching rural entrepreneurs to build and sell solar lanterns and wanted SociaLite to be their premiere cause.  What’s more they wanted to put my picture on the label as a social entrepreneur making a difference.

I picked myself off the floor and said a tentative “yes” even though I didn’t know exactly what I was saying “yes” to.    I just figured that Liquidity H20 marketing efforts would raise awareness for SociaLite and whatever money they could raise would purchase solar lighting components to expand the project.

Now that I have my picture on thousands of water bottles, I am wondering how my life will change with my new-found celebrity.   Will there be speaking tours throughout Southern Wisconsin?…  A Facebook Fan page…  Twitters about my whereabouts.  Will Oprah call?

Probably not!  Realistically, I should still be able to dine out and shop with my family (except maybe in Southern Wisconsin) and I’m sure there won’t be stories about me in Huffington Post.

But, at least I got a free shirt and a couple of really cool water bottles to show off to my friends.  

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Baazing Community SociaLite Pilot February 2009

Want to help advance this cool project?  Here’s how.

To support the work of SociaLite, please make your tax-deductible donation to: C.V. Starr Research Foundation (at The Cooper Union)

mail to:  Genice Jacobs Simenauer at 4060 Oakmore Road, Oakland, CA  94602

For questions or credit card processing, please contact (510) 530-6687 or genice@profluence.net

Contributions of all sizes are greatly appreciated.

Excerpt from a grant written by Toby Cumberbatch.

The SociaLite project originated from discussions held between Professor Toby Cumberbatch of The Cooper Union and faculty at the University of Developmental Studies in Wa (Ghana) in June 2005. The challenge of designing a lighting system for the poorest people on the planet was presented to a first-year engineering design class of 26 students at in the fall 2006 semester. The engineering specifications were deliberately left open ended, enabling the class to approach the problem from the widest possible perspective whilst addressing the issues of resources, poverty, materials and culture. Within these guidelines they devised a solution that satisfied the principal constraints – and, in so doing, they “understood” the problem. The first design, a crude bamboo and Coca-Cola bottle structure with a white LED and a lead acid battery provided the foundation for the Cooper Union lighting system – into which the fundamental precepts of true holistic sustainability are incorporated.

Our approach is fundamentally different from those of the many organizations whose goal is to “light up the world”. Characteristics common to many of these ventures are: the lighting systems are developed and manufactured far away from the places of use; local infrastructures for the maintenance and repair of these systems do not exist and cannot be created; the systems are often sold at less than cost price with subsidies from a variety of unsustainable sources; and the systems are otherwise unaffordable to those for whom they are intended – the rural poor.

The SociaLite project is ultimately about material resources, energy, engineering education, true sustainable engineering, minimalist design, the principles of energy conversion, the critical relationship between the engineer and the end-user, poverty and the developed world, and entrepreneurship. The potential payout extends far beyond a source of illumination to include better-educated and healthier children, economic self-sufficiency, the empowerment of women, a reduction in the rate of rural depopulation, with a consequent reduction in the rate of the spread of AIDS, and more stable rural communities – vital to local agriculture and the food supply.

Over the past three years, SociaLite has evolved into a solar-powered lighting project designed to meet the specific needs of the extreme poor.  Working with rural communities in East and West Africa, student-led teams from The Cooper Union (USA), Ghana and Rwanda have developed a lighting system available as a stand-alone kit designed for self-assembly.  The project has already attracted interest from 26 countries.  Five SociaLite systems, fabricated from local materials and a minimum quantity of imported components have been installed to date.  Two are engineering prototypes; the remaining three have been sold to foster and develop local entrepreneurship opportunities.  Working with advisors, entrepreneurs and community groups, the overall approach, in which the end-user assumes significant responsibility for system implementation, is radically different from alternative approaches and comes with the promise of self-sustainability.

The project team is seeking funding from foundations and individuals to streamline SociaLite systems engineering from the assembly stage through to long-term maintenance; to continue development of our self-sustaining business model for the rural poor; and to establish satellite engineering and distribution centers in East and West Africa from which we will develop and test models for the worldwide commercialization of SociaLite.

The SociaLite system has a central charging station that can power up to 80 household lanterns.  A solar panel connected to an integrated circuit and a car battery makes up the charging station.  The lanterns are made from recycled materials, batteries and imported high-tech components.

The lanterns are co-designed with local communities.   Lantern housings are made from available materials, such as trash, unused jars and locally made ceramics.  In doing so, SociaLite seeks to inspire local entrepreneurship, minimize costs, while re-purposing materials that would ordinarily pollute.

$2,500 will buy one SociaLite kit with all the technical components and tools to build 80 household lanterns and a solar charging station.  This works out to about $30 per lantern.  The solar panels have a life of about 10 years and with proper maintenance the lanterns can provide light for many years.

My journey began a little more than a year ago.  I had more time than recruiting work during the recession and started considering what I could do to avail basic necessities to folks living on $2 a day.  I was inspired by social entrepreneurs who were coming up with innovation ways to provide clean energy, water, stoves and health resources to remote villages.  I read about the challenges of people who lack electricity and all the issues with fuel-based lighting.  This problem struck my heart… as a mother, the thought of not having light readily available was unfathomable.

There is something like one billion people who live without electricity and must depend kerosene lanterns, which are expensive, toxic and dangerous.  Kerosene can eat up 20-30% of a family’s income.  It’s polluting and linked to numerous respiratory illnesses and eye damage.  Countless die when children accidentally drink kerosene or tip over lanterns, causing fires– sometimes killing entire families.

I became fascinated by the possibilities of solar lighting as a safer, cleaner, more affordable alternative.  I was determined to find a way that I could help make solar lamps available to people who desperately need it.  Armed with no technical background, regional expertise or foreign language abilities, I set out to find a path.  Nevermind that I knew virtually nothing about solar technology, import/export or international development.  I felt compelled to pursue this impractical passion.

I posted my interest in helping communities obtain lighting on Pulsewire.net, an online community for global activists.  I was contacted by a Kampala-based nonprofit which helps women in rural Uganda.  While researching solar lighting options for this group, I read about the SociaLite lantern project at The Cooper Union.   A group of engineering students, alumni and an idealistic professor named Toby Cumberbatch were on a mission to create a self-assembled solar lighting system to meet the needs of remote rural communities.  They have been working with university students and villagers in Ghana and Rwanda since 2006 to design an affordable, solar-powered lantern which could be built locally with available materials and sold by village entrepreneurs.  Several prototypes have been developed and their system is in use in villages in Northern Ghana.

I called Toby Cumberbatch and we began discussing how to extend his project to Uganda.  Over the next few months, dozens of emails passed between Oakland, Uganda and New York.  Toby traveled to East Africa and met with the group in Uganda.   I met Toby and the SociaLite volunteers in New York.  The engineers’ talk of circuits and voltage eluded me.  But, it was clear that we were kindred idealists with a shared vision of creating a solar lighting social business to benefit the poor.

By linking the group in Uganda with SociaLite, I set out to pilot a solar lighting microenterprise with a Ugandan womens’ self-help collective.  After collaborating on a business plan with my Ugandan partners, I turned to my friends to provide seed financing for the project, and I ultimately raised $3,000 to get things going.

We had been planning to ship the first system in April when I realized that I’d have to hand-carry the system to Uganda.  It turns out that import taxes and shipping would cost almost $1,000.  The only way around it was to personally defend the project’s nonprofit status to the customs officials.  I had no choice, but to push back the schedule as I couldn’t travel until June for family reasons.  I also found it necessary to revisit the budget and project plan now that we had a better handle on component costs and what it would take to expand the project.   This proposed delay and changes prompted questions regarding my intentions and misunderstandings regarding my ability to simply bankroll this project.

It became evident that my vision for the project got lost in translation. I was committed to bootstrapping a self-sustainable business to be run by the womens’ collective; my Ugandan partners saw this as a subsidized work program.  I set a high bar by trying to accomplish too much, too fast, and by offering too much support upfront.  I underestimated import costs and time to implement.  Despite Toby’s and my repeated efforts to communicate to the Ugandans that this was student-run project without a ton of resources or experience to draw on, the message was lost.  My partners maintained an unforgiving expectation that we could deliver on time at any cost.  I learned my lesson: WATCH YOUR WORDS AS ANYTHING YOU SAY MAY BE CONSTRUED AS A PROMISE!  I had clearly overestimated my ability to plan an international project over email with people I hadn’t met personally.

My nine-month partnership with my Ugandan counterparts deteriorated over the course of a few weeks.  We went from a promising venture that everyone was passionate about to an untenable partnership.  After multiple attempts to explain and reset expectations, I had no choice but to abandon the pilot.  With agreement from the key donors, I designate the funds I’d raised to advancing the SociaLite project in Ghana.

This was a huge disappointment as I had become very attached to the idea of working with this particular group of women in Uganda.  This wasn’t going to happen, but I was still very eager to help make this technology available to women like them and wanted to do what I could to advance the project.   After circling around this issue for several days with my husband Ron, I decided to join the other SociaLite volunteers for their summer trip to Ghana.   Ron agreed to stay home with our daughter Jiana and I asked my good friend/travel buddy Pam Hack to come along for moral support.

Toby and a small group of Cooper students and alums are set to leave for Ghana on May 17.  They will be carrying five Socialite kits with enough components to build 400 lanterns.  Pam and I will join them in early June.   Cooper alum Dave Berger, of the original SociaLite team, will spend four months establishing a training center at WA Polytechnic University (Upper West Ghana).  He will be teaching local students basic electrical engineering skills, including how to build circuits and charging stations for the lanterns.    The idea is to train students from WA to become trainers.  Then they can go out to villages to promote SociaLite and teach local people to build and repair the systems.

As typical engineers, the SociaLite inventors are extremely passionate about their circuits and voltage measurements.  They’ve spent the better part of four years refining and field testing their design, resulting in a stable, durable, fixable system.   Significantly less energy has been invested in substantiating their business model.   They have general ideas of how to commercialize their system and are targeting a prime market (89% of the population is kerosene dependent), but they need a full-fledged marketing plan.  Assumptions regarding affordability must be validated; pricing distribution, financing and after sales support need to be worked out.   This is our mission for the summer.

SociaLite volunteer Wendy Lee (the other non techie in the group) and I will work on a plan for rolling out new systems.  Our task will be to validate the engineers’ assumptions, identify potential obstacles, marketing challenges and engage partners.   In talking with local people, we hope to better understand customer perceptions, usage, affordability and what education we will need to provide.  We need to know how much target customers currently spend on kerosene as it will indicate what they can afford to pay for solar lanterns.   We will look into financing through microfinance institutions, rural banks and informal local lenders (known as SUSUs).

This is our general plan.  Frankly, we don’t have as clear a research agenda as I would like.  My normal MO is planning everything out in advance. And I’m not sure what I can realistically achieve over the course of a few weeks.  At the very least, I will take tons of photos and video, which I plan to use to promote the project once I return.  Toby, who spent a good part of his childhood in Northern Ghana, suggests that I need to remain flexible and understand that our mission and objectives will become clearer once we get there.   This will be a be a challenge for me as I don’t have the “winging it” gene in my DNA.  I guess I’ll have to trust that this will all work out and that my personal investment will ultimately amount to something.  I’ve purchased a nonrefundable plane ticket and told everyone in my world that I’m going.  So I’m going .  Time will tell how it all works out.

I was born with changing the world on my to-do list. I knew this about myself fairly young.  I’ve always been an idealist with a deep desire to fix what’s broken.  But at some point, I got practical.  I studied marketing and entered the business world.  In my 20s and 30s, I tried to fulfill my altruistic drive by volunteering.  I was a Big Sister, mentored girls in foster care and served on the board of an Arts in Education nonprofit.  I helped Hurricane Katrina survivors find housing and jobs, and raised money for cancer, AIDS and the Global Fund for Women.  I became a professional fundraiser for The American Cancer Society and then the American Conservatory Theater.  But a few years in, I got tired of never having any money and the “this is the way we’ve always done things” mentality.   So I went back into business as a high-tech recruiter during the dot.com boom and later hung my shingle as an independent headhunter.  The money was good and the flexibility worked for me.  I got to travel a lot; I “power dated” and did a lot of personal-growth workshops.  When I was ready for roots, I bought a house and adopted my daughter Jiana from Kazakhstan.

Life was good.  Motherhood was intensely satisfying.  I fell madly in love with Jiana, and working from home as a recruiter enabled me to spend more time with her.  My prince (Ron) finally showed up nine months after I returned home from Kazakhstan.  Ron and I married and I became stepmother to his very lovable, but messy Danielle, who was 10 at the time and Jonah, who was 8.  I went from single-and-no-kids to married-with-three in just a few years.   My world was happy and joyfully chaotic.

Then one day I woke up in the middle of recession and realized that I had lost track of that idealistic girl.  I was 4X years old and in spite of my efforts to do good, I didn’t feel as if I had made an enduring contribution.  And it bothered me— so much that I couldn’t sleep at night and I spent my days obsessing over how I could best use my talents before it was too late.

There were plenty of problems I found profoundly upsetting— human trafficking… genital mutilation… girls education… unrelenting poverty.   Inconveniently, the issues I most wanted to tackle were all centered in developing countries.  Not the best places for family vacations or a mom accustomed to putting her family’s interests first.  It would have been a whole lot easier to take on poverty alleviation in Oakland where I live.  But, that wasn’t where my passions laid.

So, there were some obstacles to navigate.  Ron loves to travel, but has no interest in going to the most oppressed places on earth.  Plus, there was no way Danielle and Jonah’s mother would let me take them to Malaria ridden villages.  Likewise, I didn’t want to compromise my precious 6-year-old Jiana’s health either.  I couldn’t fathom traveling with or without her.

Could I leave my husband and kids behind and still consider myself a “good” wife and mother?  What would people think?  How would my in-laws would feel about this?  I knew what my mother would say.  My father would just shrug.  He knows me all too well.

As I discussed my concerns with friends, I was encouraged.  Many suggested that while my family would miss me, they would also benefit from my positive example.

Objections overruled.  I had to start doing something.   If I didn’t, I would spend the rest of my life tortured with regret.   There was no choice, but to suspend good reason and figure out a way.  After all wasn’t being practical what got me into this midlife crisis in the first place?  I took to the Internet and decided to see where my interests led me.