Hello from Africa

Note: Amrita Vijay Kumar, the Ross Emerging Markets Club VP of Career Development, is spending her summer working for a startup company in Ghana.

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It finally hit me last night while I was sitting on the beach with a couple of beers, surrounded by African rastafarians beating drums that I was actually in Africa!!! It has been a week since I landed in Accra last Saturday, and things sure have been interesting 🙂

I spent most of last week on the road with the entrepreneur of a cook stove business, Toyola Energy that I’m working with in Ghana. The company makes cook stoves from scrap metal and distributes them using a microfinance model which is very unique in Ghana. We traveled across three regions in Ghana last week visiting his customers, his ‘evangelists’, the production and assembly centers and the kiln manufacturing plant too. It sounds very legit, but the reality in Ghana is that all business interactions suffer from lack of credit and most business operates in the informal sector. His value chain encompasses atleast 50-100 persons but he doesn’t have anyone on his payroll. Instead he uses a really innovative incentive structure of commissions and credit that makes the wheels of his business go around. Suraj, the CEO is pretty awesome – A 6 foot tall Nigerian – he operates more like a mafia don than a CEO. He’s constantly on the phone, barking out orders and moving stuff around on his trucks. This one time, we were passing by a big construction site along the highway and he just pulled over, walked up to the construction manager and negotiated a scrap metal deal! That is how business is done here – constant improv!

The other day we were speeding (rather bumpily) through African semi-forested country side listening to motivational CDs by Stephen Covey, that Suraj insisted on listening to. It was hilarious – this guy is what every social enterprise fund is searching for – The ‘elusive’ entrepreneur. It was getting dark and suddenly he remembered that he wanted to visit an old customer. SO we veered off the road, into the bush for atleast 15 minutes until we found this village. (we did this atleast 3 more times!) His friend was the only one in the village with a light – and it came from a solar power lamp that Suraj sold him a year ago. It was dark by then, so when we brought out a case of solar lanterns, the entire village surrounded us like months to a flame. It was awesome watching Suraj work the crowd. In 20 minutes, the entire case of 22 lanterns were gone! The one thing I have come to realize is that the hurdle renewable energy faces here in Africa is so much lower than it is in the US – I watched solar powered battery chargers and lanterns virtually sell themselves here. And they are really expensive. At 20 USD, one wouldn’t expect people here to be able to afford this technology – yet they sell – like hotcakes! They say necessity is the mother of invention – and this is so true. People NEED renewable energy here. They don’t have the alternative of flicking a light switch like we do. They don’t have cash. But if you trust them with credit or allow for barter financing, the sale becomes possible.

And then, there was the rather sobering visit to the Ministry of Energy on Friday. Once you visit an African government office, a lot of things fall into place. I had called for an appointment with the Renewable Energy Minister in the morning and was shocked when he answered the phone himself! I must have sounded like an idiot. It was funny, we walked into without so much as a bag check! And the guy – his name is Wisdom. He is super knowledgeable and seemed very enterprising but we couldn’t talk to him for more than 20 minutes, which was disappointing.

Getting used to living in Africa has been pretty easy. It’s like India 20 years ago. Being vegetarian is super hard tho – I’m surviving right now but might become desparate in Mali. Local food is very unappetizing. It’s incredible how hard it is here to get food to an edible form. Music and the sound of people celebrating funerals is a constant, as are the smiles on peoples faces. I visited a local market yesterday which was a real eye opener. Constant assault of smells and faces. Just being there was tiring!

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One Response to “Hello from Africa”

  1. Gaurav Says:

    Hi Amrita,

    it was interesting to read through your experience at Ghana. I am interested in establishing a social venture in India through clean energy sources like biofuels, that are available aplenty in rural areas. I am part of Sewausa, a non profit, and we implemented two low capacity biofuel plants in India (rajasthan and tamil nadu). The social impact was quite tangible (the villagers could irrigate their fields at will, didnt have to migrate to cities and a night school came up). I am looking at applying to Ross for gathering more BoP experiential learning opportunities as this seems plausible strategy to make my dreams true. Could you share your experiences at Ross in the emerging market club?

    — thanks,
    Gaurav

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