FALL 2008 VOL. 9 NO. 2

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Bringing Light to Africa

Smith students join Clark School of Engineering students to bring clean, safe light to one of the world’s poorest countries.

Burkina Faso, formerly known as Upper Volta, is one of the poorest countries in the world. Like many of its West African neighbors, its population largely consists of subsistence farmers. Only about 30 percent of adult men — and only 9 percent of adult women — can read. Many of these people long for a more prosperous life for themselves and their children, and education is one of the ways people hope to better themselves.

But there is a very basic problem standing in the way.

It’s hard to learn to read without light.

Much of rural Burkina Faso lacks basic infrastructure, including the electricity needed for municipal lighting. A team from the University of Maryland chapter of Engineers Without Borders traveled to Dissin, Burkina Faso in January 2007 to install a single, solar-powered lighting system in a local community center. The system was a success, and the team wondered if it would be possible to extend this solar lighting system into other villages.

Funding would be necessary, of course and the team thought they had a shot at getting a grant from the prestigious Lighting Africa competition. Lighting Africa, an initiative of the World Bank, aims to provide 250 million people in sub-Saharan Africa with access to low-cost, safe, reliable lighting that doesn’t depend on fossil fuel by the year 2030. The World Bank’s grant competition was soliciting innovative proposals for off-grid lighting solutions that were sustainable and could be replicated across the continent.

The Maryland team had a good technical solution. But was it in fact economically viable? And could it be replicated in other villages? One of the requirements for entering the competition was demonstrating the economic benefits and viability of the team’s lighting solution using a business plan and financial modeling. Jungho Kim, professor of mechanical engineering in the A. James Clark School of Engineering and faculty advisor for the Engineers Without Borders chapter, reached out to the Smith School for the business know-how the team needed.

SMITH MBA STUDENT JASON LEE, LEFT, WITH A NEW FRIEND IN DISSIN.Enter first-year MBA students Christen Hartnett and Jason Lee, who spent three weeks in Dissin developing a viable business plan for the Maryland team. They figured out a target market, developed a pricing strategy, and helped design a delivery system. They considered the transition cost — Burkinans currently use kerosene to fuel their lamps, which is messy, smelly and bad for your health, but also cheap. Lee and Hartnett needed to show that solar power could compete with kerosene on cost, or Burkinans would never be able to afford it. Lee and Hartnett helped design a distribution and pricing system that would be competitive with kerosene.

It wasn’t an easy three weeks, Lee admits. Burkinans speak French and a variety of tribal languages. Lee speaks English and a little French. Hartnett speaks English. Even with the help of a translator, getting around to conduct user surveys was difficult and sometimes frustrating. “We had a huge learning curve,” says Lee. Lee and Hartnett also had to deal with cultural differences and the ferocious heat of the sub-Saharan climate.

But what both Lee and Hartnett remember are not the differences but the similarities they noticed between themselves and these rural Africans, whose daily lives were so far removed from their own. “People want the same things,” Lee says. “They have desires for the things that make life easier and better for themselves and their families. One of those things is as simple as good light.”

And one of the most amazing experiences, says Hartnett, happened after the lights came on. “There was one light in one house, and there were crowds of children underneath the light, just reading,” says Hartnett.

The team’s solar lighting project was not selected as a grant recipient from the Lighting Africa competition. But the Maryland team was convinced by Lee and Hartnett’s business plan that the project is worth pursuing, and they plan to launch on a small scale this year. The Smith School hopes to continue working with the Engineers Without Borders chapter on other projects.

And Lee and Hartnett are both considering careers that will combine their MBA skills with projects that make the world a better place. Because once you’ve brought light into someone’s life, there’s no going back to an ordinary career.

  SMITH BUSINESS Magazine

Copyright 2008 Robert H. Smith School of Business