Supporting last-mile communities to lead their own development

Abu Musuuza, founder of Village Energy and Simon Berry, co-founder of ColaLife, are applying a business approach to ‘effective delivery’ to increase access to health and clean energy in places where services are hardest to deliver.

‘Last-mile’ communities are notoriously difficult to reach: they lack infrastructure, are geographically isolated and have limited access to relevant information. Ashoka Fellows Abu Musuuza and Simon Berry, go beyond physically getting solutions to those that need it, and instead use a ‘whole-market’ approach to ensure that communities in sub-Saharan Africa are able to build stronger health and clean energy systems.

Virgin Unite, entrepreneur, sustainability, Ashoka, ColaLife

Image from ColaLife

By catalysing markets according to existing networks and locally-defined needs and value, and embedding local knowledge and responsibility, they are creating solutions that are sustainable and support communities to drive their own development.

Around 1,400 children under five die each day from diarrhoea — a condition easily treated with oral rehydration salts and zinc supplements (ORSZ). Sub-Saharan Africa is the region with the highest child mortality-rate for diarrhoea and the lowest availability of ORSZ. According to UNICEF, progress of this intervention has been slow, due to a lack of awareness, availability, access, and correct use.

To overcome these issues, Simon and ColaLife co-founder Jane, work with local partners to catalyse the market for a better designed and distributed ORSZ solution.

Virgin Unite, entrepreneur, sustainability, Ashoka, ColaLife

Image from ColaLife

Through user-led design, they created the easy-to-use and affordable Kit Yamoyo. Next, they joined up the market connections from target users to local micro-retailers and wholesalers, back to a local manufacturer that shared early-stage risk in developing the product. Each step generates profit, and they embed local training and responsibility with all involved.

Kit Yamoyo was trialled in two remote areas of Zambia, which increased treatment rates from under one per cent to 45 per cent. ColaLife is now working to spread awareness across communities, retailers and policy makers and continues to diversify local distribution channels, such as the Zambian Ministry of Health as a distributor to caregivers in the poorest communities.

Once Kit Yamoyo is well-established in the market in Zambia, the distribution network can be self-sustaining, through the supply and uptake of a product that is fully driven by the community. Simon and Jane’s ultimate strategy is to change health systems for sub-Saharan communities, not by growing their organisation or brand, but by spreading their ‘whole-market’ approach through others.

Virgin Unite, entrepreneur, sustainability, Ashoka, Village Energy

Image from Village Energy

Energy drives all aspects of development — from education to employment. However, 1.2 billion people lack access to energy — with 95 per cent living in sub-Saharan Africa.

Most solar companies working to increase access to clean energy lack the volume of sales needed to afford a distributed customer-service network that works for last-mile communities. As a result, when problems arise, communities lose faith in new technologies and resort back to harmful Kerosene.

Through Village Energy, Abu focuses on building a community-based after-sales infrastructure — a network of local solar technicians that provide high-quality technical services and after-sales support, building consumer confidence in clean energy technology.

Key to Abu’s strategy is to embed knowledge on clean energy products and their repair locally. Abu has developed a curriculum to train and certify existing electricians who run village radio shacks, with the best becoming Village Energy franchisees. He also developed a training academy that takes solar technical and business training and certification to local youth. This creates the perfect foundation for local technical innovation to flourish and allows the after-sales infrastructure to be fully driven by the community.

Virgin Unite, entrepreneur, sustainability, Ashoka, Village Energy

Image from Village Energy

Before being able to truly embed this ‘after-sales’ infrastructure, Village Energy need to catalyse a stronger market for solar solutions stunted through issues of logistics, repairs and consumer trust. They work with and for suppliers to ensure that technologies are well-implemented, and a strong after-sales service is included in the package. They create new distribution channels through their repair shops, which they have purposely positioned as a key point of trust for communities. This further activates demand and strengthens the distribution network and value chain for solar solutions.

Abu is ultimately proving that an after-sales infrastructure is crucial to strengthening solar energy systems that are sustainable and locally-driven.

Simon, Jane and Abu are redefining what scale means in the social sector; they go beyond replication of their service and focus on tackling the patterns causing the problem in the first place. They are part of the Globalizer on Health and Lighting, an accelerator program launched by Ashoka and the Philips Foundation, that supports 13 social entrepreneurs as they develop strategies to scale their impact to change systems for the long-term.

This article was written by Michela Fenech, an Associate on Ashoka’s Globalizer Program. It first appeared on Virgin on August 1, 2016.

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