BFP: What do you do?
JD: I am the Global Marketing and Product Development Manager for Barefoot Power. Barefoot Power is a global, social for-profit enterprise that manufactures and distributes solar phone charging, lighting products and business development services to people at the base of the global economic pyramid.
Barefoot Power is on a mission, to bring affordable renewable energy and efficient lighting to 5 million people by 2012 and 10 million people by 2015, and help eradicate energy poverty. By bringing electricity to millions of people that currently use kerosene lighting and walk far for phone and battery charging, we plan on reversing the traditional process of rural electrification while reducing the global carbon footprint.
Barefoot distributes its products in 20 countries around the world. Our main focus is on Africa, but we are also active in the Americas and Asia Pacific. We have subsidiaries in Uganda and Kenya and importers in several other African countries. On the ground, BFP has more than 200 sales points throughout Africa. We use a combination of micro franchise, retail, non-government organization and micro finance partnerships, and corporate programs with telecommunication companies and corporate social responsibility programs.
I have been based in Uganda for the past 2.5 years, initially to help set up Barefoot Power’s subsidiary and expand local distribution channels. Currently, I am a member of the Senior Management team and accountable for Global Marketing and building awareness to help scale the business and transfer our business model into a number of other African countries. Additionally, I am accountable for Product Development and maintaining high quality standards in product design, development and production and institutionalizing a product development process.
BFP: What is the best part about your job?
JD: The best part for me is being able to be closely connected to the communities we seek to impact with our products. After 20 years in a corporate environment in the United States, working mainly for high-tech and consumer goods companies, both start-ups and large multinationals, I decided that I didn’t want to work in an office or corporate setting anymore and moved to Africa. I love working for a for-profit social enterprise and being based out in the field. Walking into a village and meeting a 70-year old man beaming with pride because he has access to safe, clean, affordable light and seeing how this has improved his quality of life, is very rewarding.
BFP: What have been your greatest challenges? How have you overcome them?
JD: When we first came to Uganda and started building relationships with stakeholders, many tended to see us as an NGO or not-for-profit organisation. We would recruit people to be trained as micro-franchisees and find that they expected us to pay for the training. This was understandable, given their past experience of working with NGOs who had funding and were giving things away.
We addresses this head-on by making the case for paying for training, explaining the business model and demonstrating how this investment would pay for itself. People absolutely got it and came on board. Some of the entrepreneurs that worked with us are now landowners and small business owners who employ people in their own right, confirming that the impact of Barefoot’s products go far beyond delivering safe, clean and affordable power.
Another major challenge in our business is the complex set of duties, taxes and government subsidies that apply in the area of solar power. Each country has its own rules and regulations and in some countries high duties make it difficult for us to make our business model work. We have addressed this issue by joining Lighting Africa, a joint IFC and World Bank program that helps develop commercial off-grid lighting markets in Sub-Saharan Africa as part of the World Bank Group’s wider efforts to improve access to energy. Lighting Africa pulls together all the relevant stakeholders in an open forum and we are working through this platform to reduce regulatory barriers to increasing access to affordable solar-powered products.
BFP: If someone wants to do what you do, where should they start?
JD: My advice to a young professional starting out would be to focus on what you like to do, what you love, what you would look forward to doing when you get up in the morning – chances are you will be good at it! Don’t let fear get in the way of pursuing what you really want – it is so easy to get caught up in a job that you know you can do and which pays well, but which might not be what really excites you. Especially in the developed world, I think we get trapped in jobs that pay well but that don’t necessarily fulfill us on a deeper level.
BFP: Finally: what do you hope to get out of being part of the BFP community?
JD: I got involved in Business Fights Poverty for professional reasons – I am not naturally a big social networker so joining a network of peers was a very useful way for me to stay in touch with others in our industry and sector. I find the regular summaries and updates on major developments and trends very useful.
It is important for people to feel that they are part of a community and Business Fights Poverty offers such a community of like-minded people. I wonder if there is a way to build on that community through the creation of a user forum where people can interact on a particular topic of interest – for example a presentation highlighting a member contribution followed by a discussion on a conference call for those that are interested in learning or sharing more. It could be like a virtual cocktail party where no-one needs to feel intimidated about not knowing anyone!
Thank you to Joyce DeMucci for taking the time to do this interview.