Once again, I am on the road. I’m in the beautiful Adirondack Mountains, an hour South of Montreal. Here in the mountains, the economy has been depressed for years, by American standards. It’s a peaceful life. The night skies are spectacular, when rain doesn’t obscure the view. Our only neighbours are the very vocal owls and the coyotes, who sound like screaming women in the mountains at night. Their cries have contributed to legends about witches and ghosts.
When we arrived, we pitched a tent, but the wet weather kept us from fully enjoying the opportunity to camp. I have been coming here all my life, and I have come to enjoy climbing the mountain behind our family’s property in the rain, ascending barefoot on a carpet of pine needles and moss. Our family, now under the care of my sister, has always been a refuge. Earlier in my life, in a period where both my wife and I were out of work, the home was a place for us to regroup. The problem with living here is that the winters are interminable. Even within the local area, which is generally cold, we live halfway up a mountain, and a ten minute drive could mean a ten degree rise in temperature. It is often raining on our mountain, and sunny in the valley.
At this altitude, the snow falls constantly from October until May. I have even seen a June snow. The view is beautiful, the wood-burning stove provides warmth, but when my wife and I, as a struggling young couple with three babies were experiencing extended unemployment, the grey constancy of the snow became oppressive. We kept our car near the Mlin road, a half-hour walk in snow that could drift to heights above my head. I experienced, at that time a common phenomenon that I’d also observed in Argentina, and may happen throughout the world.
When you have no money, society and its various agents, government, religion, education, everyone treats you as if you were a child. People assume that those suffering from economic hard times require help in a way that is demeaning. I think the assumption may be that struggling people need help in all areas of their life, and they should defer to those who would help them, since these are clearly their moral and intellectual superiors. I remember feeling judged on issues that had nothing to do with my lack of money, such as the way I was raising my children.
When governmental programs ask nothing in return form those they serve, the recipient of such programs is often made to feel like he is being treated like a child. Some programs that simply “give to the poor” assume that the recipient is incapable of pulling himself out of poverty through his own industry. Oftentimes, these same people only have jobs by virtue of their political connections, and though they may possibly be well-intentioned, possess no wisdom whatsoever.
Government employees, philanthropists don’t understand the concept of pulling oneself out of poverty through one’s own industry.
That’s where market-based solutions come in.
Please understand, that while small capitalism doesn’t always work to alleviate poverty, I noticed that at least in the shanty towns of Argentina, far from the assistance of governmental agencies, enterprising individuals, many with limited education, were able to become the pillars of their communities. These were clever people, charismatic, aggressive, and people with big dreams for themselves and for their families. In fact, these were the people that the upper-middle class feared, because they had more integrity and more “fire in the belly” than the comfortable children of the wealthy who were anointed to inherit the businesses that some other clever, charismatic dreamer had created generations earlier. I met individuals who had sacrificed the meagre comforts of instant gratification so that they could save a few pennies, raise an extra laying hen, expand business, and carefully plan a strategy that would allow them to provide for their community while gaining wealth. I have seen what happened when well-meaning governmental programs attempted to gain votes by handing out free chickens, thus undermining all that the boot-strap entrepreneur had sought to accomplish.
The wonderful thing about small scale capitalism is that it does not require the skills that one needs to acquire through education. If you have ever had the opportunity to interview marijuana growers in the New York City ghetto, you would be amazed at how intelligent those high school drop-outs sound when talking about hydroponics, bubble irrigation and cloning solutions. Small scale capitalism is an education in itself. The values necessary to succeed in business are the kind any parent may teach a child no matter the level of formalised learning: Thrift, planning, work ethic, and a certain amount of aggression, mixed with equal parts of faith and scepticism.
It also requires a level of integrity that ensures that the businessman will be reliable, and that whether or not they can actually write, their word will be their contract.
The last element required is one best described by the Yiddish word, Chutzpah.
I once observed a family selling glo-sticks at a parade. They hadn’t obtained a license to sell these glo-sticks, and the competition with the legitimate vendor was intense. The father, who I knew from our town, approached the competitor and offered to buy his whole stock of glo-sticks from him. I didn’t know the particulars of the deal, but I realised that the father had written a check for the inventory which he had no way of covering except by selling enough of the glow sticks. He pushed those glo-sticks, made his profit, and was able to deposit the money for the check in the bank before it was cashed. That willingness to take a gamble paid the rent for that family that month. It took a lot of guts, Chutzpah.
The watchword in socially conscious philanthropy these days is “Social Venture”, an undertaking that has social and environmental benefits that extend beyond simply giving away money. Social ventures generate profits for social good. Corporations see those who benefit as potential partners, and both the social venturer and the partner make a profit.
I recently spoke with the representative of one corporation that uses the Social Venture model. Nokero, a new company which develops useful technology for developing countries, is a business worth watching for people interested in private-enterprise solutions to poverty in Bangladesh. The product, invented by Steve Katzaros, is, like all of his innovations, designed to bring the benefits of electricity to the 1.6 billion people throughout the world who live “off the grid”, without electricity. The name, Nokero, is short for “no Kerosene”. One of Nokero’s products, the N200, is a light bulb that is charged via mini solar panels that can be pivoted and aimed at the sun during the daytime, and will provide light throughout the night. In a matter of months, the bulbs pay for themselves, mitigating the cost of Kerosene. The bulbs have already been field-tested in Pakistan, Haiti and Mexico. They are waterproof, and will provide light even during monsoon season.
Nokero will be sending me some of their bulbs and solar cellphone chargers, which I will test, and report back to you about. Katseros’ distribution strategy depends upon “stubborn survival entrepreneurs”, the kind of person the developing world seems to produce in abundance. The company offers a “business in a box”, 144 wholesale bulbs, and demonstration materials. The total cost is about $1000 US dollars, so the bulbs come to about $7 wholesale. The N200 lasts five to ten years and the battery lasts 500 cycles, and can be replaced by rechargeable AA batteries, although Nokero is developing an incentive program to provide replacement batteries at a discount.
Spokesman Tom Byrd speaks enthusiastically about the business model. “We’re a for-profit corporation with a not-for-profit heart” he stated. When I spoke to Mr. Byrd, I immediately liked the feel of the business model. The company had the intimate vibe of a family. Mr. Boyd spoke about the business with a pride of ownership, and the sense that their business was making a real difference in the world. From my brief conversation and my research, I see that Nokero is adaptable, willing to work with local interests to ensure that the product will bring economic opportunity to some enterprising group of people there in Bangladesh.
I have been raised to believe in the for-profit solution to problems. It has worked for many immigrants to the United States, my grandparents included. I am also a sceptic when it comes to the benefits and motives of governments and political systems. The axiom of “That government which governs least, governs best” has been inculcated into the fibres of my belief system. When you deal with governments, you’re dealing with parties who are motivated by power, to hold power and to maintain hold on power. Often, politicians rely upon the emergence of problems they can blame on the opposition in order to demonstrate their usefulness.
Corporations, on the other hand, have a simple, transparent motivation — they exist to make a profit. When they are also willing to exercise a social conscience, we can encourage this business model simply by voting with our money — purchasing products from corporations whose practices we support. With governments, we are often stuck with what we voted for years ago.
Next week, as part of this two-part article, I will report back on my impressions with the Nokero products, and elaborate on other green corporate bootstrap businesses in Bangladesh, and successful business models which would allow for survival entrepreneurs to gain access to Nokero’s “business in a box”. I will also include more information I gleaned from my interview with Tom Boyd.
I am excited about the prospect of any product that can lengthen the time that potential scholars can spend studying, especially when rural chores require work to continue until sunset. A product which can provide light, even after the power grid has been knocked out by some calamity, can also serve as a source of hope, and a symbol of resilience. Who better to profit monetarily from such products as those who can most clearly see its benefits?
Frank Domenico Cipriani writes a weekly column in the Riverside Signal called “You Think What You Think And I’ll Think What I Know.” He is also the founder and CEO of The Gatherer Institute — a not-for-profit public charity dedicated to promoting respect for the promoting respect for the environment and empowering individuals to become self-taught and self-sufficient. His most recent book, “Learning Little Hawk’s Way of Storytelling”, teaches the native art of oral tradition storytelling.