MPOWERD Lantern Brings Affordable Solar to Sub-Saharan Africa

This article was originally posted on Triple Pundit on January 7th, 2014 by, Kerry Sinclair

Jacques-Phillippe Piverger likes to say that his company, MPOWERD, is “eradicating energy poverty through solar justice.” He is doing this despite the fact that the old guard in business tends to believe that “it’s not possible to do good, and do well.” MPOWERD is challenging that standard with grace. This startup, just 15 months old, already has a product jumping off the shelves – shedding light on the energy market.

Sleek-looking Luci, the solar lantern, is turning heads in firms across sub-Saharan Africa and capturing the interest of international distributors. The design of this portable powerhouse differentiates her from other lanterns on the market, just as MPOWERD’s integrated distribution model sets it apart as a social enterprise. Combine design and networked distribution with a low price point ($14.95), determined to get lower, and you have an MPOWERD business.

Conversations with co-founders, Piverger and his partner John Salzinger, make clear that they see the business as a driver for social and Africaeconomic change, as well as a profitable entity. According to Salzinger, firms in Africa that pay up front for the product bolster manufacturing and help to give Luci a price advantage at home. This, in turn, creates retail visibility within the U.S. market.

When asked which market was the bread and butter for MPOWERD, the reply is  “well, both…they work together right now.” The integrated model helps MPOWERD  keep its own lights on, while battling energy poverty in many locales. Piverger is adamant that his company and this product operate from a triple bottom line: social, environmental and economic factors. These same goals drive this energetic man to promote the company broadly. And it’s working. Luci is currently on back-order for 100,000 units to retailers worldwide, in addition to the 100,000 units already sold. The retail network boomed from zero to 60 within six months. No big deal? It’s sure refuting its critics.

Luci is a little thing. She’s made of clear plastic and weighs only 4 ounces, but she packs a nice punch. Ten thousand tiny LEDs provide 15 square feet of light that lasts for six to 10 hours on a full eight-hour charge. Just like the adage that recommends not messing with little people, Luci has managed to enable a drop in violent crimes against women, alleviate health problems related to kerosene and reduce the number of kerosene-related fires, while helping increase productivity and education for the 1.7 billion people who live off the energy grid worldwide. All because it gives a little more light.

Luci came to the rescue in New York and New Jersey during Hurricane Sandy and helps keep the energy bill down during normal times. Indeed, Luci doesn’t see borders; she just goes where she’s needed.

Of course, this rising enterprise didn’t drop onto the earth as a fully formed productive force. Piverger and Salzinger needed help from their “solar system” of stakeholders. Like any B-corp, MPOWERD needs folks to have faith. It has worked with one foundation and has given a few faithful individuals the opportunity to invest in the company. Just as the sun fuels the earth, MPOWERD’s stakeholders enabled this fledging enterprise to shine. In a recent article for the Huffington Post, Piverger explains that his company will continue to grow based on its ability to affect change in the world, developing and developed.

By wielding our market power along with cutting-edge technologies, we in the social innovation field are using business to create significant global change…In places where energy services are inaccessible—whether due to deficient infrastructure, high costs, or emergency conditions—Luci is a dependable source of light.

MPOWERD’s partners agree. Alliances with A New Course and the Amazon Conservation Associationpromote aid to communities in Tanzania and Peru, respectively. Moving beyond financial donations, these partnerships deliver entrepreneurship for women in Tanzania and conservation for marginalized communities in Peru. Developing a business in the U.S. can look like magic. Creating opportunities for people in places with less access to renewable resources requires the foresight to know that giving is getting. MPOWERD’s campaign encourages customers to donate Luci to their partners at a discounted price.

MPOWERD may look quirky to the status-quo, but positive acknowledgement by international organizations and media, including CNBC, Brazil’s Globo and the UN, requires that critics of the “do good, and do well” paradigm sit down and listen up. MPOWERD’s co-founders are demonstrating a different approach from the business world of 50 years ago. Blending sense and intuition, this new style of making money aids the argument that sustainability is not a trend, but a new standard in doing business.

Image credit: MPOWERD

Kerry Sinclair is an MBA candidate at Bard College, MBA in Sustainability. She is happy to be writing about the good fight.

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