Doing It Right

Let’s say hypothetically that you live in the North America, Europe, or Australia. You believe in the importance of spreading appropriate technology, but you don’t have the ability/opportunity/courage to get on a plane and move to another continent. When you ask yourself how you can best get involved or help, you look like this guy:

That’s ok. That’s a natural reaction. And so you search online for some of the mainstream charities out there, randomly pick one, and give a donation. Maybe you listened to Bono for advice.

But before you do that, I ask you to stop for a moment and consider this approach. Is this really the best way for you to get involved and support sustainable technology and development in Africa? Is your donation really having a positive impact?

Depending on the charity you chose, probably not. Maybe your donation will help provide a secondary school with a computer, which looks great in the charity’s reports but is completely impractical because the school lacks electricity or technical expertise or maybe even the desire to have computers. You can’t really track your donation, so you’ll never know.

Don’t get discouraged – there are definitely other options out there for you.

First of all, it is significantly more useful for you to contribute either your time and skills or your money rather than your used goods. Nobody wants your old high heels – especially not disaster victims in Peru.

The easiest and perhaps most useful way for you to contribute is to make a donation or invest in an organization that is “doing it right.” As most of you know by now, I have major issues with aid and organizations that give things away for free. But there are many fantastic organizations (mostly businesses) out there that can use your support.

I profiled a few of them this weekRent-to-Own, Global Cycle Solutions, Kilimo Salama, Hestian Innovation, and Zambikes. (This is by all means not an all-encompassing list but rather just a few of my favorites, many of which I have a personal connection to. I will continue to add to this list as time goes on.) Organizations like these rely on outside investment to help them kick them off in the early years. If they are really “doing it right,” then they won’t need your money anymore after the first couple years because they’ll be making a profit. If the organization is still completely dependent on donations 5 to 10 years later, then they’re probably doing something wrong…

So my advice is to find someone with a start-up idea that you support (check out my Doing It Right checklist for thoughts on distinguishing between projects that are doing it right and doing it wrong), and invest in them. I prefer to give money to people rather than large, faceless organizations, and these are the people that definitely will appreciate your support the most.

This past week I profiled 5 different organizations that I believe are “doing it right.” They all have a different niche to fill and a different model, but they’re all having a positive impact.

It then came to my attention that this list probably looks quite arbitrary to an outsider. How did I pick these organizations from all of the ones that I’ve seen over the past year and a half?

To help demystify this selection process, I’ve decided to write a short checklist of things that I look for in every organization. If the organization meets all of these criteria, then they’re probably pretty close to “doing it right.”

1. A desirable product. Whatever the product is that the organization is making, people need to want it. That sounds obvious, but there are too many organizations over here that are pushing undesirable technologies on people rather than designing based on user wants.

2. A high quality product. There’s enough crap that’s dumped on this continent from all over the world. Whatever the product is, it should be robust and of good quality so that it won’t be added to this junk pile immediately after people start to use it.

3. A price for the product. Whether you’re a for-profit or a non-profit, you need to be charging people for your product. I could list all of the reasons why this is essential, but my friend Brendan already has here. I’ll just add that this price has to be reasonable for the organization’s customers, and if it’s not, the organization needs either a plan to reduce the cost or to help customers pay the full price over time.

4. A dissemination model. Once you’ve got the perfect product for your market, the real challenge begins. The organization needs a solid understanding of distribution networks in the city/region/country in which it’s working so that the product can actually reach the end users.

5. Local staff. If the organization is staffed by over 15% foreigners, then something is wrong. The more locals running the organization, the better. (Note that this will be most challenging in an organization’s first year or so, but should improve over time. Also note that I picked this percentage arbitrarily. It doesn’t really matter exactly what the percentage is – a Malawian company that’s run entirely by foreigners probably has very little understanding of the Malawian market.)

6. Passion. Never underestimate the importance of passion. If the people in the organization believe wholeheartedly in what they’re doing, they’ll go far.

Disclaimer: This is an ever-evolving list. I am not implying that I know everything about what makes an organization do it right vs. wrong. This is just what I’ve learned works well so far, and I’m sure I will continue to learn more about what is effective and what is not as I continue to travel, study, work, and grow.

In 2007, two Americans and two Zambians, motivated by the lack of rural transportation in Zambia, came together to found a bicycle company. They started off small, filling a container of bicycles purchased in the US and selling them in Zambia.

Three years later and they have a well-known name, Zambikes, a busy workshop, and an ever-increasing line of products.

Zambikes sources their bicycle parts from manufacturers in Asia and assembles them at their production center in Lusaka West. They focus on quality, building a robust mountain bike that may be more expensive than its imported Chinese rivals on the market but can out-last them any day, especially on Zambia’s rough terrain.

They also build a longer, load-bearing bicycle that can carry over 200kg of cargo for those in the transport business. Recently, they started producing bamboo frame bicycles locally.

In addition to bicycles, the company makes two trailers: the Zamcart, also used for transporting goods, and the Zambulance, for transporting patients to rural health clinics. All materials for their trailers are found locally.

Zambikes has quickly made a name for itself as the highest-quality bicycle producer in Zambia, attracting business from many of the major NGOs and non-profits working in the country. They also sell directly to individuals, who can pay in installments if they need to in order to purchase the bicycle. They still rely mostly on business from large development organizations, but that is changing over time.

The best part of the company, though, is the people. The staff started off as a local football (soccer) team, and they still retain that camaraderie (and play games every week). The two American founders are preparing for the company to be run entirely by Zambians in the next year and a half, and they have many good hands to leave it in. Then hopefully they will move somewhere else to repeat the whole process.

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