By seeing firsthand the problems caused by lack of access to electricity in rural Africa, Sameer Hajee has found the drive and empathy to take action. This unlocking of passion through real-life experience is common among many social entrepreneurs, quickly becoming a model that is being embraced by university programs. His story has helped me find my inner drive – can he help you to find yours?
KIGALI, Rwanda – I first hear Sameer Hajee’s voice crackle through my computer speakers; his determination is immediately palpable through the shouting in the background. He is in a car in Rwanda leaving the capital city.
Voice full of excitement, he talks about his plans for the day to go into a rural area to meet with one of Nuru Energy’s most successful micro-entrepreneurs. Unlike traditional entrepreneurs who need substantial capital to start businesses, micro-entrepreneurs are able to “bootstrap” in rural, capital-scarce areas with the support of Nuru Energy. This is done by selling Nuru LED lights and operating pedal-powered recharging stations.
With this, Hajee is tenaciously attempting to light the lives of people without access to electricity – specifically, the 550 million in Africa and 400 million in India. By creating Nuru Energy, he has found the passion to fight something against all odds, a conscious choice away from the fast life that many of his INSEAD business school classmates have chosen. Today, Nuru Energy, a social enterprise that empowers local micro-entrepreneurs, has over 800 micro-entrepreneurs operating in their communities in Rwanda alone. Through this powerful network, they have sold over 25,000 lights to the dollar-a-day population in Rwanda.
Taking up the task of creating safe, sustainable and affordable lighting for the dollar-a-day population has required a deep belief in the importance of Nuru Energy’s work. “The thing that pushes us forward is that we believe what we have can work at scale,” he says.
Scale is certainly on his mind. Hajee told me that he has a vision to take Nuru Energy far beyond its current reach. His next strategic move will be to tap into the population of the African people living outside of Africa. He will do this by creating a service for those outside Africa to “purchase a business in a box – [their] POWERcycle and lights – as a gift to be sent to someone [in Africa], a family member for example.” According to Ghanaian academic Adams Bodomo says, “Africans living outside the continent send more money home to their families than is sent by traditional Western aid.” He adds, “In 2010 the African diaspora remitted $51.8 billion to the continent. In the same year, according to World Bank figures, ODA to Africa was $43 billion.” If Hajee leverages this new market effectively, it could launch Nuru far beyond its current reach.
There are two important things that drive him and his team forward. He says, “One is the impact that we see with the customers, and two is the excitement and loyalty that we see amongst our team members and colleagues.” With this, he has created a positive feedback loop of motivation: the more experience he has on the ground in Africa, the more inspiration he has to push Nuru Energy forward. Basically, experience equals inspiration, which creates action.
Despite the bright future and a highly motivated team, Hajee is the first to admit that it has not always been easy: “It has been a really rough four and a half years.” He has worked nearly 3 years without pay to get Nuru up to speed. But, he says, “I think anyone would be hard pressed to walk away after seeing what we have seen. ”
For Hajee, it was a time before the inception of Nuru. While in the field, he had a pivotal experience in his career: “I was staying with a family whose 2-year-old child had been subjected to third degree burns over a third of his body, and it was from kerosene. I had a 2-year-old child at the time. I will never forget that.” This was a calling for Hajee that gave him a deep passion for the work that Nuru would soon do.
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the origin of the word passion comes from “passio: suffering, being acted upon.” This definition would suggest that without seeing suffering, finding passion is impossible. Hajee credits his experience with the 2-year-old burn victim in helping him find his passion today.
Cutting-edge education programs in social entrepreneurship are also realizing the benefits of getting field experience to unlock inner passion. The Design School at Stanford has recently transformed their curriculum to become radically focused on real-life experience. “You realize that you aren’t going to solve the problem sitting in an office, you need to get out and talk to the people who are actually dealing with it, whether that’s your customers or your front-line employees,” says Bonny Simi, a former Stanford d.school student. Their website boasts, “At the d.school, we learn by doing… Students start in the field, where they develop empathy for people they design for, uncovering real human needs they want to address.”
Another example is the Kaospilots, a socially-driven leadership education in Denmark (Disclaimer: I am enrolled in this program). With their focus on real world experience and action-based learning, 33% of the graduates become entrepreneurs. From the first day of the application process until the diplomas are granted, students practice every academic discipline that is taught with real clients and real projects. This shift is part of a larger global trend in education towards experience-based learning, away from simply downloading theory and lesson modules.
For me, Hajee’s story is a calling to a generation of young social entrepreneurs: To get out into the dusty streets and experience the reality of the world in full color – where a badly burned child might just be a miniature messiah of purpose and passion. The moments that you least expect give life new meaning. What suffering have you observed in this world that you cannot live with? What are you waiting for?
This post is part of a series produced by Student Reporter for The Huffington Post and the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship. To see all the posts in the series published on The Huffington Post, click here.
Guest writer Andy Sontag (@sontagideology) from Aarhus, Denmark is studying Creative Business Design and Social Innovation at the Kaospilot.