The ubiquitous Avon saleswomen traveled first by foot, then horse and buggy, and eventually by car to sell cosmetics door to door. In the process, the company built a global business that now earns $10 billion annually. Katherine Lucey, a former investment banker, is trying replicate some of that success in Africa, only her nonprofit Solar Sister sells solar lamps to the poor as a way of lighting up some of the homes of the 1.4 billion people without electricity worldwide.
Solar Sister, now one year old, has supplied 107 entrepreneurs in Uganda, Sudan, and Rwanda with a $500 “business-in-a-bag” that helps launch ventures selling solar lamps door-to-door. In places like rural Uganda, where 95% of homes lack electricity, solar technology can cut down on expensive and polluting kerosene, while generating income through sales and charging services. Lucey started Solar Sister after frustration with the the high failure rate for larger solar energy systems in schools and homes. She figured she could get the model right, by closing the gender gap around technology use.
Solar Sister’s lamps are small, self-contained, and cost about $15 to $50. That’s enough to provide light at one-tenth the price of a full solar system. Solar Sister operates as a a “micro consignment,” rather than a franchise, giving their sales representatives inventory they can then sell without paying interest. Their earnings and savings from the business doubles household incomes, claims Solar Sister.
The time, it seems, is right for personal solar technology, and this new sales model. Others such as Barefoot Power and d.Light design are innovating on price and quality. A new solar lantern for students from d.Light Design costs just $8. But Solar Sister claims its own metric of success: For every philanthropic $1 invested, its entrepreneurs receive $46 in economic benefits during the first year alone.