Maurits Groen green consultant

Why should poor people always get duped with ugly trinkets?

Michiel Walrave

A simple device that makes a huge difference; that’s the WakaWaka lamp. It’s a square device with a small solar panel on one side, which unfolds into a lamp with three dimmer settings, and sufficient power for six to eight hours of light comparable to a 50-watt light bulb.

Several millions of these lamps have been produced so far. They are popular in the Western world, especially in the US, and in poor countries. WakaWaka is sold according to the “buy one – give one” principle. If you purchase one, NGOs give one away in Africa, Asia and South America. These primarily go to families with schoolgoing children who can do their homework at night using the WakaWaka.

Maurits Groen’s WakaWaka Foundation works closely with organisations such as the International Rescue Committee (IRC), Save the Children, Habitat for Humanity, WorldVision and War Child. They all have an in-depth knowledge of needy cases in the countries they operate in.

The sun is free and has a lifespan guarantee of billions of years

“If you are the customer of an energy supplier, you’re only interested in the energy you take from them. You can cook your food, you can read, you can warm your home, that’s what the energy allows you to do. Most people are not interested in the kilowatt hours or the cubic meters of gas, or the network that enables all of that to come to you.” 

“The great thing about Rwanda is that it is a low cost country. The sun is free and has a guaranteed lifespan of billions of years. A pipeline network where you pay for a week and then it shuts down again and you have to buy a new scratch card, is simply not needed.”

“Our WakaWaka lamp is really a repayment system or a material micro credit. We sell it in the United States for 79 dollars, and you get it in Rwanda for 7.5 dollars, so that’s less than 10%. You pay the rest through the scratch cards. In total, the user pays about 45 dollars, enough to cover the costs of the device and those of the people who sell it. We have rolled out the pilot for the past one and a half years, and learned our lessons. And in the next few years, we want to expand to Uganda, Tanzania, and Indonesia.”

“I actually know nothing about finance and nothing about technology. My business partner, Camille van Gestel, studied at Nijenrode business university and has some production experience in China. I don’t, but I have other qualities: I can envisage a bit of the bigger picture when necessary, I have a lot of imagination, and I’ve accumulated a decent network. The two of us make a good team. We put all our savings on the table and searched for someone who could develop the WakaWaka. That someone was Anne Ossinga, an industrial designer skilled in electronics. Together we developed a super-efficient device. The small PV panel has an extremely high yield, an economical lamp, and it’s housed in a fashionable case. Why should poor people always get duped with ugly trinkets?”

“After that, we started a crowd funding campaign. We made big fuss. This is our prototype, this is our plan, give us money! And 12,000 people contributed to the campaign. We rewarded those people by using aid organisations to ensure that the lamp was distributed to homeless Haitians after the earthquake. The Aid organisations, in turn, planted trees and repaired roads, for example.”

“Thanks to the crowd funding, we were able to think of the thing, design it and make it. We first created it for use in developing countries, but later on we thought, hey, this is a nice little device, also for people in the West. There was an American outdoor brand that wanted to sell it. That’s when we started the ‘buy one – give one’ principle, something I call the Robin Hood pricing model. As a business model, it’s naturally very risky. Anyway, we thought we were saving a lot of marketing costs through crowd funding. We’ve always worked like that; generate a lot of free publicity and develop goodwill.”

We’ve always worked like that; generate a lot of free publicity and develop goodwill

“Now we give away about 5 million euros in retail value per year. The lamps have been sent to hundreds of thousands of people living in tents in often forgotten disaster areas like Syria, Nepal, the Philippines, North Nigeria, all those people who fled Boko Haram, the Central African Republic, Congo. But we only give them away for free in acute emergency situations like Haiti, where after three years, 360,000 people still live in a tent, in the burning sun, without supplies.”

“My ideal is affordability. What is affordable to people? I mean, I really want everybody to drive a Tesla, but one person can afford it, another cannot. So that’s a stupid market model. There are children in Kenia who bought the lamp for 1 dollar, which was the largest amount of money they had ever spent. Their parents witnessed how their children signed the first contract of their lives, together with all the village elders and heads of schools. ‘Look everybody, this belongs to the child. So dad cannot sell it for three beers. Because if they see that, you’re stealing from your own child!”

Maurits Groen is a glutton for sustainability. Among other jobs, he’s Chairman of the Wubbo Okkels Green Canal Foundation, Sustainable Tuesday, Rank a Brand.nl – which ranks companies on the basis of their sustainability –, and a number of institutes. He’s currently working on making the chicken-industry more sustainable.

“We primarily focus on the 1.2 to 1.3 billion people without access to electricity. Those really are the poorest people; they can’t afford a refrigerator, TV or solar panels on the roof. We started with the Light, then the Power, and now we’ve introduced the Base, an updated version of the WakaWaka that provides light for over 80 hours and charges multiple devices. We focus on the sun, which is now and will remain the most important, inexhaustible source of our energy in the future.”

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