Companies doing Unreasonable good

As a most unusual meet-up of investors and entrepreneurs, it could have been called “Doing Good Meets Business Discipline” or maybe “Non-profit Goes For-Profit.” With uncharacteristic understatement, the event sponsor, Unreasonable Institute, of Boulder, CO, chose to call it merely “Investor Days.”

For two days in early October, about 70 investors from around the US – and including some from Europe and Africa – met with about 22 start-up or early stage companies doing business in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the US. The investors heard brief two-minute pitches to get quickly acquainted with the business objectives and then had various opportunities for a “deep dive” with the entrepreneurs in a small group setting.

All of the businesses had at least reached some level of sales traction and customer acceptance. Almost all were burdened by the novelty of their enterprises. That is, they are mostly pioneering entrepreneurs with no footsteps of successful predecessors to follow. They all had a compelling story to tell and a mission yet to be fulfilled.

Eneza Education relies on mobile phones in East Africa to reinforce educational lessons for secondary school students in East Africa who are striving to pass the nationwide exams which are a prerequisite for further education. Founded by a Teach for America alum, Eneza has partnered with a major telecom and legions of teachers who write the lessons which have already reached over 300,000 student/users. At the younger end of the education spectrum, Grab-a-Book provides books and reading games and, ultimately, libraries in order to encourage elementary school and pre-school children to develop a love of reading and an ability to express themselves in both English and Kiswahili.

Greenlink is using solar technology for the 85% of the 20,000 schools in Tanzania that are off the electricity grid. With its considerable experience in solar design and installation in Africa, Greenlink is setting up mobile, solar powered computer labs that can be leased along with training and computer content.

Still in Tanzania and solar energy, Juabar has an entirely different approach. This woman-owned firm sets up solar-powered kiosks that provide entrepreneurial opportunities for kiosk operators and convenience for consumers who otherwise often travel long distances and wait while they phone is recharged. As their network of kiosk franchisees grows, Juabar’s greatest asset may be a distribution network that reaches large numbers of off-grid customers.

Also reducing the effort and time required for those who must walk long distances, Wello designs and sells a rolling water carrier that transports up to 20 liters for those one billion people in the world who do not have reliable access to safe water. Wello has been working in India but will be expanding soon to East Africa.

Two other companies approach the lack of potable water in very different ways. Agua, Inc., uses its patented hardware and a plant-based biotechnology process to treat wastewater. It sells and services its products to commercial firms and wastewater treatment utilities. The technology has been installed in eight locations in Spain and its first African installation is underway in The Gambia. Jibu is a start-up company run by a father-son team that is building a network of water entrepreneurs in Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. With a well-defined franchisee model, its entrepreneurs will be trained to purify, bottle and sell water in various sizes to retail populations in those countries.

In addition to its poor water quality, much of Africa’s soils are depleted as a result of erosion due to deforestation and over-use of pesticides. EcoFuels has introduced Kenya’s first organically certified fertilizer which is made from an otherwise unusable nut that falls from a common tree. Its social impact derives from the sale of the product, employment of laborers in the manufacturing process, and fees paid to harvesters of the nuts in a very poor region of northern Kenya.

Agrilab Technologies has a vastly different product that also aims to make farms more efficient and productive. Its patented technology captures thermal heat generated by commercial-scale composting operations and reuses the heat for hot water or buildings, primarily on larger scale farms and municipal facilities in the US. Fossil fuel consumption and carbon emissions are reduced as a result.

Back in Africa, KadAfrica produces passion fruit on its farms in Western Uganda in conjunction with its partner, Catholic Relief Services. Its goal is to provide job training and increased income for girls and women as a result of the training in cultivation and sale of passion fruit, which is expected to become self-sustaining when the acres under cultivation reach sufficient scale.

In Slovenia, Ustvarjalnik also seeks to train and empower youth with a for-profit model but in an urban environment. The company contracts with secondary schools to offer its yearlong program to train and motivate high school students to become entrepreneurs on projects or ventures of their own design. Their focus is on the growing number of unemployed and under-employed youth in Eastern Europe. They anticipate expansion to Croatia in future months.

In a subsequent article, we will identify the remaining ventures which seek to do “unreasonable” amounts of good in the world as a result of the assistance of the Unreasonable Institute.

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