Sameer Hajee, founder and CEO of Nuru Energy describes a social enterprise as one that “has some social issue that it’s trying to tackle and is trying to do it in a manner that’s for-profit.” He explains “what I believe is going to ensure sustainability is if there is a profit attached to it.” And sustainability with profit seems to be working. Nuru Energy is a social enterprise with a mission to “once and for all replace the use of expensive, polluting, unhealthy, and dangerous kerosene as a source of lighting for the two billion people without access to electricity.”
The Nuru Way
Nuru Energy developed an “affordable and clean lighting system for the world’s poor”. The Nuru Light is a multifunctional light which can be mounted on a wall, worn around the neck, hung or stand freely. It boasts LED lights that do not break nor need to be replaced. The power generators for charging the Nuru Light include the POWERCycle – a human powered cycle- which can recharge portable lights in 120 minutes producing 50 to 60 watts of power, the POWERGrid-a plug in charger, and the POWERSolar- a solar panel charger. All of these chargers can charge up to five lights at once.
The approach of Nuru Energy is innovative yet simple. They sell their product primarily through micro-entrepreneurs living in rural areas in Rwanda and India, where Nuru Energy operates. The micro-entrepreneurs take out loans to buy a package of five lights and a POWERCycle. Charging 30 cents per charge, they’re able to earn $1.50US for charging all five lights and can do so in just twenty minutes. Hajee says that compared to the $1.27US/day poverty line in Rwanda which about 70% of people are below, one can see that this model is a profitable and sustainable business for Nuru Energy as a company and also for its micro-entrepreneurs.
Hajee stresses the importance of Nuru Energy’s delivery model: “We really have to keep in mind that we’re not just trying to develop a product and dump it into the market. We can’t just innovate on the product design side; we have to innovate[and] get involved with the delivery channel.” Tying in the importance of their social entrepreneurship model, he explains further that “what makes delivery work in Africa is if all the incentives along with value chain are in line and most of those incentives are economic.”
Hajee was moved to start Nuru Energy after experiencing rural east Africa and seeing the great need for lighting in these areas. He says “Although you hear that Africa is ‘in the dark, it’s not until you stay at least one night in a village until you see what that means ” He goes on to tell the story of a woman who told him that after she taught her child to walk, she then taught him to walk in the dark.
Hajee and his team was also moved to address the detrimental effects that kerosene, the lighting product of choice, was having on the environment and human health. In addition to being unhealthy, kerosene is also dangerous, inefficient as a source of light and expensive.
“We prefer to target kerosene resellers,” Hajee tells Tempo. He explains that replacing kerosene, with rechargeable Nuru Lights means cutting back on a fuel that produces in aggregate 250 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year. He tells us that kerosene resellers care little about what they’re selling as long as they’re making money. “The fact that we can provide income that surpasses that of selling kerosene is great.”
The World Bank has estimated that women and children who perform daily tasks using kerosene inhale toxic fumes the equivalent of up to two packs of cigarettes a day. Hajee tells Tempo “If you ask people what they don’t like about kerosene, they point to their nose.” One can see smoke residue on the ceilings of many rural homes . “Whatever, you don’t see on their roofs, is in their lungs.” Another environmental benefit of the Nuru lighting system is that no resources are being extracted and no waste is being produced to power the lights, thus it is considered very clean technology.
Nuru Energy also targets female entrepreneurs. “Women seem to be a more responsible with the money they earn so we find that default rates for loans to women are much lower” Hajee explains. Also because many men are in the fields or working away from home, the light charging business gives women the option to both earn money and stay close to home.
The Nuru Team
Hajee, who has an academic background in engineering, emerging markets, and experience in international development, refers to himself as a “jack of all trades, master of none.” While he believes this is a useful position for a CEO, he also tells Tempo about the strong individuals who each bring valuable skills to the team. There is Barry Whitmill with skills in industrial design, Simon Tremeer who brings value to the product manufacturing side, Julio de Souza with a background in rural markets, and Sloan Holzman whose analytical skills are put to use in the “fantastic field team” ( with Julio) overseeing all the entrepreneurs in Rwanda. Hajee describes a team meeting : “I propose an idea, Barry and Simon say ‘That makes sense from a product design point of view’, Julio and Sloan say, ‘No in the field, that won’t work.’”
“In developing our solution to solving the lighting problem with the PowerCycle, we realized we can actually power other devices with this thing” Hajee shares. The Nuru Energy team spent a month living in Rwanda trying to understand energy needs and realized that people had cell phones and other devices they needed to charge besides the lights. The team decided to rebrand themselves from Nuru Light to Nuru Energy to encompass these other needs in their work.
Nuru Energy plans to expand into all of east Africa. “The Eastern African markets are ones we feel we understand well. We have the knowledge in-house to run these markets well” Hajee explains. They also currently operate in India. Hajee says Nuru has been getting a lot of interest in their product as of late from various countries and that they are looking to extend the model anywhere conditions are suitable and people are ready to embrace a new kind of light.