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A company born in a Stanford classroom discovers distribution and finance can be as important as the bright idea.
by Jocelyn Wiener
 
by Jocelyn Wiener
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Every night at 6 p.m., the electricity in Bhojaka, India, shuts off.
 
Until recently, the residents of this quiet, rural hamlet — several hours’ drive from bustling Delhi — had no recourse after dark. Electricity was supplied to meet the needs of the owners of rice, wheat, and sugarcane fields around town. When the farming stopped at sundown, the lights went off.
 
Families that had the money paid a few dollars a month for candles or kerosene. But lantern light was too dim to be very useful for working or studying. The kerosene gave people racking coughs and made their eyes burn.
 
In 2008, a villager named Amit Chaudhary, a salesman by trade, heard about a new solar-powered LED light being marketed by a company called D.light Design. The young company, founded by a handful of Stanford business and engineering graduates, was selling inexpensive lanterns that could last a rural family for years.
 
Chaudhary purchased a light for about $30 and soon noticed that his family’s eyes no longer burned and their chests no longer hurt. Even better, they could see at night. His sister, Rama, was able to stay up late knitting sweaters. His father, Gajinder, could read without straining his eyesight. His aunt, Suman, stopped charring the flat chapati bread she baked over the wood stove.
 
Chaudhary liked the new lamp. He decided to help D.light sell them.
 
D.light’s CEO, Stanford Graduate School of Business grad Sam Goldman, MBA ’07, estimates that nearly a million people in 30 countries are currently using the company’s lights. He and his cofounders are aiming much higher: In the next decade or two, they want to completely eliminate the kerosene lantern.
 
They know the goal is lofty. Goldman rattles off a long list of challenges the young company faces: Convincing hesitant customers with little extra income to invest in unfamiliar technology. Creating a strategy to spread the word that the product exists. Developing a supply chain to get it out to remote villages. Convincing skilled local workers to leave stable jobs to join a startup. Setting up offices in foreign countries. Not knowing the local languages.
 
In short, Goldman says with a laugh: “Everything.”
 
Not to mention that, at some point, they’ll need to turn a profit.
 
They realize, too, that they’re taking on an enormous adversary. According to United Nations data, a billion and a half people in the developing world — especially Asia and Africa — still depend exclusively on kerosene or candles to light their homes once the sun sets. That light tends to be poor quality and expensive.
 
Kerosene fumes also can be extremely unhealthy, even fatal. And devastating fires are all too common. This past January, the Hindustan Times reported that five young siblings in West Bengal had burned to death in a fire probably caused by a spilled kerosene lamp. In February, the same paper reported the deaths of about a dozen children in a school hostel in Arunachal Pradesh. They had been studying by candlelight.
 
“In a bigger picture, it’s not that we’re delivering light to the customers, it’s that we’re delivering health, safety, education,” Goldman said. “They actually don’t need light, they need those other things. They need freedom from burns, they need the ability to study at night so that their families can progress, they need safety from intruders — whatever it is that light’s bringing them.”
 
D.light is by no means the only company using solar technology to light rural villages in India and Africa. But the company has become something of a darling in the social enterprise world; it has received mention in Time, BusinessWeek, and the New York Times, among others.
 
In its first year, 2008, D.light reached about 100,000 people in 8 countries; by 2009, that number had quintupled — that year, it reached an additional 500,000 people in 28 countries. Some are not sold directly to end users. For example, the company provided 35,000 lights at its cost, taking no profit, to relief agencies who were giving them to earthquake victims and using them for other relief efforts such as lighting hospitals in Haiti. By the end of 2010, D.light’s goal is to reach between 2 million and 5 million more people.
 
Despite that initial success, D.light’s founders are quick to acknowledge that selling a new product to the Earth’s poorest customers is no simple task. One central factor most often impedes the success of social enterprises in the developing world, says Stuart Hart, an expert on sustainable development and business at Cornell University: rich, highly educated Westerners assuming they know more about the needs of the rural poor than the poor themselves.
 
While it may be abundantly clear to outsiders that kerosene is toxic and dangerous, poor people in the developing world have depended on it for years. They’ve shaped their lives around it.
 
“It’s changing people’s way of living — their lifestyle — and then asking them to pay money to do that,” he said. “That isn’t always the easiest thing to do.”
 
Rather than viewing poor villagers simply as customers, Hart says, successful companies must consult with them and view them as co-creators.
 
D.light has worked hard to do that, which is partially why funders think the little startup might eventually turn into something big. Although the company is not yet profitable, Goldman says it is on track to change that within the next two years.
 
Raj Kundra, director of the energy portfolio at the Acumen Fund, which has invested $1 million in D.light, sees a lot of startups trying to take shortcuts by buying a bunch of solar lights for cheap in China, then bringing them to Africa to unload. Without designing the product and distribution channels around the needs of their customers, Kundra says, such endeavors quickly fail.
 
“In our mind, what differentiates D.light is they are building a social enterprise that looks and feels and functions in the way that the most sophisticated consumer products company would,” he said. “They’re not taking any shortcuts.”
 
The company has gone back to the drawing board again and again, trying to find the perfect lantern for the residents of the village of Bhojaka — and for thousands of similar villages the world over. Early on, D.light focused on creating lanterns with rechargeable batteries; after learning that many villagers didn’t have an easy way to charge those batteries, they switched to solar.
 
After customers expressed a need to charge their cell phones, the company introduced the Nova S200, which includes an outlet for phone charging. And when it was clear that the price of the Nova (upward of $25) was too high for the very poor, last fall the company introduced the Kiran, which retails for $10 to $15.
 
But creating the perfect lantern is only worthwhile if people — millions upon millions of people — know about it, want it, can pay for it, and have a way of getting it delivered to them. D.light has made inroads on all of these challenges; it hasn’t completely solved any of them.
 
For help, the company depends on people such as Chaudhary, who until recently worked for D.light as a “rural entrepreneur.” As the last link in the company’s long supply chain, his job was to convince his neighbors in Bhojaka and dozens of surrounding villages that D.light’s product was a worthwhile investment.
 
Chaudhary, 33, says he sold about 400 lamps before taking a full-time job last fall selling spices for another company. D.light had switched him and other rural entrepreneurs from salaried to commission-based reimbursement, and he was no longer satisfied with his income. Goldman says the vast majority of rural entrepreneurs have always been paid on commission, but a few of the initial hires — including Chaudhary — were paid a salary before the company worked out its payment model.
 
Aside from this frustration, Chaudhary identifies two main challenges in selling the lights: The first is making people aware of them. The second is helping people afford them.
 
“There are many people who can’t buy because they don’t even have enough to feed themselves,” he said.
 
To encourage his neighbors to purchase, Chaudhary arranged informal financing plans and even loaned out his own lamps on a trial basis.
 
For some, that’s all it took. After just one night borrowing Chaud-hary’s lantern, Risal Singh, 57, was sold. Singh, a teacher, has since purchased three lights for his home and three more for his extended family.
 
“With the old kerosene lamps our eyes would water,” he said. “Now there’s no such problem, and we can work at night easily.”
 
Chaudhary’s neighbor, Pradeep Bhola, 22, said he couldn’t afford to buy a lamp outright, so Chaudhary — on his own initiative — let him pay in installments. Bhola, a tailor, is now able to sew for an extra three to four hours every evening. His daily income has increased by $1 to $2, he says, in addition to the money he saves from not buying kerosene.
 
But not all of Chaudhary’s innovations can easily be brought to scale.
 
Dorcas Cheng-Tozun, Stanford AB ’01, D.light’s communication director and wife of Ned Tozun, MBA ’07, the company’s president, says D.light considers financing options important and is hoping to partner with microfinance institutions that might provide them.
 
“It needs to happen,” she said. D.light just hasn’t figured out a way to do it yet.
 
Brian Cayce of Gray Ghost Ventures, which has invested about $1 million in D.light through its private foundation, Gray Matters Capital, said the foundation has encouraged D.light’s interest in partnering with microfinance institutions, especially in the small, poor villages that most companies don’t typically reach. But educating local credit officers about solar technology has proven difficult, and it’s not clear whether the crossover will work.
 
“The jury’s still out on that,” he said.
 
As the company continues to look for solutions to such problems, it adheres to a principle at the heart of GSB Professor Jim Patell’s Entrepreneurial Design for Extreme Affordability course: Listen to your customers.
 
The idea for D.light first emerged in that class four years ago, during a group project. Goldman, fellow business classmate Tozun, and engineering students Erica Estrada and Xian Wu ended up on the same team. Their assignment was to address a significant issue in the developing world. They chose energy.
 
That spring, the team members took exploratory trips to Burma. Villagers told them they spent huge sums each month on kerosene and candles. The team’s rough prototypes of portable LED lights were so popular, Tozun said, that people would actually weep as they talked about how the lights had transformed their lives. In one village, the police even confiscated the prototypes — they, too, needed light.
 
After completing the course, the classmates headed off to various summer internships. The next fall, they reunited in the Oval to play Frisbee. They agreed to keep working on D.light’s business concept.
 
The following spring, the team took second place in the Univer-sity of California, Berkeley’s Global Social Venture Competition and won first prize at Stanford’s Social E-Challenge. Its big breakthrough came in May: It claimed the $250,000 first prize in the prestigious Draper Fisher Jurvetson Venture Challenge competition.
 
“It’s going to happen,” Tozun remembers thinking. “It’s not a dream anymore.”
 
Tozun turned down a job at Google. Goldman turned down a job with Wal-Mart’s sustainability team.
 
In the summer of 2007, after Tozun and Goldman graduated, the company incorporated. Starting in early 2008, they opened their international offices — first in India, then in Shenzhen, China, then in Tanzania, then in Hong Kong. Of five initial founders (the fifth was Gabriel Risk, Stanford MS ’02, the husband of a business school classmate), three remain with the company — Goldman as CEO; Tozun, president; Wu, the senior project manager. Tozun and Wu focus on manufacturing and design and international sales out of Shenzhen.
 
More than 2,000 miles away, from his fourth-floor office in a dusty business complex in south Delhi, Goldman oversees the company’s efforts to market and distribute the product.
 
At 30, Goldman is tall and slim. He has a neat goatee, a silver hoop in his left ear, and rectangular glasses that frame his blue eyes. He also has a personal grudge against kerosene.
 
Before attending the Graduate School of Business, Goldman spent four years working as a Peace Corps volunteer in rural Benin. He lit his mud house with a kerosene lantern. The light quality was terrible. One night, he walked into his darkened house to get something and was bitten by a snake. Another night, his neighbor’s son accidentally knocked over a kerosene lantern. The accident left the boy with third-degree burns over most of his body.
 
Eventually, Goldman bought an LED light from another Peace Corps volunteer. He also started writing letters, trying to convince LED companies to market the lights to the rural poor. No one responded.
 
“Why isn’t this happening?” he asked himself. “What is going on? There’s some gigantic market failure here.”
 
Six years and one MBA later, Goldman tries his best to share this passion and empathy with the people who work for him. The company requires all new employees in India to take an “empathy trip” to a rural village and spend the night with a family that has limited or no electricity.
 
This past January, my husband and I joined Rajesh Dubey, from D.light’s accounting staff, and Sule Amadu, a fellow with the Acumen Fund, on a visit to Amit Chaudhary’s home in Bhojaka.
 
For several hours, we hurtled down crowded highways, dodging motorcycles, bicycle rickshaws, and cows grazing on heaps of trash. Eventually, we turned off the main highway onto a bumpy, single-lane dirt road.
 
The electricity was still on when we arrived just before dusk, and Chaudhary’s 6-year-old son, Om, was contentedly watching TV. At 6 p.m., as though on cue, the TV flickered off, and the room went dark. Chaudhary and his family scrambled around, pulling out their D.light Novas and a new Kiran. They placed one light next to each of two outdoor wood stoves. Two more lit the bedroom where we sat sipping milky sweet cardamom chai.
 
Late into the evening, we talked with Chaudhary and his family, peppering them with questions as Dubey struggled to translate. As a salesman, Chaudhary had plenty of frustrations with D.light; as customers, he and his family seemed thrilled.
 
“You can use [this light] for everything — to cook, to study,” his aunt said.
 
“And also when we have to turn on the water to irrigate our fields,” his father chimed in. “We’re using it for everything.”
 
We stood in the outdoor courtyard for a while, the lights shining down on us as we watched the fire crackle in the wood stove. Chaudhary’s aunt was cooking, his sister was knitting, the children were playing.
 
Life moved on, illuminated.
 
 

 

Amit Chaudhary's sister-in-law walks with a D.light in Bhojaka, India, while preparing dinner in their family compound.

Amit Chaudhary's sister-in-law walks with a D.light in Bhojaka, India, while preparing dinner in their family compound.

A company born in a Stanford classroom discovers distribution and finance can be as important as the bright idea.

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Also on Stanford Knowledgebase:

  1. Pondering the Ethics of Global Business
  2. India’s Economic Growth is Missing the Poor
  3. India’s Slums Represent Complex Political and Social Issues

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