Solar Power isn't Feasible!

Solar Power isn't Feasible!
This cartoon was on the cover of the book "SolarGas" by David Hoye. It echoes the Sharp Solar slogan "Last time I checked nobody owned the sun!"

Friday, May 9, 2008

Entrepreneurship to Address Global Poverty: The Solar CITIES relationship approach

The first time I was in Cairo, in 1982 as a Harvard exchange student on a year-abroad, earning money by teaching English to the Poor with the American University in Cairo Department of Public Service, I spent my free time acting in plays on the AUC stage. Realizing that people use language not to pass exams but to express themselves in real and emotionally important contexts and situations, I threw out the textbooks and brought the theater play scripts I was memorizing into the classroom instead. Then I had the students bring in costumes and props and we learned English by role-playing. During the sessions I would give them free tickets to the theater (none had ever been in the distinguished AUC theater, which the poor almost never get to see) and they would reinforce their aural skills in an event atmosphere by watching us perform the plays they had memorized and acted out in class.

In one of the plays, Brendan Behan's "Juno and the Paycock" I played an old man, mired in poverty, named Joxer Daly. I had one line in the play that resonated with my indigent students and that has informed my work to this day. Joxer says to the rich man who judges him, "If ye want to know me... come and live with me!"

On Wednesday, May 7th I had the good fortune to participate, via Video Skype from Germany, in fellow Harvard Krokadiloe alum Professor John Danner’s inaugural undergrad class on "Entrepreneurship To Address Global Poverty" at the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley.
And when telling his students what I thought they should do to successfully address global poverty, I quoted Joxer Daly once again,

"If you want to know them (and help them), come and live with them!"

It was great to have this opportunity to e-connect (or is it AV-connect) with John Danner's students, and especially to connect over the idea of (to steal the phrase from the wonderful organization) "unleashing the potential of people to make positive change happen" through intensely personalizing our discourse! The message: spend some time getting to know how "the other 90%" really live and think and feel. Then go about trying to make a difference.

I was afraid I hadn't quite been able to get across what I think is the most important lesson from my years working with "the poor", and that the students might have come away mighty confused from my long and meandering monologue about my experience as a “whiteface” circus clown meeting black gang kids in Oakland, on my history with using inner-city film-making to get at-risk youth involved with environmental issues in L.A.’s Crenshaw, Jefferson and Hollywood High Schools, on how we’ve used a capella and rock and roll musical goodwill tours of the Middle East and elsewhere in the world to promote renewable energy (sometimes on solar powered stages or with portable solar panels) and on how we go about the building of solar hot water and other renewable energy and urban ecology systems in slums with disadvantaged youth whom we first got to know during our concert tours.

In fact I was up all night trying to figure out how I could say things more succinctly and connect all these disparate experiences and insights together, hoping that eventually I can turn it all in the service of finding more effective ways to bring investment and education, and sustainable development, to areas where they are so badly needed.

I realized that the message I most wanted to share with the students, and hope they gleaned, or will glean, is that for sustainable development to succeed I think we need an intensely personal approach. There is rarely, if ever, a one size fits all solution for the problem of underdevelopment, as critics of Rostow's "Take-off to Sustainability" thesis have said for the past half century. My contribution to this would be to say "if we don't pull out all the stops, and connect in every way we can with our fellow humans, tapping into our shared enthusiasm for music, film, art, discovery and creation as a basis for relationship building, we won't be able to fulfill the technocratic functions that need to be worked out, or the implementation of nuts and bolts projects that need to be put in place and maintained because we will forever be isolated by a wall of mistrust, suspicion, envy, or prejudice (on both sides). And when the "experts" leave, the community we tried to “help” usually falls back into decay. We've seen it happen too often, haven't we?

I was trying to say to the students that we have to erase the barrier between "us" and "them" if we want to co-evolve successful programs, and we must build enduring personal relationships first (or concomitantly) where the joy of sharing our common enthusiasms as common people provides the backbone and skeleton upon which we then hang the sinews and muscles of development -- the infrastructure, the legal structures, the micro-credit programs, the business deals to help local entrepreneurship etc.

And that is where, I think, green-minded entrepreneurs can play the best role. I notice that when I was working with the Egyptian Wadi Foods Company for two years as we created the Wadi Environmental Science Center, the business deals that were made were always because the CEOs would meet somebody at a party or dinner or awards ceremony, or on the golf course or at a conference, and then establish a personal relationship and build trust. As a family business they would start making deals when they felt they could trust bringing people over to the house for dinner. That is how real business is done that lasts. But how many aid agencies or development agencies invite “the poor people” whom they are “trying to help” over for dinner?

The most successful B2B model, it seems to me, is always about trust and relationships, and I realized when I was reading Hernando DeSoto's "The Mystery of Capital" and the works of Mohammed Yunus that we need to apply that model to working with "the poor".

Which means students of business who want to make a difference need to get out into the communities they want to work with and get to know real people, making long-term investments in the human capital there. They have to establish friendships. And these must be real friendships, such as we have done in Cairo and Guatemala and Indonesia and Mexico and South Central Los Angeles, not the typically patronizing shallow socializing that goes on when a donor or funder or foreign visitor makes a scheduled tour to “inspect” the project.

I stressed to the students that they should take the time to really get to know just a few individuals who will become long-term friends, be it in Oakland, or South Central L.A., or skid row or Mumbai or Cairo. And once they know real individuals, and have built mutual trust, development becomes a simpler (if not simple) matter of sharing ideas and capital and vision with those individuals and maintaining the relationships as people with common interests always do.

Certainly in a time when we are globally connected via cheap mobile telephony, skype, email and blogs, there is no excuse to detach from your friends in the ghetto, even if you physical can’t get back there for a while.

Thus I stay in constant communication with Hanna Fathy and Mahmoud Dardir and our whole Solar CITIES project family in the slums of Cairo, and with our fellow stakeholders in Guatemala and inner city L.A. In a globally connected world we can truly live as Dr. Martin Luther King wanted us to, judging a man by the content of his mind rather than the color of his skin (or, more to the point for students who have overcome their racial prejudices but maintained their class privilege prejudices, the infrastructure of his community or the size and look of his home!)

So it stops being a question of "helping the poor" (which is derogatory and unsatisfying for those who "have-not" when it comes to fancy degrees or material goods or a high income) but a question of finding problem-solving partners who just happen to live in and among the greatest material and social challenges that one's solution set has to tackle.

In effect there can now be what my former advisor Dr. Susanna B. Hecht called "trading techne for metis" -- a fair trade where we offer our technical skills and our access to credit and investment capital for the profound and profoundly local knowledge and the in the field application opportunities that can only be found in areas with profound problems.

We turn the poor's problems, in effect, into their assets. We can trade with dignity with them in a win-win. After all, any business that can claim to, for example, solve the water problem in a poor community in Cairo, can use that to build credibility and reputation as a true solution-providing business and gain a leg over the competition.

After all, isn’t that what successful advertising is all about – convincing people your product (a solution to filling a need) is better than the competitors? The so called “have-nots” are the perfect advertisement for development products (products in food, energy, health care, comfort, waste management, water, safety – all the issues that consumers really spend most of their money on) and I argue that money is better spent finding a way to economically satisfy the needs and the consumer demand of the poor and letting word get around than putting money into posters and glossy magazine ads targeted at the wealthy. When the poor become “haves” (having your product and embracing its virtues) the people who have discretionary funds will know what to spend their money on, since most people are looking for the ideal compromise between price and performance. I think this is one of the points of the magnificent exhibit “design for the other 90%”.

So that is what I really wanted to get across to the Berkeley Business School students: build relationships first, on a human level, by any means necessary (a capella does work rather well, as villagers in South Africa showed me when they sang without instruments for us during our visit to present ideas on Eco-Villages during the Earth Summit in 2002) and then sit down and discuss partnerships for problem solving. It is much more direct than dumping money into some aid organization or some add campaign and hoping it trickles through the bureaucracy to the people.

My wife and I were just discussing Virginia Holman's article in "Spirit" magazine about "Person-to-person Philanthropy" and reflecting that this is the way we have always operated, but hadn't yet formalized in our young Solar CITIES Association (we recently legally registered in Germany as a "Verein", a type of NGO that facilitates our work in Egypt without getting mired in their bureaucracy).

We believe that person-to-person philanthropy holds a key to development. Our biggest caution in the implementation is how we all go about framing the philanthropy:

It must be seen as a two-way street.

The so-called “poor” are equally rich in heart, and should be considered partners in philanthropy, helping and giving as much to the “donor” as they get.

We don't use the binary optic of "rich" and "poor" when we do our work. We abhor such distinctions. To claim to "work with the poor" we feel, is to set up an arbitrary dualism that defeats real progress. What we do, and what we urge students to do, is to get to know our fellow human beings with whom we share the planet, get to know them as individuals and families, and get to know their communities, and then, when we see a need, or a challenge, or a problem to be solved, get together as fellow stakeholders and solve it.

As one inner city teacher trainer in the Los Angeles Unified School District Intern Program told me before I set foot in his community in South Central L.A. “you don’t come here to teach. You come here to co-learn.”

We often talked about Edward Said's insights into the damaging affects of "othering" and how this creates the conditions for the "orientalism" that has so affected the dignity of people in the Middle East (and elsewhere). Good business practice has always been built on personal Person to Person trust -- B2B is really about P2P and F2F interaction, I tell students. I urge them not to think about helping a "class" of people but really helping certain individuals whom they have established relationships with and then widen the circle.

In our particular case in Cairo, as in my work in the L.A. Ghettos, it started with visits to the homes of our friends Mustafa Hussein (a young carpenter), Hanna Fathy (a young garbage sorter) and Mahmoud Dardir (a young environmentalist teacher-in-training from a family that fled the slum of Darb Al Ahmar and now lives in the impoverished sprawl that has destroyed the precious agricultural land on the outskirts of Cairo). Seeing that Mustafa and Hanna usually didn't have any source of water, much less hot water, we began to brainstorm solutions to their individual problems, visiting each other's homes and taking trips to various institutions to meet engineering and environmental professors, like Dr. Jeff Miller, Dr. Moshira Hassan, Dr. Salah Arafa and Dr. Salah El Haggar at AUC, and urban planners, development workers, architects, inventors and environmental engineers like Seif Rashidi, Shareen Zaghow, Kareem Ibrahim and Naveen Akl, Magdy Zahran and Alaa Watidy. Ultimately we realized we could use their advice but to make things sustainable we would have to solve the local problems ourselves, at the local level, by pooling and applying the best advice and examples that experts like them could offer and that we could find through our virtual and physical travels but focusing on cooperative learning and capacity building. And that meant spending LOTS of time together, moving into the community and eating and celebrating events with the families.

My wife and I became the donors of the first three plumbing, water pumping, roof storage tank and solar hot water systems that were necessary, building everything from scratch and learning along the way. Then a couple of my American University in Cairo mentor professors, Dr. Miller and Dr. Hassan, came to visit us in the slums and got to know the guys and their families and then they donated some money and roof space at the university to continue experimenting. Then Gene Lin, a dear friend who I play in a rock and roll band in Cairo, who is an infrastructure engineer for US AID, and another dear friend, Bruce Abrams, a fellow UCLA Urban Planning graduate who works on democracy issues for US AID, came out to visit what we had achieved and Gene recommended that his colleague Susan Pollack, who was in charge of the small grants program visit too, and we were soon invited to submit a proposal. A year later we received the $25,000 small infrastructure grant from US AID that is funding Hanna and Mahmoud and Mustafa to train others and to build 30 to 50 hand-made solar hot water systems.

Most importantly for sustainability, Gene invited the youth from the Zabaleen Recycling school who perform theater plays about their history and play music concerts on garbage cans a la "Stomp" to come to his home to rehearse and jam, and then we all went out to the communities of Manshiyat Nasser and Darb Al Ahmar to perform concert festivals together in which we shared multi-cultural music, presentations on environmental projects and, most importantly, GOOD TIMES.

As they say, people sometimes remember what you said, often remember what you did, but ALWAYS remember how you made them FEEL.

Now, each time visitors come to their communities Hanna and Mahmoud take them on a tour of the project and invite them to "break bread" with them and get to know some families. Sometimes visitors actually make donations but we never solicit them, as we are respectful of people's feelings -- we think each person's spirit moves in its own subtle ways and needs no "hard sell".

One couple from Canada who were visiting the St. Samaan monastery came down to the informal school to see the projects and saw immediately with their own intuition that we could extend pipes from the solar hot water system we built on the recycling school into the shanty dwelling of a neighboring family who had no water and lived with their animals, making money by sorting deadly hepatitis-threatening medical waste.

As we sat and had tea with them (the son went to the school) the couple were moved by the idea that the children were picking through bloody bandages and syringes for a living and had no easy way to wash; certainly without hot water they could not sterilize things or get clean, and the hassle of carrying water buckets from the public tap 100 meters away discouraged thorough washing. So this couple, and two students, Andrew Besada a young Canadian/Egyptian student in Dr. Moshira Hassan’s environmental science class, visiting for the holidays, and Eric Kingman, a graduate student from the U.S. working on his Master’s in water management, generously donated enough money for us to build a bathroom with them, including sink, shower and toilet. Now their shanty has hot and cold running water supplied by our solar hot water system on the school.

I'm sure many readers have heard a million stories like this, so it is nothing new, but for us, on the ground for the past five years in the ghettos of Cairo, experiencing the power of global giving removed from the usual institutional aid model and made very personal, it was a revelation. We started thinking that the best way we could work with our friends to surmount the challenges they face was to create a kind of urban slum eco-tourism, bringing people on-site to see the problems, meet the people as individuals and brainstorm solutions.

We hadn't yet explored the idea of connecting with business school students working on social entrepreneurship worldwide and hadn't thought of building virtual relationships through excellent sites like, using the magic of the internet and the powerful potential of multi-media telecommunications software and hardware to dissolve barriers between people formerly isolated by geography, language and perceptions of class. But speaking as a virtual visitor in the Berekeley business school class has opened that dimension to us now, and I hope we can do a whole lot more!

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