Do We Want Sexy or Do We Want Impact?

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When Abbie forwarded me a blog post published in the Stanford Social Innovation Review this week, I joined in her cheer of “Yes, yes, yes! How many times have we had to defend Synergy and ourselves for not trying to be “sexy!?” It’s good to see someone pointing out this problem in the social enterprise space as well!”  

In his blog post, Beyond Sexy, Daniel Ben-Horin explores the dangers of the focus on scale, speed, and everything needing to be new, fast and financially profitable in the social enterprise sector. As he and seasoned social entrepreneurs point out, this focus is sending the wrong message to entrepreneurs and funders and as a result attention, funding and other resources may not be focusing on the most effective and lasting solutions.  

Through our work at Synergy we also see that ideas for “the lowest cost” products, using the “newest technology”, or those that can be “rolled out at the biggest scale” get the most attention.  We’re not afraid to say, even at the risk of not being perceived one of the “sexy” or hot organizations in the sector, that this is not our focus. We have seen over and over again that these factors don’t necessarily lead to the most effective or long-term impact, and that’s what we are looking for.  

One of the social enterprises that we worked with that really drives home this point SolarLEAP, whose founder Charles Watson has brought computer labs and digital libraries to schools in areas without reliable electricity in over 5 different countries. Charles’ approach of finding and understanding a problem at it’s roots and then taking the necessary time to develop the most effective solution has taught us a lot about what “the best” solution actually means.  Charles’ journey addressing the problem of lack of access to computers and the educational opportunities they provide is a lesson in what makes a solution truly effective and why some seemingly exciting approaches may fail.

The lowest cost solution is not always the best solution

An ultra low cost product usually means high volume is required. The One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) is a laptop computer developed by MIT for schools in developing countries and famous for its US$100 price tag.  However, this price can only be achieved and at a very high volume and the computers can only be sold to governments at a minimum of one million units per order. 

Furthermore, an ultra low cost product can be very expensive to develop, and accounting that cost into the cost of individual units actually makes them a lot more costly. Not to mention that it this can take a long time to develop. India’s $35 tablet computer Aakash was hailed as a huge milestone in affordable technology for the masses.  However, the computer maker, which has almost no profit margin, encountered endless delays and obstacles in the manufacturing process. A high school graduate on a gap year untainted with the sector’s hype for the fastest, most scalable and most innovative solutions, Charles approached the problem of students not having access to computers from the practical aspect. What would be the most practical way to bring computers and educational resources to low income and off grid schools? He took a netbook processor (which uses the least amount of electricity), put it inside a modern flat screen desktop computer (which is most user friendly for a rural and classroom setting), and pre- loaded a digital library containing an offline version of Wikipedia in the local language and  and materials from the Khan Aacademy and other educational resources onto the computer. Then he connected the computer to a solar panel via a regular tractor battery and the result was a school computer lab with modern desktop computers , and a vast digital library of learning educational resources in a school that didn’t even have access to electricity. All this was possible for an approximate cost of $US$4450 USD per computer (including the solar panels).