The case of We Care Solar and our failure to spot winners

“The first ever US$1 million UN-DESA Energy Grant has been awarded to We Care Solar, a non-profit organisation, to enhance and expand the use of its ‘Solar Suitcase’. By making solar power simple, accessible and affordable, this device allows for the provision of electricity for medical procedures during childbirth in many developing countries, helping to avoid life-threatening complications for mothers and children” – UN website

Yesterday afternoon at United Nations HQ in New York, Laura Stachel and her organisation, We Care Solar, picked up the inaugural UN-DESA award. It’s the latest in a string of awards and accolades for a project I’ve known and admired for many years. You can read more about what happened yesterday on the UN website.

Liberian Health Workers receiving their  Solar Suitcase (Photo: We Care Solar)

Liberian Health Workers receiving their Solar Suitcase (Photo: We Care Solar)

I was already a fan of simple, appropriate technology solutions to problems before I met Laura in 2009. While almost everyone else at the time seemed to be aspiring to build complex tech solutions to often simple problems, the idea behind the Solar Suitcase was beautiful in its simplicity. It was based on a rather simple hypothesis: If the power (and therefore lighting) goes down in the middle of a difficult (or any) childbirth, and there’s no backup, people can die. This is not just true of maternity wards in the developing world, where Laura first witnessed this happening. Try plunging any operating theatre anywhere in the world into darkness and see how the surgeons cope.

I always found the idea compelling, and always did what I could to help. Laura was as committed to ending these unnecessary deaths as anyone could be, and her determination was at times a source of frustration to her. She gave it everything, and taking it on changed her life. The fact she got so little support early on, despite the compelling nature of her work, was an injustice in my eyes, and another reason I always did what I could. It was another reason why I wanted to include her story in my recent book, “The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator“. In celebration of their award yesterday, we’re offering Laura’s chapter here for free (PDF).

Why Laura was so committed was clear. From her Nigerian fieldwork (2008), quoted in the book:

I had not predicted the challenges facing my Nigerian colleagues. At night, I observed maternity care, watching helplessly as doctors and midwives struggled to treat critically ill pregnant women in near-total darkness. The dim glow of kerosene lanterns often provided the only illumination. Without electricity, doctors had to postpone Caesarean sections and other life-saving procedures. When the maternity ward was in darkness, midwives were unable to provide emergency care and, on occasion, would turn patients away from the labour room door, despite their critical need for care.

The story of Laura’s response, the Solar Suitcase, is not the rosy tale of social innovation and overnight success that many people hearing about her work for the first time yesterday might think it to be. Today, things might be going well but, as Laura will remind us, there’s always more to be done, and women and children continue to die in the dark in wards the developing world over. It’s obviously great news that, as a result of yesterdays award, that number will continue to decrease, but that level of support hasn’t always been there, despite the compelling nature of what she was doing.

Poster for the Solar Suitcase (Courtesy Laura Stachel)

Poster for the Solar Suitcase (Courtesy Laura Stachel)

After that Nigerian trip in 2008, Laura and her partner, Hal, sketched out the early plans for the Solar Suitcase. That done, they needed money to build a prototype. A $12,500 competition at UC Berkeley looked like the perfect place to get it, but out of twelve finalists they didn’t win. In her own words, Laura felt dejected and, worse, felt she’d let down colleagues in Nigeria who she had promised to help. But someone there believed in them. Thomas Kalil, a campus official who had been at the competition, called Laura up and told her they should have won. He committed to helping. Within three weeks he had pulled together $25,000 from The Blum Center for Developing Economies and Berkeley Big Ideas, and We Care Solar was born. Considerable challenges remained as the work progressed, and on numerous occasions anyone with less determination would have quit. There’s nothing more deflating that having huge belief in what you’re doing, only to find so few others who share it. If you want the real story behind what it means to innovate, read Laura’s chapter. Trust me, it’s worth it.

The story of We Care Solar is littered with opportunities for the official development sector to come on board. But on so many occasions it didn’t. There could be many reasons for this. Perhaps the technology wasn’t clever enough? Maybe donors didn’t see the potential in what Laura was doing? Maybe they were too busy looking for the next big thing? Maybe all of the above?

Yesterday’s award is proof that Laura was right sticking to her belief in the Solar Suitcase, despite the immense personal sacrifices that involved. And we should be grateful that she did. We talk a lot in the development sector about ‘picking winners’ and the ‘need to support things that work’. But that clearly didn’t happen here. Until now. How many Laura’s are out there who don’t battle through, who call it a day on potentially life-changing ideas because they can’t get the support they need? Or, worse, because they are constantly rejected?

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but what’s not compelling about giving light to maternity wards in the developing world? What’s not compelling about wanting to stop women and babies dying in the dark? And why did it take so long to help someone fix it?

Lone innovators of the world unite

Conventional wisdom among much of the investor community might have you believe that only projects borne out of teams have the potential to succeed. People that work alone are an awkward fit. Maybe they’re considered anti-social, giving a sign that they’re not able (or willing) to work with others? Or they’re considered too introvert? Perhaps building a team is part of the investor pre-investment test? “The evidence is in everywhere that great innovation comes from collaborating” is what we’re lead to believe.


I’ve previously written about the need to invest more in people, not just projects. It’s now just a case of extending that argument from ‘people’ to ‘person’.

If you’re looking for evidence that introverts aren’t all that bad (or rare) – and I guess many lone founders might be rightly (or wrongly) grouped in that category – then Susan Cain’s Quiet is a brilliant place to start:

The introvert/extrovert divide is the most fundamental dimension of personality. And at least a third of us are on the introverted side. Some of the world’s most talented people are introverts. Without them we wouldn’t have the Apple computer, the theory of relativity and Van Gogh’s sunflowers.

After spending most of my early career in the mobile-for-development field as a lone non-profit technology founder, quite successfully I’d like to think, these past few months I’ve been learning the ropes in the commercial sector as I build out a new mobile app idea. The difference in approach is quite something – that’s something for a longer, future blog post – but the focus on market opportunity and business models feature strongly, as does the need to be in a team. This from a programme I was looking at just last week – the Barclays Accelerator:

No founders

I suppose I could always drop my app idea for a while and spend huge amounts of time bringing a bunch of other people on-board. Or I could not do that, and just look for investors who don’t mind lone innovators. They do exist – I found one. And they invested.

No matter how brilliant your mind or strategy, if you’re playing a solo game, you’ll always lose out to a teamReid Hoffman, Co-Founder of LinkedIn

I don’t dispute that, ultimately, you’ll need a team to build out your idea. My argument is simply that it might be after you’ve started building, and after you know your idea has legs. Focus relentlessly on the product first.

After all, no product, no business, no (need for a) team.

Publishing and the art of iteration

Eighteen months ago, “The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator” hit the shelves. The product of a combination of donations, crowdfunding, ten inspiring innovators, an editor with too much time on his hands, and an engaged publisher, the book was always something of an experiment. Tales of people innovating ‘outside the system’ – people with little by way of resources or money, and often without qualification or permission – just getting on with fixing social ills that deeply bothered them seemed like stories the world needed to hear.

Today, it looks like I may have underestimated the number of people who wanted to hear them.

Professional book reviews are hard to get, particularly when you self publish. But the couple we got were great (here’s one). Amazon reviews were even better – standing today at 43 and counting, and all five star reviews bar a couple. It even topped Amazon’s “Development Studies” charts for a while. All of this, of course, in addition to the couple-of-dozen fantastic post-publication endorsements we got.

Interestingly, universities and colleges around the world quickly started picking up on the book as it found its way into numerous social innovation and ICT4D classes. For me, this has been the biggest positive for the book. One typical response appeared on Amazon:

Stories for every college campus

Ken Banks has collected a volume of stories here that need to be told on every college campus. College campuses are at this moment unique seedbeds of opportunity. Populated with “Millennial Searchers” who, in increasing numbers, tell us they define life success in terms of meaning, purpose, and making a difference, and shaped by the larger movements of social entrepreneurship and sustainability, college curricula have begun shifting towards educating students to become agents for change.

What our change agents need above all right now is not more information, but stories – stories that the move them from paralysis and despair in the face of social disintegration and ecological loss to actions shaped by courage, humor, and hope. These stories do this. And because they inject so much of the raw, the uncertain, and the unformed portion of reality into their tales they are stories on which students will clamber for in the face of the challenges of their generation.

These stories speak eloquently about power – the power of connections, the power in confronting power structures for the sake of the marginal, the power of serendipity, the power of the human spirit to overcome immense challenges and work towards transformation and justice. In doing so, they function as a calling to that part of ourselves that will recreate and restore human and natural communities, that bears witness to our capacity for both good and ill, and that remembers the full range of ingenuity and wisdom we possess individually and as a species.

Wendy Petersen Boring, co-editor, “Teaching Sustainability: Perspectives from the Humanities and Social Sciences”

Over the past few months it’s become increasingly clear that I ought to make more of the book. So I started speaking to an international publisher, and am delighted to share news that I’ve now been offered a full publishing deal to release a new, revised and re-worked “Rise of the Reluctant Innovator” early next year (though the title will need to change to something a little more search-engine-friendly, apparently).

Over the summer I’ll be working with the existing chapter contributors, and some new ones, putting a little more structure around each of their stories. The essence of the book will remain the same, but we’ll make it more useful to students of social entrepreneurship and social innovation. We’ve already learnt that our approach is a little unique, and that it stands out from other books which are often dominated by theory and stuffy concepts. Ever since I started inviting FrontlineSMS users to write about their work and experiences using the software way back in 2005, I’ve been increasingly convinced that people are primarily motivated and inspired by raw stories of innovation.

Watch this space for news and updates over the coming months. In the meantime, you can check out the current book offering here.