While visiting Namibia on a consulting job for the World Wildlife Fund, attorney Doug Vilsack recognized the need for renewable-powered lighting, especially in the rural areas, where most households have no access to the grid and must burn candles, kerosene, or wood for light. It was only after a law school acquaintance gave him a BoGo (Buy one, Give one) solar flashlight that he realized what he could do to help.
He collected $10 donations from his Facebook friends, and quickly raised enough money to buy 50 BoGo flashlights. On his next consulting trip to Namibia, he distributed the BoGos to game rangers, who used the lights to startle and scare away crop-destroying elephants that, in a few hours, can decimate a family’s entire year’s food supply.
Inspired by the rangers’ success stories, Vilsack wanted to do more and launched Elephant Energy (EE), a nonprofit whose mission is: “Light in every home, clean air in every kitchen, power in every hand.”
“I pushed forward because of the clear impact that these lights had on people’s lives,” says Vilsack. “Plus, the economics made sense—people spend $5 to $6 each month on kerosene and could reinvest these funds in solar technologies.”
Under Vilsack’s direction, EE is establishing a network for distributing renewable energy products to rural areas throughout Namibia. Vilsack and a small team of volunteers travel from village to village to sell the products to rural shop owners and entrepreneurs.
EE then acts as the supplier, providing the goods at wholesale prices that allow shop owners to sell the lights at fair prices and still earn a good profit. If necessary, EE will subsidize or provide financing for the first batch of products—after that, shop owners must reinvest their profits to replenish and grow their inventory.
“Subsidizing is not sustainable—for our organization or for the Namibian people,” Vilsack says. “We are there as an incubator for the first push of these products.
Early on, seed money for projects came largely from social funding campaigns, but the nonprofit group adopted a unique “for-profit mentality” to ensure its staying power. “We did not want our longevity as an organization to be at the mercy of grants and donations. Instead, we take a market-based approach and derive our funding from retail sales. That gives us a sustainable income to continue helping people,” says Katie Murphy, the group’s Africa program director. “Our goal is to be unnecessary in this equation.”