Over a billion people are still using kerosene as a primary fuel source, with over 1.5 million dying annually from issues related to indoor air pollution and kerosene fires. For many in the developing world, solar lamps are a new, inexpensive solution to the problem. A recent piece in The Economist hails solar lamps as the next “mobile phone” for the poor, noting that “its spread is sustainable because it is being driven by market forces, not charity.”
In an article for Christianity Today’s This is Our City project, HOPE International‘s Chris Horst interviews two business leaders from the industry who share how their purpose and direction in providing these products stems from a strong missional orientation toward work and a belief in the power of markets.
For Brian Rants, vice president of marketing for Nokero, a leading solar light company, involvement in the industry came after a fundamental transformation in his thinking:
“I am very surprised to find myself in business,” Rants says. “Business seemed to be a backup plan to being a missionary. Or being a pastor like I thought I would be. It seemed like businesspeople were just ‘extras’ in God’s story, rather than lead or even supporting actors.”
Over the past ten years, Rants worked for a number of nonprofits and churches. After going through graduate school, however, he began to discover the ways enterprise is improving the lives of the poor around the world. Rants excitedly joined Nokero, equipped with a restored vision of vocation. Through leveraging his knack for marketing, Rants fights poverty not just through his volunteerism and philanthropy, but inherently through his work in business.
“The world changes by people doing work—whatever that work might be—with all their heart and might,” he says. “That’s not God’s Plan B. That’s plan A. . . . I began to discover how God made me. And I realized I am not a creative, entrepreneurial person by accident, but by design.”
For Xianyi Wu, a designer at D.Light Design, another solar light producer, he “sensed God prodding him to persevere with his idea,” which soon led to providing light to over 10 million people. In Wu’s view, nonprofits were mishandling the industry and the product. A need was waiting to be met:
“Nonprofits that were in this industry this were either giving them away or highly subsidizing them because the design and business approach was so poorly done,” Wu says. “Handouts haven’t worked. Giving stuff away hasn’t changed anything. We asked: ‘What would happen if we leveraged capitalism and great design to reach more people?’ When we launched D.Light, we were able to prove that we could deliver a high-quality product at a very low price point.”
Some activists accuse companies like D.Light and Nokero of profiting off the poor, but these companies believe they’re profiting with the poor. These companies sell lights in places others are unable or unwilling to go. And Rants believes it actually gives their customers more power when they are buyers, not just receivers.
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