Start-Ups Win with Plans to Displace Disposables

Posted by nuru on 13 Apr 2010

By Lara Kolodny

Companies that provide environmentally sensible alternatives to old, destructive forms of lighting, batteries and paper goods won top awards at a business-plan competition held this weekend in Washington, D.C., by the William James Foundation, an organization that encourages socially responsible for-profits.

The grand prize of $6,000 and additional in-kind business services went toNURU Energy, which is also known as NURU Lights. The company makes rechargeable lights and portable power generators that are designed to displace the lanterns and carbon-emitting kerosene fuel still used in off-grid villages in developing nations.

A NURU task light or set of lights linked together can be recharged by solar or alternating-current power sources when they are available. But NURU’s POWERCycle also provides man-made electricity to charge them. The POWERCycle is a 1-foot-high, 1-foot-wide generator that sits in a simple wooden frame and operates like a stationary, recumbent bicycle. It can also be hand-cranked.

Sameer Hajee, co-founder and chief executive of NURU, said his company recently introduced an adapter that allowed the POWERCycle to recharge mobile phones as well as the lights. Mr. Hajee made his pitch in a live Skype video chat while traveling.

What impressed the foundation most, said its executive director, Ian Fisk, was the company’s distribution model.

NURU helps local residents in developing nations start small businesses that rent out and recharge lights. Headquartered in Kigali, Rwanda, NURU’s practice has been to partner with micro lenders — financial institutions that make small loans to citizens of developing nations — in order to teach and help would-be entrepreneurs become NURU franchisees.

The “micro entrepreneurs,” as Mr. Hajee prefers to call his franchisees, use the loans to buy a kit for about $250 that includes at least 50 individual, rechargeable NURU lights and one POWERCycle generator.

NURU’s franchisees in Rwanda, half of whom have been women, can make $3 to $4 an hour for their services (compared to a typical wage of $1.25 a day or less, according to Mr. Hajee.) They usually pay back their loans in six months.

NURU focuses on Rwanda but has customers in Kenya and India, too. The start-up makes its own money primarily by taking a small fee for each recharging.

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