SEID projects with Vision Spring

Who knew that eye glasses could be so life-changing? Over the course of the semester, we had the opportunity to work with Vision Spring, an innovative social enterprise that seeks to alleviate poverty through the sale of affordable eye glasses. The organization recruits locals to work as Vision Entrepreneurs who conduct community outreach and educate people about the importance of good eye sight. Vision Spring customers range from house wives in El Salvador to farmers in rural India. Nonetheless, after having interacted with Vision Entrepreneurs, all customers cite the life-changing nature of eye glasses. With their new glasses, they can achieve higher levels of education, do their jobs more effectively and achieve their full potential.

Despite this innovative business model, Vision Spring has experienced demand generation problems and asked us to develop a marketing strategy that they could implement across their global offices. While we initially struggled to come up with a strategy that would succeed in all countries, we focused on design of effective marketing materials, market segmentation and partnerships with organizations that would help Vision Spring access these specific markets. We also provided a case study on how this strategy would work in El Salvador so that Vision Spring could see how our marketing guide would work in action.

We are so pleased to have had this great opportunity and look forward to hearing more about the amazing work that Vision Spring is doing around the world.

Marcus, Natacha, Nori and Akhil

SEID project with Sanergy

For the past six months, our SEID team has had the opportunity to work on an expansion strategy for Sanergy, a Nairobi-based social enterprise working to provide improved sanitation in East Africa. From the beginning of the project, our team was super excited to be working to support the Sanergy team. We had no idea, however, just how amazing of an experience we would have.

Shortly after Christmas, three of our teammates had the opportunity to join the Sanergy team in Nairobi, Kenya to finalize our market research. After celebrating the New Year with the Sanergy team, we then traveled into some of Nairobi’s slums to learn more about Sanergy’s current operations. After learning more about their sales force, construction, and waste processing, we then began our journey to investigate sanitation needs and challenges in the rest of East Africa. For the next three weeks, we met with a variety of social entrepreneurs, government officials, NGO workers, local neighborhood leaders and residents to learn more about the sanitation landscape in Tanzania, Uganda and Rwanda.

Overall, our SEID project was an amazing experience and although we learned more than we could have ever imagined (and, perhaps, even wanted to know!) about sanitation in East Africa, our team feels fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with Sanergy.


SEID project with Sproxil

Motivated by an interest in technology and global health innovations, our SEID team worked with Sproxil to improve consumer utilization of their mobile technology service to combat drug counterfeiting in Nigeria.  The technology allows consumers to authenticate their pharmaceutical purchase by texting an item-unique code to Sproxil for verification.  Combating counterfeit drugs is a pressing global issue; a report by the International Policy Network estimated that fake tuberculosis and malaria drugs kill 700,000 people a year.

Nigeria recently experienced a series of bombings and a nationwide labor strike and, as a result of the instability, our team wasn’t able to travel to Nigeria as planned.  We still managed to speak with local NGOs and government officials and interact directly with in-country project managers for multinational drug companies and their sales staff members.  These conversations helped us better understand drug distribution channels and the information needs of consumers.

We determined that both consumers and stakeholders, including pharmacists, sales reps and community groups, need to be better informed about the risks of counterfeit drugs and the benefits of Sproxil.  Our recommendation included a range of education efforts spanning print ads, radio dramas, street theater, as well as the creation of a pharmacy industry interest group and the integration of other innovative global health platforms.

SEID project with eLuma

In the last ten years, the word “sustainability” has grown in importance in the international development space. Sustainability has become a development category unto itself, and often refers to environmental considerations: how can we ensure our project has a neutral or positive impact on climate change? How can we encourage farmers to grow organic? At other times, it refers to generating positive social benefit.

But an original and oft-neglected meaning of sustainability lies in the simplicity of the word itself: how can our project be sustained, once we’ve moved on? This may be one of the greatest challenges of development work. Countless well-intentioned projects boast stellar outcomes, and five or ten years later are abandoned. Some critics of international aid (like Dambisa Moyo) point out that assistance from outside parties can often create dependencies and reduce incentives for local governments and entrepreneurs to stimulate lasting change from within.

eLuma, a project supported by IDEAS, was quick to identify this challenge, and has wasted no time in seeking a solution. The eLuma team is creating a business center in Yele, Sierra Leone which will leverage electricity to stimulate new enterprise, economic activity, and community development. eLuma realized that a rural business center not only had the potential for social impact; it also represented a good investment opportunity for utilities and energy providers. Enterprises, even when small, typically consume more energy than a residential household, and thus can significantly boost a utility’s revenues. The team called this the “eLuma effect” – the existence of a business center would absorb unused energy supply during daytime hours, when most residences don’t use electricity (check out the graph on the right). It would also stimulate the local economy as a whole, raising consumption (and thus, revenues) across the board.

As members of Sloan Entrepreneurs for International Development (SEID), a team of four of us set out to make the business case – in essence, the sustainability case – for eLuma. Our group came from consumer products, management consulting, and international development, and we’d all be stretched by the new assignment: build a financial model that shows the return on investment a utility can get from building a business center.

Sounds simple, right? We thought we had one of the most straightforward SEID projects. Two months, many meetings and much research later, we finally had a clear picture of what our model needed to answer, and what information would go into the model to yield that answer.

This was a fascinating process for us, and provided a hands-on lesson in how innovators turn ideas into reality. You get an idea, and you’re inspired; you tell people about your idea, and it takes on weight and momentum; then you try to produce something concrete from your idea, and are suddenly slapped with an onslaught of frightening practicalities. This last step can derail many fine ideas, and even in our mini-project, there were moments when we weren’t sure which path to take, or whether we could make something that worked. In the end, though, our persistence and some computational wizardry from my teammates produced an exciting return-on-investment tool for eLuma. The eLuma team has already taken it to Yele’s utility company, so we think that’s a good sign.

So what’s the takeaway from this experience?

If you’re interested in development, innovation, or entrepreneurship, find someone who’s doing it already, and get on board. Find a way to volunteer or assist with an IDEAS team, or with any project that excites you. You’ll learn about working in a startup, and you learn to push through the difficult stages to produce something real. You’ll also directly experience the unique challenges that arise in a startup that pursues sustainability – of people, planet, and, well, profit (the last of these p’s may be as important for the sustainability of development projects as the first two). If you have an idea but aren’t sure where to begin, helping another project is a great way to get your feet wet.

The best part of working on our project, though, was the ability to take part in an organization’s growth and success. eLuma has just finished the first phase of construction for the business center, recruited a bank to open a branch in the center, and already received 40 applications from Yele entrepreneurs who are eager to open up shop. We’re excited to see what’s next!

Learn more about eLuma on their blog:

SEID organizes D-Lab Technology Dissemination Program Fellowship Demo


Mobilize Up to Change the World!!

Our next mixer is Feb 15th 6:00 PM- @ MIT Stata Center, R&D Commons

Please join us again to mingle with like-minded people, find teammates and partners, and opportunities to use your skills and experience.

This mixer includes idea pitches and demonstration of D-lab Technology Dissemination Program.