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: http://projectyele2011.wordpress.com/