Beyond the Peace Corps: A Briefcase Corps?

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Burro employees lead a village gong gong, basically a sales event, in Ghana.

The village of Sokwenya is not on a road, not even what passes for roads in Ghana. From the nearest dirt track navigable by car—except in the wet summer—Sokwenya is a twenty-minute hike down a narrow trail, through bamboo thickets and over a torrential stream bridged by floating logs. The villagers, who earn cash from cocoa trees they tend along the stream bed, live in mud huts with no electricity or running water—unless you count the stream, their only source of drinking water outside of rain barrels. In the dry season the stream becomes a trickle and the villagers dig down in the mud to reach water, like a child scooping out sand at the beach to make a lagoon. In fact, in Sokwenya, digging down to find the muddy water is often the work of children.

World health experts will tell you that water like Sokwenya’s is a major cause of childhood diarrhea, the largest killer of children in Africa. I have no reason to doubt their macro-level research. But when you ford the stream, hike in to Sokwenya and spend a few days there (yes, drinking the stream water), you get a different picture. Ask Hayford Atteh, a cocoa farmer and 67-year old village elder, how many children from Sokwenya went to the nearest health clinic (half an hour by bicycle) with diarrhea in the last year, and he says “zero.” The last two years? “None.” In short, despite the broader concerns of the World Health Organization, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and countless other competent aid groups, diarrhea is simply not an issue in Sokwenya. Moreover, the bad bugs that do show up don’t always attack via drinking water; for example, kids in Ghana routinely eat mangoes off the ground where livestock roam.

Make no mistake: Like everybody else in the world, the villagers of Sokwenya could learn to love running water, or at least a properly drilled communal well. But until that happens, they have a more prosaic complaint about their stream water. “It tastes bad,” says Mr. Atteh, “and it’s cloudy.”

In short, his water concerns are aesthetic—the same reason Americans spend billions of dollars filtering and improving their perfectly safe tap water.

The distinction is important because people in the developing world are not always worried about the stuff we think they should be. One reason for the disconnect is the well-meaning instinct to donate. Free is everyone’s favorite price, and poor Ghanaian villagers have nothing to lose by taking free stuff from aid groups. Unfortunately, donations are a form of detached concern that tell us nothing about what the world’s poor really want or need. To learn what motivates people who live on a dollar a day, you need to find out what they’ll spend a day’s pay on.

My brother Whit’s for-profit start-up business in Ghana, called Burro, is trying to do just that—listening to people like Hayford Atteh and providing products they are willing to buy. (Mr. Atteh is in fact the first of Burro’s hundreds of local agents; he supplements his farming income by making bicycle deliveries of Burro products like batteries and portable lights.)

Since Burro isn’t giving anything away for free, it’s imperative to get it right. Ask Ghanaian villagers to spend a few bucks a month on water treatment that stops kids from getting diarrhea and they’ll say “Huh?” But pitch them a portable carbon filtration and treatment system that makes their water taste good and look clear (while eliminating dangerous pathogens), and you just might make a sale.

Sales are important for any business, but in this case what’s even more important is engaging the world’s lowest-income citizens as customers, not pitying them as victims.

On the ground in Ghana, this is magical to watch. Customers routinely hug my brother. They laugh. They dance. (To be fair, Ghanaians pretty much always dance.) Children chase the Burro truck like the ice cream man. They do all of this while unrolling banknotes from scarves and handkerchiefs.

It hasn’t been easy. During nearly four years on the ground, Burro has been forced to pivot away from several early ideas that didn’t work quite like my brother expected. For example, Whit initially thought Ghanaians would gladly pay a monthly fee of just under one dollar to receive unlimited exchanges of a single rechargeable AA battery for their flashlights and radios. (Burro hires local agents to collect the dead batteries and trade them for freshly charged.) The idea made sense on paper, since the most widely available battery in Ghana is a low-quality non-alkaline version that runs down quickly and also leaks, ruining costly devices. Whit calculated that anyone changing his batteries more than three times in a month (meaning most Ghanaians in non-electrified villages) would save money under his plan, and get unlimited exchanges of better batteries that didn’t end up littering the ground and, subsequently, in the mouths of small children.

But in the villages, it didn’t pan out that way. It turns out that income is highly seasonal in rural Ghana (based on harvest times and rainfall), and sometimes people just didn’t have the money for the monthly fee, even though it saved them in the long run. It also became apparent that many people were too proud to admit there might be months when they couldn’t pay, so they just declined the offer. In response, Burro switched to a pay-per-use program that better reflected local cash flow. Under the new system, customers could choose when to use the batteries, paying a one-time deposit for each with no monthly obligation. Business started to take off. This is not knowledge one could glean from an office in London or Seattle, or even Ghana’s electrified capital city of Accra. You needed boots on the ground.

Some argue my brother and others like him shouldn’t be trying to make money off the world’s poorest people. But why not? In my visits with farmers in some of the world’s most remote places, from Ghana’s Kwaku Plateau to rice paddies in Guangxi, China, conversations are regularly punctuated by the bleat of a cell phone in a sweaty shirt pocket. (In Ghana, cell phone penetration is about 80 percent; China now has a billion cell phones, which is approaching 100 percent.) It’s safe to say that for people around the world who are still living one baby-step beyond feudalism, mobile phone service has revolutionized life more than any political revolution. The phone manufacturers, and the carriers, are all for-profit companies. Who would argue against that? Certainly no Ghanaian I have met.

Every summer, Whit’s company pairs interns from American and Ghanaian universities to collaborate on new initiatives. Some of those students have already launched their own developing-world businesses.

The Peace Corps began in Ghana in 1961. What better country to spearhead a new initiative—call it the Briefcase Corps—of young entrepreneurs bent on engaging with the developing world? Some of these companies will do well, perhaps very well. My brother, who previously co-founded the board game company Cranium, hopes to grow Burro into a respected brand across Africa and beyond. Others, possibly even my brother, will fail; that’s the nature of entrepreneurship. But until somebody in Seattle or London or Accra figures out how to get running water and electricity to Sokwenya (I’m not holding my breath), the smart money is on adventurous developing-world startups.

Will the Last Local Journalist Please Turn Out the Lights?

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On book tour, July 2012, Washington D.C.

The indignities of travel seem magnified on a book tour when you’re moving on to a new city every day—usually on planes or trains departing before 6 a.m.—because the travel itself becomes the totality of your life; there is no down time to enjoy the location, only constant movement (and body scans). You gain a firsthand appreciation for Murphy’s Law. The seven o’clock book signing that’s been advertised at six? Been there. The […]

An Emergency Every Day

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Where it all begins. A typical small Chinese electronics factory. The signage above says, among other things, "Keep Improving."

Chinese engineers are smart but they don’t really get what Whit is trying to do in Ghana. Here was a typical conversation with a factory sales rep named Pinky, who also had an engineering degree:

WHIT: Our clients have no electricity and live on six RMB [about a dollar] a day. You might think that means we should make the product cheaper so […]

Coming to America

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A recent article in the New York Times profiles a hardworking New York cab fleet owner named Isaac Osei who is also a chief back in Ghana. The story has understandably intrigued Americans–it reads like the pitch for a fish-out-of-water TV sitcom–and should be commended for its positive view of Ghanaian immigrants, and for that matter immigrants in general.

Having said that, anyone who has lived or worked in Ghana will find the story to be somewhat less than meets the eye. […]

DSK vs Diallo: Life Imitating a Tom Wolfe Novel

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Today’s New York Times carries an op-ed piece by Yale anthropologist Mike McGovern that sums up my own thoughts on the sexual assault case of Dominique Strauss-Kahn. McGovern, who is writing a book about Guinea, points out that while it was wrong for Nafissatou Diallo, the hotel maid who has accused him of assault, to embellish her immigration documents (and thus undermine her credibility as a witness), we should also recognize the desperation she and most other African immigrants face […]

Why Solar Is Not the Solution (Yet)

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Whit selling Burro's new battery-operated cell phone charger in Ghana, October 2010.

A recent article in the New York Times looked at the use of small-scale solar-powered energy solutions in the developing world, focusing on remote villagers in Kenya who are using solar panels to power lighting devices and charge their cell phones. Since I am in the middle of writing the last chapter of my book about selling sustainable energy solutions in Ghana, the article was well timed. As […]

Reigning Cats and Dogs

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Their bark is worse than their bite: at the Accra fetish market.

Skin in the game: Crocodile and leopard skins at the Accra fetish market. The spotted skin in the center is fake–a painted antelope skin–but the one on the right is real. Price for this undoubtedly endangered species: 500 cedis ($350) but negotiable.

Back in Ghana and running errands in Accra, Whit and I decided to check out the fetish market, in a very nasty part of town called […]

A spelling bee in Twi

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Learning Twi before English in a Ghanaian classroom. Note the two extra vowels–a backwards "3" and a backwards "c"–and the absence of consonants c, j, v and z.

We were in a village selecting a new Burro reseller the other day, sitting in an empty classroom. Nii, who is one of Whit’s managers, was interviewing the young man applying for the job. “Why do you want to be a Burro reseller?” Nii asked. The man stuttered and fumbled; his English […]

On poor countries and smart leaders

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Ghana's President Mills: he has a lot upstairs.

America's Sarah Palin: so does she (wink wink).

You would think that America’s long history of anti-intellectualism would be just that–history–given that most Americans now have college degrees. But of course you would be wrong.While it may be hard to determine just what the Tea Party stands for, its members have made it pretty clear what they’re against: pointy-headed policy nerds in Washington and New York who think they know better than […]

Sodom and Gomorrah

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Digital divide: A youth salvages metal from charity computers in Accra's "Sodom and Gomorrah" slum. Note also the charity t-shirt.

I’m reading Richard Dawkins’s book The God Delusion, in which he discusses the idea that there are some things beyond human understanding, for the simple reason that our survival does not require that we understand them. His example is the electron, which is commonly portrayed as a little ball orbiting around the nucleus of the atom. In fact, as Dawkins […]