Photography courtesy of d.Light
Photography courtesy of d.Light

As Jamie Evans, ’05, mapped out the nearly 1,800-mile route to deliver products to his client, he discovered big obstacles in his way: several rivers, a jungle, and a road system fraught with potholes and bandits.

He had more than 10,000 solar lanterns to deliver to the Catholic diocese of Tshumbe in the heart of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Bishop Nicolas Djomo, a champion of humanitarian rights, needed Evans and the for-profit business he works for, d.light, to provide the Catholic community there with a better life in a rural part of Congo unlikely to ever be served by the national power grid.

The cargo from d.light had already begun its long journey, having arrived months before from Hong Kong to Matadi, a port city on the banks of the Congo River 90 miles inland from the Atlantic coast, before trucks hauled the lanterns to a warehouse in the capital Kinshasa. When Djomo’s order came, planes then flew the lanterns 1,000 miles to a warehouse in Goma on the country’s eastern edge. From Goma, they flew 400 miles west to an airstrip in the central Congolese city of Lodja. From there, some local combination of trucks, motorbikes, people — possibly even canoes or pack animals — got them the proverbial last mile into people’s homes and businesses.

“This work often lays bare how inaccessible some parts of our world remain. It also reminds me of how efficient infrastructure in more developed parts of the world makes daily life,” said Evans, who is from a small town in central Virginia. “I’ve been doing this for what feels like a long time now, but parts of DRC, like some other countries in sub-Saharan Africa, make you realize that these kinds of challenges are going to take a lot more time to overcome.”

In a country where an estimated 9% of the population has access to electricity, having a rechargeable solar lantern can improve the productivity, safety, and education of those within view of the light. Having a rechargeable household system can mean having stable power to run lights, fans, and a television. And both options mean enjoying power decades before a traditional electricity grid would come to the area.

Congo is one of 70 countries to which d.light has, in 12 years, brought solar power, impacting the lives of more than 100 million people in the countries where it operates. Its push to harness the power of the sun is part of a wider movement to develop private sector-driven solutions to development challenges once relegated to charities. Their solutions are using new technologies and methods to bring people the services they need and want in places where governments are often unwilling or unable to provide. It’s a new way of doing business, and in the Democratic Republic of Congo, two University of Richmond graduates are lighting the way.

You have to want to discover, learn about people, and hear what people themselves have to say about their own country, their culture, what they would want out of the development process.

How much infrastructure does it take to screw in a lightbulb?

Power of Light

The Democratic Republic of Congo often makes headlines for guns, disease, political turmoil, and death.
Evans prefers his own words to describe the nation the size of the United States east of the Mississippi where more than 84 million people live: humid, expansive, impenetrable, broccoli green, and chaleur humaine, which translates from French as “human warmth.”

“The smiles you get from people and the warmth from their welcome is second to none,” he said.
Despite their warmth and the demand for solar energy products, it can be risky for a for-profit company to do business in a country dealing with Ebola and militias. Grants, loans, and investors patient enough to wait a decade for a return on investment mitigate the risk of entering a new market where some customers earn as little as $2 a day.

Evans arrived in Congo in 2016 after nearly two decades of international experience, including consulting for a hydroelectric project in the nation of Georgia. D.light had recently won a competitive grant, part of an effort to set up a solar technology industry in Congo. The grant came from UK Aid Direct, funded by the British government and administered by Adam Smith International. Adam Smith International’s team included Nate Hulley, ’01.

The first strategy meeting between funders and businesses was held in an office building in Kinshasa over freeze-dried coffee. Many of the partners had previously met only through emails or conference calls. It was then, during introductions, that both Evans and Hulley recognized decidedly American accents in each other’s spoken French. The two initiated the American custom of asking personal questions of a complete stranger and discovered their shared identity as Spiders.

Both men had committed themselves to creating business solutions to fulfill the unmet needs of the Congolese — Evans through a business model, Hulley through investing international aid in the private market. Adam Smith International provided goal-based funding and in-country expertise to make the venture less risky; d.light brought more than a decade of successful solar business acumen honed on four continents.
The men also had something else in common: a drive to succeed made only stronger by challenges set before them. And in Congo, where electricity is concerned, the challenges are great.

Most customers with access to electricity are in urban areas. But just because a building is connected to the electrical grid doesn’t mean you have light at the flip of a switch. If you’re fortunate and wealthy, your house or business or hotel is connected to a generator that kicks on when the utility’s power goes out. Some have relatively stable power, while others lose it daily. In some neighborhoods, residents may go without power for an entire month.

It’s not a matter of natural resources. The Congo River basin generates enough energy to power much of Africa, but political and financial challenges keep hydropower from reaching its potential. There are the crumbling infrastructure of the current transmission lines and the high cost of running new ones. Inconsistent billing and sporadic service result in unpredictable revenues for the energy delivery sector. Much of the lush, rugged countryside is difficult to access to run lines for rural customers.

Reliable power, in urban and rural locations, has the potential to save lives, from refrigeration of vaccines to reducing the need to burn fuels indoors, which results in pollution and lung disease.

“Access to power is huge for students to study at night, for shops to stay open in the evening, to replace more expensive and, in some cases, dangerous kerosene oil sources of lighting,” said Hulley, who shared stories of hospitals losing power mid-operation.

Electricity is sometimes called the commodity of commodities, Evans said. Without it, you can’t maximize productivity or diversify businesses. A Congolese entrepreneur who wants to start a bakery can’t build a reliable business if the ovens don’t heat up. A small shopkeeper can’t expand into a grocer if her produce will spoil. And students who want to study after dark to advance their education cannot work if it’s too dark to read words on the page.

A country with power can encourage entrepreneurship and innovation. Connect enough people with solar, Hulley believes, and you could even move the needle on Congo’s gross domestic product, a needed boost for the fourth-poorest nation in the world, according to World Bank data. Adam Smith International’s goal is to put solar in 1 million Congolese households by the end of 2020 to raise the GDP per capita by 10% per year, putting an extra $50 in the hands of each household each year. Investing in d.light became one of Adam Smith’s tools for making change on this scale.

Roots in Richmond

Evans came to UR in 2001 to study cello performance with Nick Tzavaras of the Shanghai Quartet, which was in residency with the music department. But Africa got in the way.

He enrolled in a class with professor Carol Summers, a professor of history whose research on modern Africa challenges students to open themselves to new interpretations.

“I tend to like to explore — and to get students to explore things that I don’t fully understand,” Summers said. “That could be something like, ‘How did modern Africa come to be?’ And it’s a really hard question.”

Evans, who credits Summers as a catalyst for his international work, decided he wanted to explore the question firsthand and made arrangements with Summers that allowed him to trade class time for a month on the southern horn of Africa. “That’s where I caught the bug,” he said.

He went back about a year later, this time to Cameroon, where he spent most of his junior year dual-enrolled at the School for International Training. There he completed fieldwork on the socioeconomic impacts of the Chad-Cameroon pipeline while living with the chief of a small village near the coastal town of Kribi. It required an understanding of the historical context of development in Africa, which often followed a top-down model of distributing funds gained through the selling of natural resources or given by aid organizations. The outcomes, he found, sometimes did more harm than good. It was his first foray into understanding how an energy project could help people, and it formed his determination to be involved in bottom-up approaches that directly benefit the consumer.

Back in Richmond, he discovered all this travel interfered with the performance requirements for his major and changed his concentration to music theory and composition. It ended up being an excellent switch.

“Music is, and will likely always be, foundational to me, but early on at UR, classical performance started feeling like this selfish, isolated pursuit of perfection,” said Evans, who double-majored in international relations. “I wanted to help drive more central, positive impacts on people’s lives.”

He went on to earn an MBA at INSEAD in 2012 and now spends his time understanding consumers and developing broad-based growth strategies for an employer whose products have already offset a carbon footprint equivalent to the annual carbon emissions of the countries of Kenya and Uganda.

How much infrastructure does it take to screw in a lightbulb?
Evans (above, right) in Nairobi, Kenya; Hulley (above, second from left) on a USAID trip in the Democratic Republic of Congo

“Helping to get renewable energy to families that would have otherwise never have had electricity in their homes — that’s a powerful thing to see,” Evans said.

Hulley, who is from Northhampton, Massachusetts, graduated the year before Evans arrived, so the two never met on campus. Hulley said he quickly realized that history was not the right major for him, and he gravitated toward the Robins School of Business. His senior year, a course in economic development with professor Jonathan Wight opened up his eyes to the possibilities of microcredit.

“That’s what I was looking for, to use my degree from the business school for a good social end,” said Hulley, who moved to Congo in 2004 to work with microfinance nonprofit Hope International.

In class, Wight said he starts by saying that there are no easy fixes in international development, that successes in one country can’t necessarily be replicated in another. It takes a smart, humble learner to enter a developing market and make a difference.

“You have to want to discover, learn about people, and hear what people themselves have to say about their own country, their culture, what they would want out of the development process,” he said, “rather than adopting a development process that comes from a blackboard in Richmond, Virginia.”

Hulley’s work in Congo builds business-sector solutions for social needs by breaking what he calls a habit of dependency. For good reasons — natural disasters, famines, wars — nonprofits and government organizations enter markets to provide goods and services to help people rebound from extreme loss. But good intentions can undercut local progress. For example, take the farmer who can no longer make a living because aid agencies are giving away free food.

Instead, advisers should offer resources to empower local communities to solve their own problems, Hulley said. “Part of it is building up local businesses while you’re doing that, creating sources of income that will be more sustainable,” he said.

Hulley now works for the United States Agency for International Development on its largest environmental project, the Central African Regional Program for the Environment. As a private-sector adviser, he works with companies, associations, and nongovernmental organizations to come up with innovative ways to reduce environmental threats, such as developing businesses that offer solar alternatives to charcoal cooking, which depletes the forests and pollutes indoor air.

For example, he described a new venture developing products from locally grown cacao and chia seeds. That progress was happening just 5 kilometers from the site of attacks leading to thousands of displaced people.
“You have to find intelligent ways to take some risks and find out how to get the price down in order to be a part of the story of turning the page and breaking the cycle of chronic instability and moving toward a period of more stability,” he said.

Just because a building is connected to the electrical grid doesn't mean you have light at the flip of a switch.

How much infrastructure does it take to screw in a lightbulb?

New leaps over old hurdles

Hulley and Evans are part of a global push to bring electricity to the estimated 1.2 billion people worldwide without access to it. Their success in bypassing traditional means of electrification — power plants, transmission lines, wires, poles, and meters — is interwoven with other creative solutions that have also leapfrogged traditional methods of implementation, thanks to recent innovations.

Chief among these is the mobile phone. Phone communication — once also dependent on wires, poles, and the manpower to install and maintain the system — is now proliferating in Africa thanks to some of the same reasons solar power is now more affordable and accessible — lower prices on silicon needed for phone hardware and solar cells, better battery technology, and competition among companies that have led to improvements in products and services, Evans said.

Hulley remembers when he first arrived in Congo in 2004. “All landlines that had existed from the colonial period were basically destroyed by that time,” he said. There were one or two cell phone companies, and while internet access was nonexistent, people could call and text, sharing information in ways never before possible.
Fast forward to today in Kenya, where Evans is based. There, 90% of people have access to cellular service. This means they also have access to mobile money in a nation where ATMs are rare. It’s one of d.light’s largest solar markets.

Mobile money leapfrogs brick-and-mortar lending institutions, reducing the cost of doing business. And Evans said it opens up opportunity at higher levels of the solar product line: A $300 loan for a home solar system is such a large sum for a family that a traditional bank would consider it too risky, so d.light offers its own mobile financing system to assist its customers.

“It helps de-risk investment,” Evans said, putting on his economist hat. “It helps us deliver modern energy services to some of the most underserved parts of the world without losing our shirts.”

Mobile technology also offers a safeguard to the lenders. Don’t pay your bill? Your solar system — which may also include a mobile phone charging station — is digitally connected to the lender and can be shut off from a distance by the loan officer. Paying on time means borrowers don’t have to walk to the next town to charge their phones.

Even in Congo, where mobile phone access is available to only 40% of the population, a pay-as-you-go, or pay-go, mobile loan system reduces risk to the solar companies.

It helps us deliver modern energy services to some of the most underserved parts of the world without losing our shirts.

How much infrastructure does it take to screw in a lightbulb?
How Pay-go works: Most consumers in the DRC lack access to a formal banking system and lines of credit. Companies, including d.light, are using a system called pay-go -- short for pay-as-you-go -- as an alternative way to provide credit for products that consumers cannot afford up front.

Doing business in emerging markets tends to be relatively more expensive and way riskier than in developed markets,” Evans said. “But generally speaking, the more ingrained mobile money is in a country, the easier it will be for pay-as-you-go solar companies to scale.”

When customers repay small loans for solar home systems, they are getting more than just light. They are also demonstrating that they are trustworthy borrowers.

“Once you have the pay-go system running, you’re building a credit history,” Hulley said. “As long as you pay well, we see companies that then start lending money for other things.”

Families begin to purchase larger solar kits and add-ons like a television or radio. They have credit to access loans for a gas stove to replace an open fire for cooking.

“I saw one company that was doing bicycles,” Hulley said. “They can’t shut the bicycle off if you don’t pay, but they can still shut your light off. You want your light all the time, right? It creates an alternative way of delivering financial services to customers who don’t have what we have in the West, which is a financial information infrastructure.”

And technology and ingenuity are continuing to offer ways to surmount the challenges. Drone technology is being used to leapfrog the poor transportation infrastructure to deliver critical medical equipment or home solar systems. More and more, the solutions are being developed and implemented by the Congolese.

“We’re starting to see now things like app development competitions and digital academies starting, recognizing that the human capital to drive this is needed and is wanted by a lot of youth in Congo, which is a very young country,” Hulley said.

In many ways, to see the development in Congo is to get a glimpse into the history of the United States 50 to 200 years ago, Evans said, when business and government were figuring out how to best serve their people. And as a student of history, he finds the pace of current innovation fascinating.

How much infrastructure does it take to screw in a lightbulb?
President Barack Obama talks with d.light co-founder Sam Goldman while touring the Entrepreneur Summit in Nairobi, Kenya, in 2015.

“Drawing on lessons learned while studying and working in developed economies and figuring out how to apply those lessons within emerging markets, especially sub-Saharan Africa, has motivated me for years,” Evans said.

“You have to be careful not to force NYC thinking onto developing world contexts. But what’s genuinely inspiring is when you find constructive ways of blending something you’ve learned in a boardroom with the ideas of, say, a local entrepreneur in Kinshasa. For me, those moments are what changes Africa from a place often viewed as antiquated into something that can be way ahead of its time.”

Hulley has some additional motivations — four of them. They are the children he has with his wife, Hortense, who is Congolese.

“Looking for opportunities in the face of a lot of the challenges is often driven not by signs today that things are going to be easier than yesterday but by a desire to see a country here that my kids will be proud of,” he said.

And it’s on its way. The partnership the Richmond alumni formed has created a solar industry that is graduating from focusing on single-light systems to those that power homes and businesses. It’s another step in their goal to change daily life in Congo — and the nation’s public image — from one of turmoil and inaccessibility to one of light and success.

Michelle Tedford is a writer and editor who writes frequently about business, engineering, and international development.