September 30, 2012
MIT's Jodie Wu, an Inspiration & Force Behind Change in Tanzania
Enough people know I love Africa and the fact that I have spent time there and lived there.
Combine these known facts with her entrepreneur and technology work and it makes sense that we'd have a lot to talk about.
I also love meeting women CEOs who are an inspiration to be around and in the midst of all this background, did I mention that she's only 25?
She was a speaker this September at the event, the second year I made my way across country to Louisville Kentucky to meet interesting people who are help shaping the world.
Her company Global Cycle Solutions is a social enterprise developing bicycle attachments that improve the lives of smallholder farmers. In May 2009, as an undergraduate in mechanical engineering at MIT, she led her team to win the MIT 100K Business Plan Competition, and in August 2009, she moved to Arusha, Tanzania, to launch her company.
Her vision is to end "cycled poverty." I had an opportunity to spend time with her before and after her talk. She says, "so much money is going into foreign aid and it's not being spent effectively. The typical person just needs tools and investment in their education. If they buy it, they need it, if they don’t buy it, then it isn’t good enough.
Fair enough. Even if the technology is advanced and might work in the U.S. or Europe, if Africans don't buy the product, then it means its not solving real needs they have every day.
In Tanzania, Bernard their inventor, is creating water pumps, grinders and pedals and working on designing a better bike for Africa.
Her favorite product they're working on right now is the solar lantern. She says with a smile, "it actually bounces like a ball but it doesn’t break. The most significant thing about the light right away is that when people use it, their productivity goes up right away. People can charge their phones at their houses rather than them having to walk five kilometers just to charge their phone, which is what people are doing today."
When she was asked by someone from the audience about how they decided on price, she said that narrowing down the "right price" was difficult, because it depends on their harvest and the timing of it. In other words, $50 is not a lot but they may not have the money to buy it until their harvest comes in. They are testing the pay per use model and when they have all the money, they can opt to buy their own.
Not a boat load of MIT graduates take off for Africa to start a company. Why Tanzania? She says she asked herself after graduation, “is it really going to make me happy working to make a larger corporation richer? What I love about working in Africa, you can see the impact of your engineering immediately – there’s an immediate satisfaction."
Having lived in Africa myself, I resonate with her sense of satisfaction and the immediate reward. I also remembered such a stronger sense of gratitude and appreciation than we have in the west.
On lessons learned? The best advice she received from one of her MIT mentors was “Just do it.” She also learned that change doesn’t happen instantaneously. She thought she’d be in Tanzania for two years and then move onto other countries, but she learned that two years wasn’t realistic at all. Jodie thought that they'd break even in two years, but they’ve been there for four years and she thinks she probably has another two years before she can move her projects into other African markets.
Other great advice she received along the way is one that everyone can learn from: “if any one task is taking more than 20% of your time, delegate and outsource it.” I laughed out loud when she talked about experiences hiring: “if I don’t love you during the interview process and want to go to lunch with you next week, then I won’t love working with you.” It's so true and yet sometimes we are blinded in the interviewing process because we think of skills more than we think of synergy, at least right away.
Jodie apparently pays all of her employees through her phone. She sees so many opportunities in that area and countries like Tanzania are miles ahead. “LEDs are becoming so efficient and that could change things dramatically for Tanzania and other parts of Africa. Remember that 90% of the population is off the grid,” says Jodie.
They’ve set up a group of village ambassadors who have become their evangelists. Essentially, it’s the equivalent of a virtual sales force but it’s organic...the way it should be.
Jodie is an inspiration and it's great to see her MIT education and knowledge pouring into an eastern African country that needs it so much.
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