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Shelf Life

Building business in Ghana, one battery at a time

Kai Ryssdal Jul 17, 2012
Shelf Life

Building business in Ghana, one battery at a time

Kai Ryssdal Jul 17, 2012

Kai Ryssdal: Whaddya suppose happens when a guy invents a board game that hits big, he sells it for enough to be comfortable, and then wants to do something that matters?

The story is told in a new book called “Bright Lights, No City.” Max Alexander wrote it. His brother Whit is the one with the board game. Cranium, from 15 years or so ago, was his idea.

Guys, good to have you with us.

Max Alexander: Thanks Kai.

Whit Alexander: Thanks Kai.

Ryssdal: So Whit, let’s set it up: You are inspired by a speech that Bill Gates gives at Davos a couple, three, four years ago, about creative capitalism — and you say to yourself, ‘I’m going to go sell batteries in Ghana.’ How come?

Whit Alexander: Well it goes back further than that. You know, really, in my 20s, I lived and worked throughout west Africa, so really for decades, I’ve had this vision of there’s got to be a way to profitably and sustainably deliver tools to build better lives. And I said to myself, if I don’t do this now, when am I ever going to do it?

Ryssdal: So Max, talk to me about the battery part of this. I mean, batteries over there are everywhere, right? Because nobody’s on the grid?

Max Alexander: That’s right. About half the population is off the grid, but that’s really most of the rural population. So as soon as you get out of the big cities, you find everybody’s using batteries. And what Whit discovered was that they’re mostly using these very inexpensive, but poorly made carbon zinc batteries, and these are the kinds of batteries that are like so cheap, they’re not even sold in the west anymore. This is like Christmas 1958. These are the kind of batteries that leak. And so Whit saw an opportunity to bring in rechargeable batteries that would be cleaner, safer, work better and would be less expensive for them to use.

Ryssdal: Whit, give me a sense of the business model. Max just mentioned rechargeable batteries. So you go to market with this — the first one was, what, a AA, right?

Whit Alexander: That’s correct. We’ve got a AA rechargeable nickel–metal hydride battery, nothing magical about it, a commodity item. Probably our biggest innovation in that original service is a little D adapter that allows to work as a bigger battery, which is what most people are using in Ghana. So that was kind of our flagship product; we had to start somewhere. But right now, we’re expanding the catalog beyond energy offerings. We’ve got our first solar product on the market; we’ve now got battery-powered lights as well. And we’re really excited now to be introducing our first health product, with some eyeglasses.

Ryssdal: It’s actually so interesting talking to Max the word guy about this thing, and Whit the business guy with the boom-boom-boom, facts and figures. Clearly, your roles here were separate but conjoined somehow.

Max Alexander: Yeah, really, before this whole adventure in Ghana, we hadn’t really spent a whole lot of time together, especially recently. But even growing up as kids, I almost want to say we probably had more kind of quality time together in Africa than we ever had back home.

Ryssdal: There’s a part of this book that reads as sort of an adult coming of age tale, right — you guys discovering each other and in the process, working together to build this business?

Whit Alexander: Absolutely. And you know, one thing Max didn’t mention there, Kai, is that Max taught me to read. Max sat me on his bed and read me every Hardy Boys book as a kid. For me, it was great to have him along, getting me more in tune with the narrative of what was happening day to day, beyond just that chop-chop, figures and facts, ‘here we go, what’s the brand positioning?’

Ryssdal: Right. And there’s no small part of that, actually, in this business model right? Whit, I mean, it is — to quote you actually back to yourself — you’re at this weird nexus of charity and for-profit?

Whit Alexander: That’s exactly right. And you know, charity is critical. It’s dispensable in disaster relief situations. But we’re really committed to showing that there are ways on the ground that you can do better than free. Free can be counterproductive. And what we’ve learned in Ghana is people are ready to invest in building better lives. We want to be there tomorrow and beyond, and free just can’t do that.

Ryssdal: The company that Whit Alexander runs in Ghana is called Burro. The book by his brother Max about that company and their adventures over there is called “Bright Lights, No City.” It’s a good one, you should read it. Guys, thanks a lot.

Max Alexander: Thank you Kai.

Whit Alexander: Our pleasure, thank you.

Max Alexander: See ya Whit.

Whit Alexander: Bye Maxie.

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