Women | Tools | Technology: Team Uganda's Grassroots Strategies

An innovative partnership between ExxonMobil and the Thunderbird Emerging Markets Laboratory (TEM Lab) is about to provide on-the-ground business consulting support to help increase Ugandan women’s access to alternative energy technologies. This Daily Beast installment highlights the important work that lies ahead for the initiative’s key players.

03.08.11 6:08 AM ET

ExxonMobil-supported TEM Lab MBA student teams are packing their bags for five-week assignments beginning later this month to accelerate women’s economic opportunities through technology in Uganda. Students have contracted with two ExxonMobil-supported grantees—Solar Sister and smallsolutions—to devise meaningful ways to develop information management systems, analyze marketing problems, and provide counsel to bring programs to scale.

With these collaborations, the idea is to have TEM Lab students offer unique, global perspectives to the two projects, while grantees contribute their considerable on-the-ground know-how. This world-class riffing will give Solar Sister and smallsolutions the opportunity to strengthen their technology-based business models and develop sustainable innovations that reach more women going forward. (Plans are also underway to deploy additional ExxonMobil-supported teams this summer on behalf of two other grantees, Kopernik in Indonesia and Productive Agricultural Linkages and Marketing Solutions [P.A.L.M.S.] in Ghana.)

Michael Finney, PhD., a clinical associate professor of Global Leadership and Management at the Thunderbird School of Global Management, is also Faculty Lead for the Thunderbird Emerging Markets Laboratory or TEM Lab. Recently he underscored its role with ExxonMobil at the last Clinton Global Initiative annual meeting.

“My teams are directly supporting the strategic initiatives of each one of these innovators and providing the innovators with a host of management services that are helping them polish their business plans,” he says. “We’re helping them understand how they can manage supply chains even in these very remote locations; understand how they can scale their organizations; and assure the sustainability of the innovators we’re working with.”

He also spoke of current students priorities as he’s observed them. “There’s an increase in the interest of the millennial students who place a huge value on giving back and creating value socially right now. That’s one of the ways they want to express themselves professionally. At the same time, more organizations are understanding that creating social benefit actually allows them competitive advantage, particularly in these emerging markets.”

Finney also mentioned the advantage of Thunderbird’s student diversity: “A good 50% of our students are international. In one of my leadership classes, I can have fifteen different nationalities represented, creating fascinating conversation and an amazing prism through which these ideas and concepts are filtered.”

Case in point, TEM Lab MBA candidate, Adebayo Adebiyi, grew up in the UK, Egypt, and Nigeria. With extensive international experience, he’s credited for being an effective cross-cultural communicator. Adebiyi is also one of the students going to Uganda to work with ExxonMobil grantee, Solar Sister. Utilizing what essentially mirrors the Avon-selling strategy, Solar Sister’s key mission is to develop women entrepreneurs. With the majority of Ugandans (and Africans) living outside of grid connectivity, they are forced to rely on traditional lighting sources such as biomass, candles, and kerosene lighting to meet their needs. Solar Sister engages women to sell solar lights to other women in rural areas of Africa that are not electrified. Profits are reinvested back into the community in the form of renewable energy projects.

“Through its financial support,” says Adebiyi, “ExxonMobil is allowing the team to use its experiences to assist Solar Sister contribute to an ingenious development model that aims to teach women how to fish rather than giving them the fish.”

Acknowledges Finney, “The whole issue of electrification is huge and in some instances may be a decade away for the more rural regions in Africa. Solar power is really the only alternative. And these solar lights that the Solar Sisters are selling literally allow women’s families to extend their work hours; students can study at night; it increases their visibility and security; and there are not the health risks, as the lights are much safer than using kerosene and they keep people from breathing toxic fumes.”

Adebiyi further articulated the team agenda with Solar Sister: “To evaluate, improve, standardize, and optimize their current operational processes and procedures.” He hopes that proposals TEM will make will have a positive impact on the efficiency of Solar Sister’s operation. “More importantly,” he says, “we hope our recommendations will create a foundation upon which it can scale up its operations and increase its reach across Uganda.” On a personal note, he also would like to see the “team work, self-awareness, and analytical skills needed to execute this project,” become invaluable tools for him once his work is complete in Uganda. After graduation, Adebiyi intends to return to his native Nigeria to become a career entrepreneur.

TEM Lab colleague Reem Nassar hails from Jordan and admits to an enduring passion for international business development. And while she will receive her MBA in Global management this summer and has already had three years of relevant experience, her post-degree hope is for a chance to work with an international organization to help them establish their operations in developing and emerging markets. But before that happens, she’s also going to Uganda this month to work with another of the program’s grantees, the year-old smallsolutions, a social enterprise organization.

On its website, smallsolutions says of its mission, “Five hundred thousand is the number of people [we] aim to help through improved energy access by 2012.” Active in East Africa, smallsolutions is pursuing a grassroots strategy to alleviate poverty and increase energy access by training rural women to use and sell a range of renewable energy technologies. While it’s busy improving access to efficient energy technologies such as solar lighting and efficient cook stoves, its reaching-out method has been through community mobilization, awareness campaigns, capacity building, and human and business development activities. Reem Nassar discussed her function in Uganda as part of the smallsolutions team.

“I will be working with four team members helping to scale up their operations specially for improving awareness and access to affordable energy technology solutions like solar lamps. We will be assessing smallsolutions’ current operations to recommend an optimal organizational structure and standard processes that can help them carry out sustainable development programs, and also enable them to expand and replicate their programs and processes across different countries in Africa,” she says. Moreover, she says, they’ll be working on developing a monitoring and evaluation system “that allows them to measure key performance indicators, and define success for their current operations and offered solutions.”

In addition to enabling this TEM team to conduct its project on the ground, says Nassar, ExxonMobil’s support “will allow us to interact, meet, and interview key stakeholders, and potential partners that will be essential for our analysis and future recommendations. For example,” she says, “we will be able to work with the East African Energy Technology Development Network that will provide us with a deep view into Africa’s current energy industry.” Hope springs eternal that such interactions will lead to sustainable local market development.

CEO of smallsolutions, Leslie Morris, offered his own perspective about the program and the work that the TEM Lab will be doing with his growing organization. “ExxonMobil's generous grant is allowing us to expand our activities into about ninety more communities in Uganda, and we hope to continue creating economic opportunities for women by providing training for about twenty five to thirty women entrepreneurs this year.”

Of the consulting support that TEM Lab team is slated to contribute to its management and delivery processes, he added: “All stakeholders stand to benefit from a more efficient system. With luck, their analysis may help us find opportunities for leveraging our existing activities to offer better support and have a bigger impact on the women we work with.”