photos couresy of Whit Alexander and Burro
At PovertyCure, we are blessed to work with a growing, global network of individuals and groups who not only believe in entrepreneurial solutions to poverty, they are entrepreneurs themselves, or support developing businesses around the world. One such organization is Burro. I had the chance to interview Whit Alexander, founder of Burro, and ask him to share his thoughts on enterprise solutions to poverty.
What was the inspiration behind Burro?
As a kid, Swiss Family Robinson was my favorite movie. I always wanted to be the guy who could take the coconut shells, the beat-up bike, and the used oil drum to rig up a hot, running shower in the wilderness. More pertinent, perhaps, I lived and worked throughout West Africa for most of my twenties. I saw an amazing amount of well-meaning effort going into creating the better cook stove, the better bed net, the better lantern, the better pump. I really began to question: if all of these things are truly better, then why isn’t anyone building businesses out of them? You begin to learn that there are a lot of reasons why most of these things seem not to have scaled up in any sort of sustainable way—wrong problem being solved, bad product, no financing, poor marketing, no distribution—it’s hard to get it right.
I founded Burro to change that. We’re finding innovative, high-quality products that improve people’s lives. We’re making them affordable with creative financing options. And we’re getting the word out through our own, fast-growing network of direct sales agents—trusted…leaders who can take the time to explain why you should invest in productivity enhancements from Burro. If it doesn’t help you save more or earn more, it’s not Burro. We’re creating the retail brand that people will turn to and trust for the tools to build a better life. That’s why we say, “Do More”. It’s both our promise to our customer and our call for them to step up and realize their own aspirations.
What inspires you personally in your work?
I want to help billions of people and make billions of dollars. I’m not at all shy about Burro’s for-profit intentions. We aren’t there yet, but we’re making fast headway towards demonstrating that a single Burro branch can operate profitably, and that’s what will enable us to scale up quickly, attract and retain the finest talent, offer more products, and help more and more people to improve their lives sustainably.
I’m a product guy at my core, and there’s nothing I find more inspiring than seeing my products in the hands of satisfied customers. From school kids getting brighter, safer, light for studying, to photographers dramatically lowering their costs with our battery—Burro stuff is out there, and it’s already helping thousands of people. I love that.
Finally, I love building great teams. We’re still tiny, but Team Burro is awesome. Even in the face of often daunting obstacles, their amazing dedication, hard-work, camaraderie, and can-do spirit inspire me daily.
Burro’s core values are “Respect, Innovate, and Empower”. That fits in so well with PovertyCure’s core beliefs in the dignity and capacity of the poor and their ability to create. Can you talk about that?
[A]t Burro, we tend to avoid labels like “poverty” or “the poor”. These labels can sometimes objectify people, set them apart, and contribute to a sense of victimhood. We focus on listening to our customers and figuring out how Burro’s offerings can best be tailored to meet their demands. For us, that’s the first step to respect. We need to quit talking about “the poor” as if they aren’t in the room with us.
[C]hange and progress are coming from within these [developing] societies, and they are pushing us closer and closer to one another. I’ve seen this innovative, creative capacity in action among Burro’s independent resellers.
I’ll never forget the day one of our first and finest resellers, a gentleman named George Henaku, pulled me aside to show me the battery-powered phone charger he’d fashioned from a bit of bamboo, three dry cells, and some discarded wire. We’ve been able to innovate from George’s base into the latest Burro charger that works as well on the old phones for his clients in Kwamoso, [Ghana] as it does for my brand new Kindle. We’re always looking for the next big thing, and together we’ll find it.
Finally, “empower” is at the soul of Burro. Helping people to help themselves builds capacity. We provide tools to build better lives.
What has your experience with Burro taught you about poverty alleviation and the value of entrepreneurship?
Greater minds have observed that entrepreneurs pursue opportunity without regard to current resources. That spirit is especially vital in environments of great scarcity. Entrepreneurial zeal can contribute to superior results not just in private, for-profit undertakings, but can be constructively fostered throughout society, even the public sector. Vibrant enterprises working to tailor offerings to the specific needs and capabilities of the lowest income consumers and producers are the key to driving a sustainable transformation.
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