Products of progress
  • A GCS employee introduces a solar lamp to the community
    A GCS employee introduces a solar lamp to the community
Tuesday, December 8, 2015

From bike-mounted maize shellers to solar lamps, startup brings more efficient tools to rural Tanzania.

Back in 2009, alumna Jodie Wu ’09 launched Global Cycle Solutions (GCS) in Tanzania to bring small-scale farmers an innovative product she designed in MIT’s D-Lab: a bike-mounted maize sheller.

Easily attached to a bike and powered by pedaling, the low-cost, cast-iron sheller allowed farmers to process their corn 10 times faster — in one day, as opposed to weeks when done by hand. The sheller could also be shared among a number of farms.

By 2011, GCS had sold shellers to more than 1,000 farmers. But its products still weren’t moving fast enough to fund product development, marketing, and sales. Sensing the startup’s danger of decline, the GCS board gave Wu an ultimatum: “They said, ‘You have to choose [research and development] or distribution — you can’t do both.’”

From this arose an entirely new, and more efficient, business model. Knowing that about 82 percent of Tanzanians — more than 35 million households — live off-grid, GCS began going to the villages and selling solar-powered lamps, which also charge cellphones.

Suddenly, its product started moving — and fast. “That’s when we realized we’re not facing a technology problem in the field; we’re facing a distribution problem,” says Wu, who studied mechanical engineering at MIT and is CEO of GCS.

GCS has since been a technology-agnostic, product-distribution firm whose employees visit villages across three regions of Tanzania — Arusha, Morogoro, and Mwanza — to research the most-needed and cost-effective technologies for the villagers, and to seek entrepreneurs to distribute those products.
So far, GCS has sold more than 35,000 solar lamps — 15,000 in the past year alone — and 5,000 other products to families across 500 villages. (The startup still sells maize shellers upon request, but doesn’t advertise them.)

The solar lamps, Wu says, have helped replace thousands of kerosene lanterns usually burned in homes for lighting; such lanterns spew out black carbon that contributes to global warming and indoor air pollution. These solar lamps save customers — who make about $2 per day, on average — roughly $70 apiece annually. GCS alone has provided more than $4 million in energy savings since it started selling solar lanterns three years ago.

In December, GCS started selling cooking stoves with insulation that retains more heat than traditional cookers used in the region. These stoves, Wu says, cook twice as fast, with half the charcoal.

Moreover, Wu says, GCS’s business model has helped create jobs for more than 150 Tanzanian entrepreneurs, who collectively have earned an additional $50,000 in income. As most are farmers, she adds, the $6 in margin they earn from selling a single lamp during non-harvest months is enough to feed their family for a few days.

“It’s really about creating a win-win-win situation,” Wu says. “We win in terms of bringing in profits, consumers win because they have products that help them save costs, and entrepreneurs are getting money to put food on the table. We’re doing good through business.”

A “universal adapter” for farmers
In 2008, Wu was taking course 2.722J (D-Lab: Design), taught by senior lecturer Amy Smith, when she learned about the plight of 500 million small-scale farmers around the world still using only their hands and hoes for farming. To shell corn, these farmers traditionally fill bags with cobs and beat them to loosen the kernels, or simply remove the kernels by hand — both of which could take weeks.

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