What if you could charge your phone and contribute to the education of a child in a developing nation?
By Nikhil Sreekandan
Power A Life is a social enterprise based out of Scotland that sells the world’s most empowering chargers. With every product they sell, PAL gifts a free solar light to a child in a developing country. Meaning, when you power your phone, you power a life.
We talk to Jeremie Warner, the founder of Power A Life, to find out more about the enterprise, its inner workings and lofty goals.
INKLINE: How did you get started? Tell us the story of Power A Life.
Jeremie Warner: For us, it started while we were still at university, earning our architecture degree. We had come back from our year out on internship, designing luxury houses in Singapore for multi-millionaire clients, but were frustrated with how the construction depended on migrant workers from the likes of Bangladesh.
The feeling was that the rich stayed rich, the poor stayed poor, whilst the world was falling apart around us. So at that point, we came back to Strathclyde in Glasgow, our home university, and geared all of our studies towards humanitarian design and design for the poor.
Over the following couple of years, we worked on participatory design methodologies and the country we decided to go work in at the time was Senegal. This is where our entrepreneurial journey begins; we knew that the power of social enterprise was something we wanted to harness, and we wanted to use it to tackle some of these big global issues.
We set about selling tea, coffee and cake in our university and we raised enough money to get the four of us [initial collaborators] out to Senegal and rent ourselves a pickup truck. We lived off the grid with villagers in sub-Saharan Africa for two-three weeks, engaging with the villagers to identify their problems and to come up with solutions collaboratively.
A big part of that first mission was to run a children’s photography workshop. We wanted to see these challenges through the eyes of these future generations, we thought it was important to engage children in this process as it was those kids that will be benefiting from this over a long period. The photography workshop asked the children to document ten things, ranging from this is my family and this is my favourite food to this is something I do not like and this is something I would like to improve.
What we noticed from the photographs was that most of them were not taken at night. During this time, we were doing 40-km road trips to charge our mobile phones and laptops; obviously, these children were living in darkness. So the idea for the business came about like that, where we now sell portable power banks to consumers in developed countries to keep them charged on the go. And, for every product we sell, we then give a free solar light to a child in a developing country so that they can walk home safely from school and do their homework at night.
I: So how did you get into the technology of chargers? Was that difficult?
J: It is knowledge that we have gained over time. We came up with the business model and concept first and then set to work to get a better understanding of the portable power market, which has taken the best part of three to four years to get to the point that we are in now.
We work with our fantastic manufacturing partners in Shenzhen, China, where we do our manufacturing and technology development. I would say there is no better place on Earth to be making this kind of product. And, we have somewhat immersed ourselves in the ecosystem there, so we know what the latest trends and technology are.
I: So do you work with charity partners on the ground? What is the impact you have had so far?
J: We began our work in Senegal, and in the past, we have also worked with charities in Zambia, but where we have started to gain some traction is in Zimbabwe. We have a really good charity partner on the ground that helps us with the solar light distribution there.
Today, we have done about 1,000 solar lights, and we have close to 5,000 that we need to now gift over the Christmas trading period. So, over the last three or four months, we have gone from a small number of lights to 10x-ing the number that we are giving. In terms of impact, we have measured and monitored the impact in the past, and we are going to do a lot more of that work this year.
From that impact measurement work, we conclusively know that every single child from every year-group that has received the solar light has had improvements in all of their class tests. What is exciting is that, in Zimbabwe, children who can get 50% or above by the time they are finishing primary school become eligible to graduate onto high school. So, there is an entire generation of children that we have empowered to go on to secondary education that otherwise wouldn’t have been able to.
I: You also work on co-branded products, would you say that it is your bread and butter?
J: We started as a business-to-consumer entity, selling to customers online, but we found that it is a tough market which is very crowded. So there was a need to try and find a better market to sell our products.
We had done corporate gifting, very small scale stuff for several years here and there, but it was decided towards the end of Q1 last year that to capitalise on the opportunity we would focus on the business-to-business market, and it is in that space that we are starting to gain significant inside traction.
I: What has been the most difficult part of your entrepreneurial journey?
J: I think it is just getting started, to be honest, getting sufficient funding to bring a physical product to market is challenging. Because we are a mission-led enterprise and we give away a significant portion of our margin to empower kids in developing countries, the challenge was to find the right investors that could see the commercial potential to what we were doing. I think the idea is always the easy part; it is the execution that is hard.
I: What advice do you have for someone who wants to start a social enterprise?
J: The first step is to believe in what you want to do and to just go out and do it. The next thing would be to speak to your customers because if you come up with an idea or you design something without speaking to customers, you could be building something there isn’t a market for.
Naturally, speaking to customers will help inform the idea and the sooner you speak to customers the sooner you can generate sales and sales solve everything.
I: What does the future hold for Power A Life?
J: What we are really excited about now is that we are proving that the model works, we are proving that there is an appetite and a growing customer base for our products. And, we are excited about the impact we have had in schools in developing nations.
Up until now, it has been small-scale delivery of the impact, but now we are going through a year of change and we have not hundreds but thousands of solar lights that are making their way into the hands of children in Africa.
The first step is to believe in what you want to do and to just go out and do it.
Nikhil Sreekandan is a journalist with a desire to explore life through the stories he chases. An engineer who found recluse in the world of words, he is a journalism post-graduate from Cardiff University. He works as a content editor at Nature inFocus, India’s leading platform for nature and wildlife. When not lost in cinema, contemporary literature or his earphones — there is a genuine attempt at ‘giving chase’, and it is beautiful.