About three decades ago, Donn Tice was an MBA student at the University of Michigan, studying with the late C.K. Prahalad, who was developing his argument that companies can make money and do good by creating products and services for the world’s poorest people. It’s an exciting notion, popularized in Prahalad’s influential 2004 book, "The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid."
Today, Tice is the CEO of d.light, which sells solar-powered lanterns to the poor. He’s trying to prove that his teacher was right — a fortune awaits those who can create and sell life-changing products that help the very poor.
For now, this remains an unproven hope. Dozens of startups have ventured into the global south, selling everything from $100 laptops, cheap bikes, clean cook stoves and solar panels to the poor. Some have enjoyed success (See, for example, my blog post, "Clean Star Mozambique: Food, fuel and forests at the bottom of the pyramid"), but few have achieved meaningful scale. Or made anything approaching a fortune.
The good news is that d.light is getting there. The company is now selling about 200,000 solar-powered lanterns and lighting systems a month in about 40 countries. By its own accounting, d. light has sold nearly 3 million solar lighting products and changed the lives of more than 13 million people. And if all goes according to plan, the company will turn profitable this year.
“In addition to bringing lighting to people who need it and power to people who can’t access it — which is our mission — we think we have the ability to demonstrate that this is a business model that works,” Tice said during a recent visit to the d.light offices in San Francisco. Earlier this year, d.light was recognized with the $1.5 million Zayed Future Energy Prize.
Next page: Consumers design the products