UNC Kenan-Flagler Sustainability Blog

Sustainable energy innovation at the base of the pyramid

April 26, 2010 By Jessica Thomas

On Ben Henneke’s second visit to a small village in Tanzania, he was struck that there was no future tense in the Swahili language; circumstances were so dire there literally was no way to compose the words speak about the future.

“You could not ask, ‘What will you do next year or when do you expect the rains to come?’” he noted. “I am trying to help you get into the reality of what you are working in. The women wanted to have trees again, and they want to have water that ran year-round instead of flash floods because of the deforestation.”

In response to what he saw in Tanzania, Henneke started TIST, The International Small Group and Tree Planting Program that organizes small groups of farmers in Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda and India to plant trees to reverse the devastating effects of deforestation.

Henneke spoke on a panel about innovation in sustainable technology at the base of the pyramid April 20 at UNC Kenan-Flagler during the school’s Global Innovations in Energy conference.

TIST generates income from global carbon markets to help these farmers who live at the so-called Base of the Pyramid, the largest, but poorest socio-economic group in the world.

“[TIST] is growing on its own at 50 to 100 percent per year by word of mouth farmer to farmer,” he added. “Our goal 10 years ago was getting money to these hard-working farmers who have one or two acres of land from this convoluted thing we can the carbon market. That’s what we do.”

Jeff Dickinson works with the Eco-Asia Program and the Private Finance Advisor Network/Asia to build capacity and bring finance to communities and companies building renewable energy projects.

He noted during the panel discussion that he is working with banks in Asia to develop the in-house capability to analyze lending to renewable energy projects.

“Banks were interested (in renewable energy projects) but not necessarily willing to lend money and put money down on deals,” Dickinson noted. “They couldn’t get a handle on the risks that were involved and how to address them. I am now able to step in to bring up the in-house ability that their staff has to move more traditional financiers into the sector.”

Gary Zieff, chief operating officer of Dissigno LLC, leads strategy for the company’s Tanzania team as they put into place a World Bank funded lighting and power project and a solar school project with the Tanzanian Ministry of Energy.

Like Dickinson, his group struggles to convince investors on the merits of working in developing countries.

“We want to prove to investors that there is an opportunity in the African market, that it isn’t a scary market that is full of huge risks,” Zieff noted.  “There are projects with good returns in the 20 to 30 percent range. We not only prove the market for investment, but we are providing a new product.”

Members of the panel had different ideas about where the innovative solutions for the base of the pyramid will come. But they agreed that innovation is developing for this struggling socio-economic group.

Dickinson noted that in Asia the innovation is coming from within the region.

“I don’t think the developed world has a lot to offer the base of the pyramid in terms of products,” he noted. “In Asia, a lot of the stuff that has had really large impact has come locally. It is something that someone has made like homemade wind turbines. There is a lot of innovation within the region.”

But Henneke noted that in the region where he focuses his work, there is not much time to devote to innovation.

“We are working with the poorest of the poor. They have a full-time job when the rains come trying to get enough food to eat,” he noted. “The people don’t have excess resources to be tinkering with some of these things. There is a willingness to learn and change. When they get offered by a credible source the opportunity to try something they are desperate, and they will try it.”