05/07/2013 05:26 pm ET Updated Jul 07, 2013

Scaling Up Social Innovation - Lessons Learned

In 2012, after 3 years of improving our technology and our business model, we finally started to scale beyond the pilot. To be honest, scale-up hasn't been easy. We have encountered just as many challenges in the last year as we did in the first 3 years of operation - a different set of challenges, of course, but just as many! Fortunately, each new challenge forced us to adapt and learn from our mistakes.

This time of year is a time of reflection for us - a time when we re-evaluate our progress in order to figure out what we have done right, what we have done wrong, and what we can improve. Next week in Cape Town, many world leaders will be convening at this year's installment of the World Economic Forum Africa. At the meeting, I have been asked to discuss some of our lessons learned over the past year in a session entitled "New Solutions: Scaling Up Social Innovation".

There are too many lessons learned to list here, but let me get the discussion ball rolling:

1. The base of the pyramid (BOP) does not constitute a homogenous group of consumers. The BOP market is segmented and different segments of the BOP may have to be marketed to differently.

It goes without saying that the needs of a household that is earning less than $2 per day are completely different than a household earning double that at $4 per day. The $4 per day household can easily replace their kerosene lamp with one of our $6 portable, rechargeable LED lights whereas the $2 per day household will fret over the decision- even after realizing that there will be longer-term savings over kerosene. The $2 per day household frets because they cannot afford to make a mistake in their purchases as doing so may mean serious financial difficulty. They take more time to make decision and need a lot more reassurance.

(Btw, Prof Rangan et al have a segmentation model that we fully subscribe to)

2. Don't lose touch with what is actually happening on the ground.

"Don't let others decide your destiny for you. You must get truly involved, especially during scale-up." This was a lesson we learned from our friend, Dr. Manu Chandaria, a prominent Kenyan businessman who has built a billion dollar enterprise that has presence in over 40 countries.

Why is this relevant? As we started to scale, going from 70 rural retailers (what we refer to as Village-Level Entrepreneurs) to over 1100 in a year, it was sometimes easy to succumb to the urge to leave complete operational oversight to our middle management. As the CEO, I realized that I had to get involved with every step of the business to make sure we were on track.

3. Don't try to do it alone.

Find out who shares your mission and work together - leverage as many external partnerships as you can.

In our case, our big, audicious goal is to set-up 10,000 Village Level Entrepreneurs (VLE), and through this VLE network to distribute 2M Nuru Lights by the end of 2016.

We have realized that we can't achieve this objective alone. That's why we have started to work with others who share our mission - 1) to create sustainable livelihoods and 2) to provide clean, safe, affordable energy solutions to the poorest of the poor.

That is also why we are very excited about being invited again to WEF Africa. For us, being at WEF allows us to share our learning of course, but most importantly, allows us to solicit new ideas and kick-start new partnerships.