In 2011, students Anna Acquistapace (DMBA 2011), Olivia Nava (DMBA 2012), and Eric Persha (DMBA 2012), launched an idea inspired by the MBA in Design Strategy program's Social Ventures course (taught by faculty member Steve Diller).
The idea involves working with members of a solar-distribution company as a partner organization to offer community members in rural Tanzania connectivity services that use renewable solar energy.
(Initially the partner organization had wanted to address better solar-powered lighting solutions in Tanzania, which evolved into the more wide-serving Juabar business model.)
"Our [CCA] education helped us realize that you don’t approach innovation by answering questions, but rather you look to understand end-users’ needs.
"So we didn’t come to that project on 'how can we better sell solar lights?' but more 'how do we understand the electricity experience of Tanzanians with little or no electricity experience?'"
Juabar: If you build it, they will call
The designers went on to propose a way to address the disparity between electricity access and mobile-phone penetration using a unique solar-powered cell-phone-charging kiosk -- both a product and a service -- coined Juabar ("Jua" in Swahili means sun. "Juabar" is a community gathering place to access the sun's energy.)
Even with its 50-million-plus population, only two percent of Tanzania's denizens has access to electricity. According to the GSMA (Groupe Spéciale Mobile Association), which tracks the interests of mobile operators worldwide, mobile-phone penetration is surprisingly over 60 percent in some areas (80 percent in households).
Given the success of the project's outreach, Juabar could potentially shape the lives of countless families in East Africa.
How does Juabar work?
Using a high-quality 50-watt solar-PV system, the Juabar Kiosk can simultaneously charge 20 phones or a variation of other small electronic devices. It is a product designed to exist in a public space as a pop-up solar-electrified shop for entrepreneurs.
It also serves as an energy business and retail location, providing the service of phone charging as well as complementary product sales.
The “instant businesses” are ready for dedicated electricity entrepreneurs (a.k.a. Juapreneurs), who pay a monthly lease fee to operate a kiosk and provide a phone-charging service to their communities, to operate as part of the Juabar network.
Juabar delivers everything an entrepreneur needs to immediately start a charging business. Through its 30 stores, Juabar provides electricity access for more than 6,000 individuals and provides a lucrative income for the 30 entrepreneurs running this necessary service for their communities.
An empowering business with IMPACT
In 2012, Nava, Sachi DeCou (DMBA 2012), and Rachel Gant (Industrial Design 2012) presented the Juabar business plan at CCA's 2012 IMPACT Awards competition, which they won, and went on to found the company with the $10,000 award.
Today, Nava and DeCou work full time promoting and implementing the business plan and its mission to develop profitable small-business opportunities in Tanzania while meeting community energy and connectivity needs.
"Juabar has been both a journey and an amazing opportunity for me," DeCou, director of connectivity, reports. "I have been able to dive into unknown realms of my own design work and the collaborative work of creating a company with my U.S. and Tanzanian colleagues.
"I have learned the most unexpected of lessons from the people and places with which I connect. We have been able to develop a shared vision of what Juabar is and what we want to create in the world and then to create it. We are all still in the midst of its creation and the process and our progress inspire me every day."
All the designers maintain a special connection to the company and its mission.
"My favorite part of the entire story," adds Persha, "was when we spent a night with the farmer in the middle of nowhere. It was such a pure moment of understanding a user scenario. ... How does this man several miles away from the nearest electrical outlet charge the phone he was carrying and using so frequently?
"When we saw the small solar panel on the top of their neighbors' roof, another mile away, with a table of mobile phones being charged, it clicked immediately with all of us: this was an opportunity to truly provide something that was needed, and something that could be turned into a business with economic and social impact."
Who doesn't like power?
Today the longest-running Juabar charging kiosks have been in operation several years. Operators have on average been charging 30 phones a day. The entrepreneurs are reported to be excited to continue their charging business and expand their business opportunity as a franchise operation with Juabar.
Meet Mama Salama
Mama Salama was the first Juapreneur. She's worked with Juabar for over two years. Her kiosk is operated primarily by her daughter and other family members. Income from the kiosk provides funds to purchase food during periods of bad weather when crop yields are low and to send her children to school.
One of Salama's daughters is studying electrical engineering, and folks at Juabar hope she'll one day work with them at Juabar headquarters!
New businesses require innovative vision
Says Nava, current CEO: "It's been incredible to see Juabar grow from an idea into a business. It's one thing for designers to develop an insight into a product concept, but building a business is a different challenge. Seeing Juabar grow into a socially impactful business is truly inspiring.
"It is all so inspiring to see how art and design can positively impact and change the world when we live in a society that primarily rewards the output of left-brain thinking.
"Business is thirsty for creative thinkers. We live in a unique time in human history when we can’t look to the past to inform the future, because our world is constantly evolving due to new technology, degrading ecology, and so many world economies in flux.
"Artists and designers seem to be people who look at the world differently, have a deep sense of empathy, can thrive in ambiguity, think visually, and want to be unique. These are all characteristics that infuse creativity that then leads to innovation."
DMBA program prepares tomorrow's leaders
CCA's groundbreaking MBA in Design Strategy prepares the next generation of innovation leaders for a world that is not only profitable but also sustainable, ethical, and truly meaningful.
"The MBA in Design Strategy program develops leaders who embrace innovation and sustainability to manage today’s complex challenges and opportunities," explains DMBA faculty member Tim Smith. "DMBA launched in 2008 with a focus on teaching graduate students design thinking, systems thinking, and how to collaborate with colleagues, clients, and other CCA programs.
"It has been inspiring to see this team of students work on the Juabar project in Social Ventures and other DMBA courses. The team fully developed Juabar as a business in the Venture Studio course during the final semester."
Bay Area advantage for business-making
"For us, working in solar and base-of-the-pyramid markets," Nava explains: "We have met with solar manufacturers, joined energy access working groups for people working in East Africa, attended meet-ups for hardware projects designed for developing economies, met folks at Google, Twitter, IDEO, Facebook on their campus, and so on.
"Essentially, you can find like-minded change agents and ambitious people here in the Bay Area because not only are people thirsty for knowledge but they also want a community.
"I haven’t come across a region that has this spirit for community and knowledge quite like the Bay Area."
Today the designers behind Juabar are working hard to build an expansive network of energy platforms that provide connectivity services to East Africa at large.
Cofounders DeCou and Nava are eagerly seeking to raise funds ($15,000) to take Juabar to the next level. In accordance, they have initiated an Indiegogo campaign to help
- build and deploy an additional 20 Juabars
- train new Juapreneurs
- Juapreneur support for their first few months of operation
About the IMPACT awards
IMPACT is one of the anchor programs at CCA's Center for Art and Public Life, providing students with opportunities to build relationships for social change. It is about innovation, community, collaboration, and making. The program celebrates the entrepreneurial drive of CCA students combined with their desire to create a tangible, positive influence within a specific community