East of Africa: ToughStuff (w/ video)

The idea for ToughStuff came to Adriaan on a trip to his home in the Netherlands, between stints of working with charities and NGO’s in Africa for fifteen years.

He was in the garden, inspecting a cheap outdoor lamp that had solar panels built in to the top of the plastic. The light would automatically recharge a set of internal batteries during the day, and have enough power to stay illuminated throughout the night.

He thought, if the developed world could be using this technology to light our gardens, then why can’t this same equipment be used as a primary light source for the most needy people in the world?

After few years of research and development, ToughStuff International was born.

Okay, pause for a brief disclaimer: I need to say that I wouldn’t usually devote an entire article to write up a commercial enterprise. But I wholeheartedly believe in ToughStuff’s approach. It’s one of the few things I’ve seen that has the potential to change the face of the developing world in multiple ways…

The truck we’re in is full to the brim; six grown men and a load of lamps, panels, batteries and merchandising material. I’m with a team of salesmen that ToughStuff has assembled to begin promoting the products on foot from Antananarivo to Toliara in Southern Madagascar.

Through broken French and English, I find out that sales team has come from all walks of life; a couple of university students, a brewery advertising manager, an auto mechanic…they are excited to be working for the company, and excited to get out of the city for a few days.

We makes stops in small villages, where green hills and blue sky meet streaks of bright red dirt. The sales team enthusiastically shows off the lamps and panels to owners of small roadside shops. In every location, a crowd immediately forms around the salesmen.

People are instantly intrigued by the futuristic looking products; they’ve seen solar power on the roofs of big buildings, but are amazed to have it in their hands, at a price ($20) that’s still considered an investment, but within reach.

The shop owners write their names and phone numbers down in dusty booklets. Some of the more wealthy business owners discuss the potential of buying large sets of lamps and renting them to individual consumers. I suddenly see the brilliance of ToughStuff’s business model, in that there are theoretically 1.4 billion customers worldwide that desperately need this product; not something that many startups can claim.

A hundred miles outside of the capital, we stop to check in with a few customers that received prototype units. The first house we visit is a two level brick, mud, and thatch structure that belongs to a farmer and carpenter named Regice. Outside the house, six or seven children are playing with a metal hoop that they push along with a stick. The goal appears to be to get the hoop to roll by using the stick to nudge it along, tapping the left and right edges to keep it upright.

Regice makes horse-drawn carts for a living, and tells us that each cart takes him about one month to build. Prior to using the ToughStuff lamp, he used kerosene lamps at home and in his shed, which would cost about 20 cents a day to refill. He’s extremely happy about using the LED lamp, because it’s free to use and so easy to operate that his kids charge the lamp for him. He now buys food and invests in his carpentry business with the money that would have been spent on kerosene.

He shows us that he keeps the solar panel mounted on the roof, with the small cord dangling on to the balcony to charge the lamp during the day. The sales team brings out an adapter that’s just been released which utilizes the solar panel to charge a range of mobile phones. Regice immediately agrees to buy one, so that he doesn’t have to walk to town and pay to charge his phone.

Regice is more fortunate than most of the neighboring villagers. He’s able to purchase things like the lamp and cell phone connector because he operates a stable business. But for most, $20 per lamp and panel is still a major stretch – something that Adriaan hopes to whittle down as ToughStuff takes off.

We continue our Southbound journey and the sun begins to set over large, monolithic rock formations to the West. I think about the enthusiasm that I witnessed over the course of the day; the villagers we spoke to have so little, but yet were so excited at the chance to have a reliable, clean, and renewable source of light.

Find out more about ToughStuff on their website – http://toughstuffonline.org