Friday, July 12, 2013

Thank you, Peace Corps

Ten years ago today, in 2003, I flew to Washington DC for Peace Corps training before heading on to the Gambia, West Africa. Peace Corps had a huge impact on my life, my conception of who I am, and what I want to do with my time on this Earth. In that spirit, I'd like to open this blog by explaining how Peace Corps influenced the first two stages of the SVTP product design process today.

Stage I: Consumer Research

My American parents and my Gambian host family, 2004
Peace Corps Volunteers in the Gambia often live in remote villages. I can't imagine any way I could have found myself living in a mud brick hut without running water or electricity, except through Peace Corps. By saying, "I'm here, this is my place, I want to be part of this community," PCVs can get an in-depth understanding of another world.

At SVTP, this kind of in-depth understanding is the first part of our overall design process. We have to understand the key challenges in the developing world if we want to come up with solutions to them. The right product for the USA may not be the right product for China or the right product for Kenya. Plus, each of those countries has millions of people with a variety of lifestyles and needs: some people in Tanzania use iPhones; some people in the USA struggle to make ends meet. Only by "following our customer home" and "walking a mile in his shoes" can we understand his life and have a chance at solving his problems.

Stage II: Product Development

One "ah-ha" moment for me came on a visit back to my original host family in West Africa, several years after my Peace Corps service. While I was a Peace Corps Volunteer, a friend and I came up with a cynical phrase we felt captured a local attitude that made progress difficult: "Why pay money for something halfway decent when you can get something crappy for free?" But the reality for people without much money is that they have to economize and judiciously allocate scarce resources -- and sometimes, there is just no money available.
A well is a really difficult way to get water.

But when I visited my host family in 2009, I found a new water pipe serving their village of a few hundred people. The women would carry a giant bucket to the water pipe and pay a small coin to fill up their bucket. Surprised, I asked, "Why would you pay money for water, when the well is free?"

My host mother answered:
(1) The pipe water is safer for babies.
(2) The pipe water tastes better.
(3) The well is a lot of work.

I think reason #3 may have been the most important -- it was a labor saving issue. The well, while free, was a huge amount of work. Two or three women together would exert incredible effort pulling a small bucket up from hundreds of feet below.
However, I think there's a fourth reason that is absolutely critical:
(4) The cost of the pipe water was low.

That was the "ah-ha" that disproved my old cynical idea, and replaced it with a new one:  If the price is right, progress is possible.

Let's consider what I believe was going on in that village. An influential family had gotten together with its neighbors to pay the fee to the national utility company to lay a pipe several kilometers out to this village. Somehow, some people agreed to put up the money to make this happen. As far as I know, this was not charity or foreign aid; it was the local people themselves who wanted water and cared enough to make it happen. And the price was right.

Carrying water, 2009.
Someone had to pay the water company bill every month. And whoever paid for kilometers of piping probably wanted his or her money back. So, someone sat at the pipe and collected coins. The key to making this all happen was that the cost of the pipe and the water company bill was low enough to make this possible. The coin for a bucket of water might have been equivalent to $0.05. It probably wouldn't have worked if that coin had to be $0.25.

However, "the price is right" also means that the price was high enough. It might not have worked if the price was $0.001, if that wasn't enough to pay for the pipe and to pay for the utility's water purification facilities.

This is where I see SVTP coming in. We have to balance the price our customers are willing to pay for a product against the benefit they can get from it.  To do this, we need both an in-depth understanding of our customers and an expert knowledge of technology, manufacturing, and distribution costs. If we can leverage a new technology, or come up with a better design, and if we can do it at an affordable price, then we can push forward development at the base of the pyramid and help our customers lead a better life.


  1. how can i get access to some of your products in ghana west africa
    solar charger model C200

    1. Hi Ahiable, please contact us at and include your phone number.
      Thanks, Doug