Meet Camille van Gestel, the co-founder and co-CEO of WakaWaka, a highly successful social enterprise with the mission to provide sustainable energy and light solutions for over a billion people who lack access to electricity. During the interview, he convinced me that he’s got plenty of energy himself to activate many to make this ambitious goal a reality. Here’s what he told me about sustainability, energy and change.
One human family living within the boundaries of one planet
At the moment, we are taking more out the planet than the planet can replenish. This, of course, is unsustainable. In the future, we need to find a way to live within the boundaries as one planet. We need to stop thinking in terms of “them” and “us”, as there really is only one human family. We need to take care of people all over the world as well as the planet itself – to help ourselves. If we fail to do this, we’re only hurting ourselves in the long run.
Corporate storytelling as a driver of change
Most of the time, we’re simply not aware of our own behavior – and even less of the consequences of what we do. Change to a more sustainable future hence needs to start with increased awareness. This is where companies can play a tremendous role. Not only can they push change in their supply chains, but they can use their marketing powers to make consumers aware of key issues in society and what to do about them. Such corporate storytelling becomes even more powerful when it is closely linked to how and where a company makes money. And it’s not just the big corporate that can drive this awareness, in many cases, smaller social enterprises are much better at storytelling. They not only influence consumers but also inspire people in larger companies to believe that you can do well by doing good.
Inspiration from unlikely places
The idea for WakaWaka was inspired by a project in South Africa in 2010. Maurits Groen (the other co-founder) and I had just won an international competition to create a greener South Africa World Cup. When seeing the townships, we realized that many South Africans lived off the power grid and would therefore not benefit from the ultra-efficient LED lamps that would replace the incandescent lamps. Two years later, WakaWaka, the world’s most efficient solar lamp, hit the market at a price point affordable for people living on $2 a day. The same product is available for people in developed and developing countries. In developed markets, when you buy one, another one is given away in emergency relief situations. Alternatively, through innovative financing, in Rwanda people can buy their own WakaWaka light or charger with very small weekly installments.
Personal energy from providing access to energy
What I’m working on provides such tremendous energy and purpose. I stumbled upon my purpose relatively late in life, but I cannot imagine ever stepping out. By jumping in, I discovered so much about the risks and pollution caused by kerosene lamps. For example, from the World Health Organization, I learned that kerosene lamps and dangerous cooking stoves kill more people per year than malaria and HIV combined. For me, WakaWaka is really all about making a difference, to people who really need it. Providing light to study at night, saving money on kerosene and batteries, reducing carbon emissions as well as health hazards from dangerous fumes in home.
Leaders drive change with energy, enthusiasm and dedication
What I also love about WakaWaka is meeting many inspiring people. These are great leaders who really drive change, like Paul Polman (Unilever’s CEO), the late Wubbo Okkels (Dutch astronaut and sustainability champion), Blake Mycoskie (founder of TOMS shoes) and Professor Mohammad Yunus (micro-finance pioneer).
What makes these people successful is that they inspire from the heart. They generate a shared passion, through their energy, enthusiasm and dedication. And they clearly show it is fun to work with purpose, creating the dynamics where miracles can happen, and where the combination of purpose and commercial success is possible.
Committed to providing light to a billion people
Social enterprise should take responsibility for really fixing the issues. By 2030, we want to provide light to a billion people. This is not a lofty goal but a commitment. The trouble with ambitious commitments like that is to split them into digestible, manageable shorter term projects to which people can contribute. While working on scaling the lighting solution, we’re also expanding into other products that meet the needs of energy-poor communities as the demand for energy rises. We started with a solar light, added a solar charger and will soon launch cook-stoves that require less fuel, that are less dangerous and are more affordable. But I realize that I cannot do this alone, even with the team of great people currently working for WakaWaka. We also need Agents of Light – people who engage their network and share information about the issues and solutions.
For more information about shining bright (which is what WakaWaka means in Swahili), watch Camille’s TEDx talk, follow Camille on LinkedIn or Twitter or follow WakaWaka on Twitter. Or join their crowdfunding campaign to become an Agent of Light!
Written by Marjolein Baghuis (@mbaghuis). Pictures © 2015 WakaWaka