A Different Source of Light

by katiedelp on

By Bob Lupton John Coors was on a late night flight from Amsterdam to Nairobi when he was suddenly awakened from his slumber.  The plane, according to the flight monitor, was just crossing over the Sahara Desert into sub-Sahara Africa.  As John glanced out of his window, he saw nothing but a sea of blackness below.  For hours he saw not a single light from a village or road.  There were millions of people living down there, John was sure. These people were living in total darkness. It struck John with a force he was unable to shake.


John was no stranger to energy needs. Through his previous involvements in the solar electricity industry he had learned that one third of the world has no access to electricity. But of all the dark places on earth, John thought as he peered down from the night sky, sub-Sahara Africa must be the darkest of all.  The troubling he felt in his spirit did not leave as he landed in Nairobi. Over the following weeks and months he researched the darkness.  His suspicions were confirmed.  He discovered that two thirds of the people living in sub-Sahara Africa had no access to electricity, that five to six hundred million of them still cooked over wood fires.  Deforestation was a major problem as were respiratory ailments due to the inhalation of smoke. The development of clean, affordable sources of light and heat could address a whole spectrum of serious environmental, health and social issues.


John is a visionary.  And he has significant capacity.  Former CEO of America’s largest brewing company and current president and chairman of the highly successful CoorsTek, he had both the resources and connections to initiate a large-scale energy project.  But this venture would be markedly different from any other business enterprise he had undertaken.  This one was a calling.  It seemed clearly to be a vision authored of God.  It would be non-profit – every dollar of capital invested would go directly to benefit the people it was designed to serve.  He would call it Circle of Light.


The concept was technologically simple. The program would set up Energy Stores in rural communities.  These Energy Stores, operating as member-funded co-ops, would provide to each subscribing household a home cooking system (2-burner stove with propane tank) and a complete home lighting system (12VDC battery powered).  The nominal fees charged for exchanging propane tanks and recharging the batteries would cover Store operations and enable the co-op to be self-sustaining.  A minimum of 250 member households (approximately 2000 residents) would be required to initiate a community “energy center.”  Local co-op boards comprised of women, community, church and business leaders would be formed to assume management responsibility and accountability.  Circle of Light could thus provide a low-cost, technically simple, sustainable source of modern energy to millions of poor families throughout sub-Sahara Africa and beyond.


The plan was met with enthusiasm, from remote village to national statehouse.  Within months it was providing affordable heat and light to more than 100,000 homes in 200 communities.  And there seemed no end in sight.  Circle of Light, it appeared, could actually bring light to an entire darkened world.


But there was a problem.  Even though the cost of the propane refills was modest (given the large-scale purchasing power of the program) and the battery recharging costs minimal, rural co-op members barely surviving off the land slowly gravitated back to stick gathering as the most economical source of cooking fuel.  And night-time lighting, though convenient, was something they had done without from the beginning of time.  There were higher priorities for their meager incomes than refilling propane tanks and recharging batteries.  Thus, without the steady income stream needed to sustain the Energy Stores, Circle of Light began to flicker.  The government leaders who had been so encouraging had neither the interest nor resources to underwrite the program.  It eventually became apparent to John that the only way to maintain this non-profit enterprise was to permanently subsidize it with charitable dollars.  And that was something he had no appetite for. Investing in a non-profit mission that would be self-sustaining was one thing but indefinitely propping up a dependency-producing program violated some deeply held values. Reluctantly, John decided to cut his losses ($4 million worth) and pulled the plug on Circle of Light.


“I will never again invest a dime – a penny – in a non-profit that claims to be doing economic development,” John declared with conviction during a Q&A session with a group of Florida business leaders.  There was no bitterness in his tone, merely a realization that a charitable service model, no matter how worthy or how needed, does not have the capacity to lift the poor out of their poverty.  “The poor need jobs!”  John declared.  And without for-profit, wealth-generating businesses the poor will remain at a subsistence level scratching out an existence, their hopes and dreams shackled to the daily pressures of survival.  Without employment that offers a brighter future, they will predictably resign themselves to smoky cooking fires and nature’s cycles of darkness and light.


It is this realization, John said, that impelled him to initiate a values-based private investment fund to stimulate business growth in sub-Saharan Africa. It is called One Thousand & One Voices (1K1V).   “Capitalism and business done well – not socialism or philanthropy – is the only proven path for economic development to lift multitudes from poverty.  People in Africa are yearning for jobs. Only business can create an expanding jobs base, but business can only succeed if it has investment, and investment will come only if the returns warrant the risk. I believe today they do, and that is why my family has become involved in the One Thousand & One Voices movement.”


John has set about raising $300 million from wealthy families in the U.S. and Africa to invest in promising African businesses, thus enabling them to grow and multiply at a faster rate and create increasing numbers of good paying jobs.  His five year vision is to raise 5 billion from 500 families to invest in great businesses all over the world in impoverished countries.  “The foundation of this movement is the realization that we don’t need more philanthropy, we don’t need more aid in Africa”, John said.  “We need more investment because we need to create jobs.”  Contrary to popular perception, the economy of sub-Saharan Africa has a promising rate of growth, greater than European markets. But in order for developing-market businesses to flourish, they need “patient” financial capital, which traditional private equity funds are reluctant to provide.  Each family investing with John in the 1K1V fund makes a three-dimensional commitment: relational capital that leverages family connections and reputation, intellectual capital that leverages their business and industry knowledge, and patient financial capital that provides the longer-term funding that developing-market businesses need to grow.


John Coors’ journey into the darkness of the world’s most impoverished people began with a Divine awakening at 37,000 feet.  His heart drew him toward addressing some of the most obvious needs of isolated, underserved populations.  But it was not until his mind became fully engaged, not until he came face to face with the fundamentals of moving the poverty needle, that he landed on a bedrock remedy.  John concludes: “The pathway to economic freedom — real prosperity for millions living in poverty — is through values-based private investment grounded in the time-tested principles of free enterprise.”


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