A Social Enterprise Idea

In between loud cheers as we watched India crush Pakistan in cricket, two of my Indian friends began talking business. Not business in the general sense but rather their businesses. Both of them were my age and both of them had already started two businesses. While they are both exceptional people–and about to go to Harvard Business School–they also are representative of a country well-recognized for its entrepreneurs, particularly in the social enterprise sector. As they discussed how things were going and the challenges of start up life, my American friend and I just looked at each other: we should start a business in Niger.

Both of us have recently spent significant time in Niger, myself as a Peace Corps Volunteer and Sarah as part of a study abroad program. We’d somehow fallen in love with the hot and dusty country and lately we’d been discussing ways of going back. Both of us want to go back in a more meaningful way than mere tourism; plus Niger isn’t exactly a tourist destination. Since getting to India and becoming immersed in the social enterprise world, I’ve become obsessed with the idea of starting a business that could help provide employment, education and food security to Nigeriens.

This is the idea we’ve been discussing:

1. The Problem– Given that Niger is an agriculturally-based economy located in what is essentially a desert, widespread famine is all together too common. At a recent  food security conference, practitioners from around the world came to Niamey to discuss how to meet the challenge of feeding a population of 15 million when the rains fail, as they have three times in the past seven years. Exacerbating the challenge of declining rainfall, Niger also has the highest population growth rate in the world at an average of 7 children per woman and widespread polygamy. As I discovered during my 7 months in Niger, malnutrition is often caused by a lack of variety in one’s diet—a vitamin deficiency—not by a lack of food. The problem is largely cyclical. If basic grains like rice and millet are in short supply and high demand—thus more expensive—less money goes towards a balanced meal. During a  food crisis, filling the belly takes precedence over finding vegetables for sauce. But the problem of malnutrition doesn’t just exist during food crises; even during the “cold season” when vitamin and protein-rich fruits and vegetables are relatively cheap and readily available, the produce is rarely taken advantage of due to a combination of a lack of knowledge and money.

2. A Local Solution-One of the first things that we learned during our Peace Corps training was the incredible nutritional qualities of a widely-grown tree in Niger called Moringa. A small tree, native to Northern India but found throughout the tropics, it contains 7 times the Vitamin C of oranges, 4 times the Vitamin A of carrots, 4 times the Calcium of milk, 3 times the Potassium of bananas and 2 times the protein of yogurt. Aside from containing more vitamins and  nutrients than any other food in West Africa, and possibly the world, it is a tree and once matured, it is capable of being harvested every few weeks.While in Niger, I read a blog post from a former Peace Corps Niger volunteer that gave me the idea of combining shade-dried and pounded Moringa leaves with kuli-kuli, a protein-rich peanut resin that is ubiquitous and inexpensive throughout Niger. Unfortunately, in Niger,  Moringa leaves are often dried in the sun or boiled in water that is then tossed out, both actions that significantly reduce the nutritional properties of the leaves.  On the day of the deadly terrorist attack which subsequently lead to Peace Corps Niger evacuation, I was putting the final touches on a community needs assessment report that included the idea of working with one of my village’s women’s groups to encourage them to add Moringa and kuli kuli powder to koko, a common millet porridge. The idea was that the fortified porridge could serve as a local alternative to PlumpyNut, a malnutrition supplement that is widely distributed through NGOs in Niger but often fails to reach the children it is intended for–i.e. after every distribution my village would be full of little girls selling PlumpyNut by the side of the road to older men who simply liked the taste.

3. The Revenue Model– If powdered Moringa leaf capsules can be sold on Amazon for $40, why can’t we produce Moringa and kuli-kuli protein bars in Niger to be sold in Western markets? Calling them “Lose2Give” bars, I wrote up a business plan with the following revenue model:

During the six month pilot, Lose2Give plans to produce 15,000 protein bars which will be sold at the market-competitive rate of $1.69 per bar, making a total anticipated revenue stream of $25,350. Anticipated costs include shipping, labor and packaging. Grandbelle International  provides shipping at a cost of $2.29/lbs; each Lose2Give bar weighs 1.6 oz making a total cost of $3,105 for 15,000 bars. At least initially, packaging will be outsourced to the Nigerien branch of the Shenzhen Oriental Plastic Packaging factory at a cost of $0.05/bar, making a total of $750 in packaging costs. Twenty Nigerien women will be paid $40 a month amounting to a total of $4,800 in Nigerien labor costs. Considering that the GNI per capita per month is $27 and that very few Nigerien women are employed in the formal sector, Lose2Give’s salary is designed to empower these women and put their families on the path to self-sustainability. In terms of the materials themselves: the kuli kuli, Moringa leaves and dates ( a locally available sweetner), the exact prices are difficult to estimate but should not amount to more than $200 per month. Lose2Give founder, Lisa Curtis, will be provided with a $75/month living stipend (based on Peace Corps stipend calculations) with a total of $450 for the six months. The other team member has offered to carry out the necessary marketing and sales tasks in New York on a part-time volunteer basis until the pilot phase has been completed. Of the remaining $9,305, 60% will be reinvested into the villages through nutritional trainings and workshop demonstrations designed to teach more Nigerien women on the proper formation of the protein bars and how to properly nourish their families. Successful graduates of the trainings will be given a small stipend to teach other women. Additionally, Lose2Give will work with middle school headmasters to provide scholarships for young women to attend high school. The remaining 40% of the profits will be invested back into Lose2Give for scaling operations across the United States and abroad. By relying on a for-profit model, Lose2Give will ensure sustainable and dignified employment to Nigerien women. Given their experience in Niger, the team knows first-hand the distrust that many Nigeriens feel towards NGOs, particularly given the long history of projects confined by strict grant regulations and timelines. As a social enterprise, Lose2Give is better positioned to react to market indicators, scale and provide a long-term investment in the well-being of the country.

So that’s the idea, now we need help. Finding the right distribution channels, both within Niger and abroad is going to be a challenge. Finding angel investors willing to invest in such an unstable region is going to be another challenge. If anyone has ideas, please let me know!