It’s not often that a person can parlay humanitarian service into a commercial business endeavor that not only creates jobs but also meets a basic human need in under-developed countries across the globe.
But that’s what Utah natives David Erickson, Ryan Shepherd and David Smith, along with New Zealander Justin Morley, did when they created Point Innovate, a business that provides rural energy solutions on the African continent and in other underdeveloped areas around the globe.
Erickson, Smith and Shepherd crystalized the idea for Point Innovate as colleagues working for TIFIE Humanitarian, an organization created by Provocraft founder Robert Workman that focuses on humanitarian projects that give individuals and families opportunities for a better life in the communities where they live. (TIFIE stands for “Teaching Individuals and Families Independence through Enterprise.”) Erickson and Shepherd went into the Democratic Republic of the Congo and started three businesses for TIFIE: a solar energy company, a brick manufacturing company and a trucking company.
“We also did many community energy projects there, particularly in the village of Bw’e, bringing in solar energy,” says Erickson. “We set up a central solar charging station. People could purchase home battery kits and pay a small fee to swap out expended batteries for fully charged ones. Because the charging station was set up as a business it became self-sustaining.” Surprisingly, he adds, 17 other businesses were started in the village because of the central charging station. A health clinic came in and several schools started receiving power.
“A lot of spontaneous social development happened simply because TIFIE brought power to the area,” says Erickson. Best, local community members were able to run the charging station while the partners went on to successfully repeated the concept in Ghana.
After working in the Democratic Republic of the Congo for several years, Erickson, Smith and Shepherd saw the massive impact that solar energy could have on a village or community and the need in the African continent for reliable, portable energy solutions. Point Innovate was born out of the desire to create a company that imports solar energy products and sells them direct to consumers, businesses and governments on the African continent. Morley joined Point Innovate and the foursome began importing solar products from Goal Zero, another successful Utah business started by Workman, and selling them in Ghana.
“We have Goal Zero’s support and we import its products as the official Goal Zero distributor for Africa,” he says. “We also have some other products that we source on our own and sell on the continent.”
Erickson says the market on the African continent is enormous, with about 700 million people that have little or no access to electricity. Even the electricity in the larger cities is unreliable. Hence, Point Innovate services the entire market, from the rural villages and communities where there is no electricity to the larger cities where power is available, but unreliable, inefficient and expensive. Even the former president of Ghana is interested in Point Innovate’s services, according to Erickson.
Point Innovate’s mission is to provide solar products that allow people to meet more than just basic needs, such as recharging a cell phone or powering an LED light. They also want to power things like televisions, refrigerators and business equipment. “People want power for essential things and they want it to be reliable,” he continues. “So that is where our products are focused.”
The company’s corporate office is in Ghana, while its U.S. office is in South Jordan. Morley lives in Ghana and runs the corporate office while the other three partners live in Utah and commute back and forth. After becoming established in Ghana, the company plans to expand throughout Africa and then into other global markets in Asia and South and Central America.
What advice does Erickson offer other small companies from Utah that are looking at international business opportunities? Three things, he says. First, research the import and export laws of the country where you want to do business, before entering the market. “There is a lot of data available that will tell you about the market,” he adds.
Second, “definitely” visit the country. Get on the ground yourself, he says. Despite all of the research and data available, nothing can substitute for being on the ground in the country. “We do that every time, even now, before we go into a country,” he adds. “We will spend several weeks in the country just to understand the market. We talk to shop owners and consumers to understand how they transact business in the country. Third, find a good, local partner in the country that understands how to get around possible corruption and get your products safely into the market, especially in Africa, Erickson continues.
Finding a good local partner can be challenging. When Point Innovate went into Ghana, Erickson says it took about two months before they found partners they could trust. The expat communities in a country are often reliable sources. “Find out who they work with and who their clearinghouses are to help you get your product into the country,” he says. “It’s also helpful to talk to leaders in the U.S. Embassy in the country and seek help from the U.S. Foreign Commercial Service.”
Point Innovate found success internationally despite “going it alone,” but World Trade Center Utah wants businesses to know that a variety of resources are available to assist businesses in their international sales ambitions. For example, the World Bank Private Sector Liaison Officers are leading a trade mission to Ghana and Senegal to help businesses in the sectors of engineering, transportation, infrastructure, energy and water learn about available procurement opportunities in those countries. Companies that might be interested in African market may obtain further information on the mission from the World Trade Center Utah.