Interview with Whit Alexander in Makeshift Magazine / by Chris Duffy

Transient

Published on the Makeshift website on  September 28, 2012

Whit Alexander worked for Microsoft, helped develop the maps for the first Encarta encyclopedia, and created the best-selling board game Cranium. He’s now the founder and CEO of Burro, based in Koforidua, Ghana. Burro is a for-profit company providing innovative products like batteries, irrigation pumps, and eyeglasses to low-income families in rural areas.

Why the name Burro?

It literally came to me in my sleep that the donkey is one of the first and best investments many rural households can make in improving their productivity.  Our company is all about productivity enhancements. Every Burro product has to save you money or empower you to earn more money.

How do you walk the line between high-quality, durable goods and maintaining a low-enough price point for widespread adoption?

That is a constant struggle. It’s something we wrestle with. There’s more than one economist who argues that a person living on a buck a day is actually making the right decision to buy a really cheap hammer that’s going to break in three months rather than spending fifty percent more for a hammer that’s going to last five years. I’m not an economist, so my attitude is , “Dude, no. Save up your money and get the better hammer.”

We’re finding that owning quality things is an aspiration that’s universal. People don’t want cheap products. Ghanaian consumers already refer to low-quality goods as “cheap China” and are pushing back against the massive amounts of shoddy merchandise flooding the markets. There is a tradeoff, but we’ve already demonstrated that we can command a market premium to deliver far superior, higher-quality merchandise that people know they can trust. But we need to finance investment in these high-productivity goods. Is a solar light the best way to go long-term? Absolutely. Can most people afford to buy one today? No way. So we have to pair these innovative offerings with creative consumer financing capabilities.

What are the best ideas you’ve seen come from local markets?

One of my favorite stories is the Burro battery powered phone charger.  We were looking at existing phone chargers in Ghana and found a few on the market in Ghana. They tend to be aluminum cylinders with one AA battery and a little phone jack. They just don’t work; you can’t get enough power out of one AA to charge a cell phone, but people are spending good money on these things.

I was expressing that frustration to one of our top resellers, a guy named George Henaku, and George trots out this thing that’s literally a piece of bamboo. He shoved three D batteries in it, then cut the cord off his cell phone wall charger and wired it directly to the batteries.

I said, “Dude, does that work?” “Oh yeah,” he says, “on just about every phone.  You can charge two or three.”  The little lights went off in my head. With nickel metal hydride batteries, four of them together make a charger that is pretty much right in the voltage sweet spot over the batteries’ entire discharge curve.

So the Burro battery phone charger was born. Is it perfect? No. Is it like a sixty-dollar lithium ion rechargeable iPad power pack? No. But it’s really portable, it’s dirt-cheap, it works on 95% of phones with no trouble whatsoever, and it was a local innovation.

You sell lights, batteries, irrigation pumps, and glasses. What’s the connection between your products?

What brings them all together is productivity, but to our consumers we just talk about tools to build a better life. Growing up, my favorite movie was Swiss Family Robinson. I’m the guy who likes to take the coconut shells and the vines and the old rusty bicycle and figure out how to get hot running water up in the tree house.

I spent the majority of my twenties living and working in West Africa, and I was always struck by the number of innovations that were out there. The better mosquito net, the better lantern, the better corn variety, the better water filter.  I asked myself, “If all of these things are better, then why isn’t anyone making a business out of them?”  That’s what brings it all together—a dogged focus on creating lasting value for our customers.

If you think about it, all of these things entail change for people. Doing something differently. And that’s hard enough anywhere. But when you combine that with a society that so venerates its ancestors and elders, and everyone’s getting by on a buck or two a day, it’s all about mitigating risk. People can’t afford to take chances.  What we’re excited about is trying to be the one stop shop for this kind of stuff and building a brand that reduces that risk, so people say, “Oh, it’s from Burro, they’ll stand behind it, their stuff’s always good.”

So the brand is number one, but then there’s the distribution channels.  Our strategy is to create all these direct sales representatives who are trusted opinion leaders in their communities. And that person can take the time to sit down with you one-on-one and explain how you can enjoy your radio more, explain how you can have brighter, safer light, explain how you can grow food in the dry season.

How would you describe your business philosophy in one sentence?

In a sense, we have one key business, which is building a retail brand to deliver tools to build a better life. For me, it’s about forthrightness and delivering value honestly.