Three years ago, social innovator Caleb Grove was inspired to start his first entrepreneurship project before he left for Bambalang, a small rural community in the North-West region of Cameroon. Caleb recently completed a Bachelor of Mechanical Engineering (BSc Mechanical) at the University of New Brunswick (UNB). Although Caleb’s major academic background does not involve business, he learned about entrepreneurship from a diploma program he took during the course of his degree called Technology Management & Entrepreneurship (TME). One group project he worked in TME gave Caleb the means to seriously consider the feasibility of his idea of creating wind turbines in Africa. After receiving encouragement from Dr. Dhirendra Shukla (chair of the J. Herbert Smith Centre for Technology Management and Entrepreneurship) to seriously pursue the idea, Caleb and his team won the Social Innovation Award at the 2013 TME Pitch Competition. This course is what helped crystallize the idea of Caleb’s social venture, Mbissa Energy Systems.
Caleb provides a brief description of his project:
“Mbissa Energy Systems is a start-up created in Atlantic Canada that operates internationally. It is a not-for-profit organization that is working to develop completely sustainable and locally-appropriate energy systems for use in rural Africa. The project is currently focused in Bambalang, Cameroon where wind and solar energy are being harnessed with the help of several Cameroonians using locally available materials. These workers will then propagate the training and technology into the surrounding region.”
So far, Caleb has used this method to provide electricity for most of the entire island of Mbissa and workers that have begun training being the primary means of implementation. For his trip to Cameroon that began at the end of February 2016, he plans to continue training and further prototype development and deployment.
He also describes the target group he wishes to help in Africa, and the greater potential of Mbissa:
“We are helping people living in poverty in areas where solutions are either non-existent or inappropriate for those involved. Energy systems can give people a future by challenging some of the root causes of extreme poverty such as lack of education, lack of accessibility, lack of basic tools (such as lights), limited communication (lack of cell phones, televisions and radios) and lack of healthcare. Ultimately, the energy and training is to be used as the foundation on which to create additional infrastructure and technology to empower people with the tools they need to break free of the cycle of poverty.”
His upcoming goals include raising awareness of his endeavour, which he identifies in two parts:
- The first is partner development. This includes partnering people with communities in development and also helping to subsidize their needs. Caleb is also looking for total involvement – people who will not only sponsor families and communities, but also consider writing letters, receiving communication (through Skype, for example) from families and communities. The overall goal is to expand and develop his global network of contacts.
- The second is finding a way to make Mbissa a sustainable project through crowdfunding. According to Caleb, “In an online age, the internet is merely one more tool that is used to bridge the continental gap between Africa and North America, and can bring people from all over the world into a single community.”
Caleb talks about how grateful he has been for the help he’s received from UNB to lift this project off the ground:
“They’ve really gone out of their way to make things happen and make the project succeed and for that I’ve been very thankful. They have supported the vision of the company and bought into that; they’re the first people to have done that. That’s provided emotional support as far as encouragement, and they’ve given the initial capital that helped things go in the start-up. Even with the courses I was taking I was provided time and a place to develop the technology and the business model. [They’ve been helpful with] the financial support and also getting a lot of feedback in terms of entrepreneurs and businessmen affiliated with the program who have been brought in to look at what students are doing. There are the professors at UNB who have been very approachable and encouraging in terms of pointing me in a different direction. I’ve pretty much received support in all the ways I could’ve wanted.”
Caleb is also working on the evaluation of the cultural model. He wishes to expand his work past the village he is currently working with and onto neighbouring villages. Even though they are demographically close, there are great variations with what works in each one. Therefore, Caleb says they will have to constantly adjust their model for each area to accommodate for each place’s particular needs.
Mbissa Energy System currently has four in-country volunteers and a management team is currently being built. Caleb says that he would like for the project to be incorporated in Canada, with a board to manage the higher level aspects. On the ground level, Caleb plans to continue working with locals who are responsible for overseeing the work done in Cameroon and have a community centre where they can identify areas of need. Future plans also include establishing an office and a wind test site for further educational work with local individuals.
Even with all the assistance that he has received, however, Caleb still faces issues that need to be overcome for Mbissa Energy Systems to reach its full potential. One such challenge is fundraising, but he seems to be optimistic about the support he is still receiving:
“I’m struggling with my fundraising now, and it’s gotten to the point where I need to look beyond the university to meet those financial requirements in the first place. But even as I’m doing that I find the department is trying the best they can to help me make these connections and meet people within the community of social entrepreneurship.”
Caleb plans to utilize grants to get his project off the ground, and is ironing out the details during the TME program. Mbissa’s ultimate goal is to provide the open source technology for as many people as possible for as little as possible in Africa.
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Increasingly, we are seeing that some of the greatest advances in social entrepreneurship and social innovation are coming from students. These stories are being lived, but they are rarely told. As a result, RECODE and the Trico Charitable Foundation are collaborating to survey and interview leading examples of Canadian post-secondary students who are developing social enterprises (for profit or not for profit).
This work seeks to build on RECODE’s survey activities with Emory University in Atlanta, and the insights from the Scaled Purpose and Mount Royal University report “Where to Begin: How Social Innovation is Emerging Across Canadian Campuses”.
It is hoped this research will inform our efforts to help Canada’s post-secondary institutions lead the way in supporting student social entrepreneurs and social innovators. But more than that, it will lead to a series of blogs capturing the students’ journeys. These stories will “reveal how process and purpose can converge to power a new economy for social and ecological impact” and, hopefully, inspire and inform social entrepreneurs within and beyond our Universities.