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Tackling Poverty with Solar Lights: SVP Partner Peter Bladin

Posted by Peter Bladin

This was originally posted on the Microsoft Alumni Foundation website. Peter Bladin is an SVP Partner, as well as the Vice President of the Green Technology Fund at Global Partnerships

Peter-BladinAfter retiring from Microsoft, I wanted to combat abject poverty in the developing world but had not figured out how. In 2001, I listened to Muhammad Yunus announce the creation of the Grameen Technology Center. I was impressed by his resolve, his passion, and his approach of building social businesses focused on maximizing social impact. Through the Grameen Bank, he had created a sustainable way to provide financial services for the world’s poorest people using microfinance. This idea had been replicated all over the world and now he was on a mission to bring Information and Communication Technologies (ICT), especially mobile phones, to poor people.

Inspired by what I heard, a few months later I went to Bangladesh, armed with a three-page concept paper and a little bit of seed money, to start Grameen Technology Center in Seattle. As companies began to market mobile phones universally, we worked to provide information services to those who have previously been left out of the ICT marketplace.  By 2011, there were 6 billion mobile phones being used worldwide and the Technology Center was a $12M annual initiative building sustainable projects addressing agriculture and health needs through mobile phones. I decided to retire and joined the board of both Grameen Foundation and another Seattle-based entity Global Partnerships (GP).  My board engagement with GP lasted only a few months, as I saw an opportunity as transformative as the mobile phone initiative I had led 10+ years ago – bringing solar lights to the world’s 1.3 billion poor living off the grid.

GP is a social impact investor, providing knowledge and financing to microfinance institutions, cooperatives, and social businesses.  My job is to find and invest in promising organizations focused on bringing green technologies to millions of poor people in a market-sustained way.  For example, Haitian Suze Servius improved her life dramatically with the purchase of a $12 light. Two years ago, Suze replaced kerosene lanterns with a solar device to light her home and her store. Soon she added the solar lights to her inventory and today more than 100 of her neighbors have done the same. Suze takes orders in advance to maintain an appropriate inventory and has earned an average of $92 each year in light sales, providing her with enough income to send her 8-year-old child to school.

Systems like the one Suze is using retail for $12—less than what a family typically pays each month for candles and kerosene. Bringing these green technologies to people living in poverty will transform lives. And when I retire again in 10 years, I expect solar lights to be as prevalent and revolutionary as cell phones are today.  My vision is to help GP change the lives of tens of millions of the world’s poorest families by providing access to solar technologies through new programs and services that we will identify and fund over the next decade.

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