Darden Student Profiles: Lighting up Rural Africa with the Sun King

Last year, I sat in on a speech by Ed Freeman where he shared about how to discover Inspiration. A particularly important point he made is to look for inspiration among those around us. For Ed, inspiration came from within his family.
As we think about the Darden Family, it seemed appropriate to look for inspiration within our family. With that in mind, I'm excited to introduce Prashant Kumar to share a bit about his story.
CJ (EMDC President)


Student: Prashant Kumar
Deputy General Manager

Prashant, you completed an MS in Electrical Engineering from UPenn in May 2010. While most of your peers pursued opportunities in the US with established firms, you moved to Nigeria to join Simba Solar.

You had never been to Africa, so what made you move to Nigeria to pursue such a unique opportunity?

My UPenn experience was a great turning point in my life. It went beyond just helping me develop my technical skills and actually gave me opportunities to build useful, innovative products. It made me realize that I can use my knowledge to build products and businesses that could have a transformative effect on society. It is at this point that I met a couple of HBS grads who were directors at the African conglomerate Simba Group and had spun off the renewable energy company, Simba Solar. Despite being at a nascent stage Simba Solar had a vision that appealed to me greatly. They wanted to make clean energy accessible to the common man in an energy-deficient continent. Also, Africa with all its challenges, presented great growth opportunities. I really felt that I could use my knowledge to create real impact here, which is why I decided to move to Nigeria.

How was adapting to life in Nigeria? What was difficult and what was easy?

I had concerns about safety, having heard multiple stories about foreigners facing incidents like kidnapping, theft, police harassment, etc. Also, I had no prior acquaintance here. So, initially, I found it challenging to adjust to the new environment. Particularly having lived in metropolitan cities all my life, the idea of having no electricity for 8 hours a day, was very disturbing. However, this further stimulated my motivation to bring about a solution to the energy problem here. Besides, I realized that the Nigerian people were extremely welcoming and nice. This helped me get attuned to the new environment and within no time, I felt that I was a Nigerian myself.

In 2011 you were part of the launch of the 'Sun King' Solar Lanterns in partnership with Greenlight Planet. What needs did you see and why did a solar lantern make sense?

It all started in December of 2010. I was on vacation from work and used this opportunity to travel across Nigeria from Lagos in the south to Kano in the north. I stopped at a local village called Moba where I saw first-hand the poor electricity situation across the country. I noticed how harmful kerosene lanterns were the only source of lighting for millions of low-income Nigerian houses. These lanterns were toxic, unsafe and costly with a recurring fuel cost. On doing some further research, I realized that more people lose their lives due to the kerosene lantern toxic fumes than tuberculosis and malaria combined. So, I really felt the need to serve this large segment consisting of 100 Million people. 

I had read about solar lanterns earlier and envisioned it to be a feasible solution. Also, Nigeria is blessed with an abundance of solar energy. So, solar energy made complete sense here. One more thing that I drew analogy was the telecom revolution. Even though Africa lagged behind in deploying telecom lines, the tremendous growth of mobile technologies had occluded the need to go in that direction. Similarly, Nigeria lagged behind in deploying transmission infrastructure to deliver electricity throughout the country. So, a decentralized solution like solar energy made complete sense in such a situation. However, the challenge was to make solar energy affordable to the masses.

How did you convince the company to pursue this new product line? Were there any steps you took that were critical in selling your idea to management?

Firstly, I pitched the idea to the Board by showing how it is in alignment with company’s vision of providing clean energy to the masses. I also led a market analysis, which suggested that this is a 1.3 Billion dollar market and we had the opportunity to gain first mover advantage here. Besides, the positive publicity that Simba as a Group will garner by engaging in this great initiative was a big motivating factor for the Board to go ahead. 

To reduce our risks, I proposed the Board to start with a pilot of 1000 solar lanterns. This would also allow us to test-market our product and make any product design changes based on customer feedback. This helped convince the Board and I got the go-ahead for the project.

What challenges did you face in the design and distribution of the solar lantern? Did you realize the economic returns and social impact you expected?

I faced 2 major challenges:

  • Firstly, most of my target customers were the Base-of-the-Pyramid or BoP segment, which means they lived on less than $2 a day. So, any product which would replace the kerosene lantern had to be extremely cheap as well as superior. Solar energy was not considered for the masses then and I had to ensure our product is viable to the masses.
  • Secondly, since 90% of our target customers were rural, there were no existing distribution channels to reach them. No mainstream Nigerian company had targeted the rural BoP segment earlier because of the poor rural infrastructure and the low margins; hence BoP was a neglected segment. 

To overcome the first challenge, I decided to partner with a China based manufacturing company because of their low-cost manufacturing capabilities. Our market-research revealed that the product would need to supersede the kerosene lantern in parameters like illumination, lighting-time, durability and portability. Also, it had to be priced less than $20 to achieve traction in market. This is because kerosene lanterns were priced at $2 and had a recurring kerosene cost of around $6 a month. So, $20 product would pay back in 3 months and by creating credit facilities, we could push the product. So, after 2 months of collaborative R&D between our technical team and our partners, we developed a high-quality product within the pricing constraints. However, before mass-production, I decided to test-market the product and, releasing 1000 lanterns in February 2011. Using feedback, we were able to further fine-tune the product and get the retail price down to $18. 

With the product ready, I decided to target 3 segments: rural Base-of-the-Pyramid, low-income urban and institutions like Ministries, NGOs, etc. and developed separate strategies for each segment. My reasoning was to diversify our risk across channels. I then delegated the execution of these to 8 experienced sales managers and their teams and monitored their progress. However, with the BoP – the key audience for the product, I faced tremendous challenges in distribution. I realized we needed to create a separate distribution channel which would be cost-intensive, but would give us a sustainable competitive advantage. So, I brainstormed with my team to strategize building a direct-selling channel with an external sales force of door-to-door, entrepreneurial-distributors. This ensured us access to the remotest villages and allowed even the BoP segment to buy on credit. To accomplish this, I had to motivate my team to identify and develop entrepreneurs. We organized aggressive marketing activities including the use of Social Media channels. I personally appeared on national television, coached at Nigeria’s nation development program NYSC and collaborated with Lighting Africa, which is a World Bank and IFC program to raise awareness about generating employment through solar energy distribution. 

Consequently, we were able to grow monthly sales by 500% within 6 months and establish first-mover advantage in this $1.3 Billion segment. On the social side, this meant providing clean affordable lighting to around 100000 low-income households in the first year, while simultaneously creating 100 young entrepreneurs in the process. Successfully leading such an impact-creating project was the best validation of my decision to move to Nigeria.

Since Simba Solar, you've been an entrepreneur and helped found a social media analytics company in India. What do you hope to do after Darden?

During my time at Simba, I managed 4 successful product lines, out of which I had launched 3 of them. I feel I have been able to achieve the impact on market and society through these businesses and also gained the confidence and skill-sets to start my own business. I was always fascinated by social media. Even at Simba Solar, we were early adopters and used social media heavily not only for marketing, but customer service and distributor-generation as well. In this new decade, the amazing growth of social media had revolutionized company-consumer relationship and I saw a great opportunity in this space. 

So, in March 2012, I co-founded Mirc Media, which is a social media analytics services provider. We basically mine data from conversations on the social web to help Fortune 500 brands derive actionable insights and formulate data-driven marketing and branding strategies. This got me interested in consulting and I liked the idea of solving high-impact problems for Fortune 500 companies. It was my motivation behind coming to Darden, especially given Darden’s rigorous case-study based curriculum. I hope to work in management consulting after Darden and gain the business skill-sets to start my own business somewhere down the line. At this point, I am just enjoying my Darden experience and looking forward to the tremendous opportunities that Darden opens for me in the future.


Prashant Kumar grew up in Mumbai, India and studied Electronics Engineering from the University of Mumbai. He then moved to the US to complete an MS in Electrical Engineering. Embarking on an eventful journey since then, which includes working at a solar energy firm in Nigeria, Africa to co-founding a social media analytics firm in India, life has come a full circle for him having moved back to the US to pursue an MBA at Darden. He is a passionate Arsenal fan and like a true Gunner, he is always ready for a beer or two over a game of soccer! 

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