In Tanzania, Powering Cell Phones and Shelling Corn with a Bicycle

BY David Pelcyger  December 12, 2012 at 4:14 PM EST


Jodie Wu’s path to helping people in Tanzania started when she was nine years old.

At that young age, the Conyers, Ga., native started working as a cashier and hostess in her parents’ Chinese restaurant. She watched them go to work every day (no weekends off for restaurant owners) and cancel plans at the last minute to fill in for sick employees.

That ethic of personal sacrifice for a shared goal stayed with her. When she got to MIT and started an internship at a major medical equipment manufacturer, something didn’t feel right. “There were so many people, you didn’t feel like you were doing anything for the company,” she said.

So in 2009, she left the land of cubicles for Arusha, Tanzania — about nine hours from the country’s capital Dar es Salaam — and started Global Cycle Solutions with a product she engineered. The bicycle-mounted maize sheller removes corn kernels from their husks to later be ground down or otherwise eaten or sold.

Designed to be powered by the rider, it was the foundation for what would become a profit-driven, socially conscious startup, with two primary goals: provide useful, affordable products for a rural, East African market, and create badly needed jobs for local Tanzanians.

With one brand new, briefly tested product, the 23-year-old, non-Swahili-speaking American began to build her business. She had experience working with an international non-governmental organization and was not impressed.

“It was awful,” she said. “The organization gave out donated bikes to local kids, which would arrive in regular deliveries. When the container of bikes didn’t arrive, they couldn’t do any projects or operate their business.”

For Wu, this NGO (and others that collected and dispensed foreign donations) supported a culture of dependency. Instead, she hoped to shape her growing business to provide stable, well-paying jobs, allowing Tanzanians to support themselves.

That first year was busy — she recruited a management team and found a local manufacturing partner — but rough. Without steady revenue, she saved money by staying with a host family and “took bucket showers everyday.”

The bigger challenges were business-related. “My first breakdown was when I was told that GCS couldn’t operate because we were not registered as a business.” Basically, the Tanzanian government wanted $4,000 a month to secure Wu’s residence permit which would allow her to run GCS as a foreigner.

The news was not all bad, however. In 2010, a year after she arrived, an investor offered $50,000. She also was named an Echoing Green fellow, which comes with an additional investment. By the end of 2010, she had deployable resources and an executive team experienced with international startups.

She also faced some key decisions. Notably, in response to the maize sheller’s success, should she continue developing one product, or begin researching other products in a bid to diversify?

Wu’s idea early on was to develop several products, initially based around bicycle power (as the company’s name suggests). To that end, she hired local inventor Bernard Kiwia as GCS’ chief of technology, and he began developing a bicycle-powered cell phone charger, meeting two of her goals: hiring Tanzanians in positions of responsibility and developing a suite of products appropriate for the local population.

Robert Fogler, an adjunct professor at the University of Denver who runs a venture fund that invests exclusively in Africa, shares Wu’s priority of hiring local employees: “They know the market much better. In addition, [hiring local people] helps to vest the community in the success of the company.”

But there is a potential downside, he said. “That same provinciality can also mean that they lack experience or exposure to best practices in a particular industry.”

In the past few years, GCS has begun offering a solar-powered lantern, the company’s new top seller, and a solar-powered cell phone charger. With several proven products, Wu has switched her focus to improving sales and distribution.

Whatever the daily challenge, though, she said her long-term strategy is community-based. “My goal is to make the company completely run by Tanzanians and leave and go set up in another country.”

The NewsHour’s Agents for Change series highlights individuals helping communities solve problems, build businesses and create jobs. We’ll feature 10 of these social entrepreneurs just starting to make their mark, and invite your recommendations for others — tweet us @NewsHourWorld and use hashtag #AgentsforChange. Or you can post them in the below comments section.