By David Ross
Making a difference is the mantra of social enterprises, but measuring actual impact can be a complex affair. For Jeremie Warner of Power a Life, however, it’s as instant as the flick of a switch.

Warner, 31, is transforming the lives of thousands of school pupils in rural Africa through the gift of light. Buy one of Power a Life’s mobile charging devices and, in return, a child receives a solar light that enables them to do their homework after sunset in villages or towns with no electricity.

It’s a simple but life-changing idea, which makes this year’s Impact Summit on May 20th the ideal space for Warner to exhibit his company. The annual event, which brings together some of the brightest business minds from around the world to exchange ideas, is normally held in Glasgow, but will this year be hosted online. 

This will be Warner’s second visit to the summit. At last year’s event, he announced the delivery of 500 lights to three primary and secondary schools in rural Zimbabwe. He and his team subsequently travelled there to hand out lights and get a measure of what difference they were making to the academic achievements of the children. The results were startling.

“Kids in Zimbabwe are tested every two weeks in their core subjects of English and maths,” explains Warner. “For those who received solar lights, there were improvements across the board. The biggest increase was in maths, where the class average tripled in just eight weeks – from 19% to 56%.

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“In Zimbabwe, children who get 50% in these core subject can graduate to high school. This is the life-changing bit – kids that go on to high school have higher earning potential, better health, more opportunities and are more likely to lift themselves and their community out of poverty.”

The idea of gifting light was the result of weeks of research living with villagers in Senegal. Warner knew he wanted to make a difference but wasn’t sure exactly how to create it.

“We went in with no preconceived ideas, a completely blank canvas. We sat in meetings with villagers to better understand their challenges and initially considered two or three dozen enterprises – from granaries to irrigation projects and healthcare.

“But one of the biggest shocks to the system was living completely off-grid, so no charging facilities for our laptops or devices or no way of doing work when the sun goes down. That’s the reality for 365 days of the year. Electricity really is the great enabler, so it was a logical place for us to start.”

Power and light have provided that launchpad for Warner and his tight team of specialists who help him design and market the Power a Life range of power banks and mobiles accessories. However, he is clear-sighted about the opportunities Africa can provide – a continent just beginning to explore the potential of off-grid energy solutions powered by renewables.

“Mini-grids, off-grids and solar farms – that’s where we want to end up. What we’re super excited about is that the gift of light for kids creates really big markets for us with follow on products. 

“It’s no strings attached, we’re doing this to empower the kids, so they can be safe when they come home from school and get better grades, but mum and dad might say that’s quite a handy light, can you do a bigger one for us, so now we’re looking at small home solar systems. It could have a significant impact in helping power off-grid communities with renewables.”

Like just about every other business, Power a Life is having to cope with the impact of the pandemic. It’s especially frustrating for Warner as the social enterprise’s strategy of focusing on the B2B (business-to-business) market as opposed to B2C (business-to-consumer) – launched at last year’s Impact Summit – had reached escape velocity in sales terms.

During 2019, the company’s power banks for mobiles and laptops sold in the thousands rather than hundreds as they broke into the corporate market, which resulted in a corresponding increase in the number of solar lights they can deliver to Zimbabwean schools.

But the pandemic has halted air shipments to Africa for the time being, and sales have inevitably been hit. Father of two Warner, though, is optimistic. His business ambition was ignited by the last financial crash when, as a University of Strathclyde trained architect, he went to work building luxury houses in Singapore and south-east Asia.

The ‘dream job’, however, turned somewhat sour when he became disillusioned with his rich clients and the contrast between their lives and those endured by the Bangladeshi migrant workers on site. 

“There was certainly a feeling that when the whole world was falling apart around us as the rich stay rich and the poor stay poor. I wanted to use the design skills I learnt at Strathclyde to power the poor and not the rich,” he explains.

Hence the buy-to-give ethos of Power a Life, a model that hits the spot with the younger consumer cohort that includes millennials and Generation Z. Warner also believes the greater sense of community engendered by the pandemic will only further enhance the prospects for social enterprises.

“We had already seen an appetite among corporates to do good with their purchasing. I think the virus will really focus the minds of corporate customers who will want to support charities, the NHS or communities further afield through the likes of us.”

And that can only be good news for eager to learn schoolchildren in Africa. Power a Life has a stated aim to deliver 100,000 solar lights to the continent by 2022.

“We had some pretty significant momentum, a real head of steam before the virus hit, so we’re still going to do our utmost to get to that number,” says Warner, before adding: “Let’s say we’ll aim for the stars to land on the moon.” 

To see the full schedule of Impact Summit keynotes and the virtual exhibitor marketplace, go to www.impact-summit.org