Inspiring Founders: Salima Visram and the Soular Backpack
Growing up in a small village in Kenya, Silima Visram saw everyday the effects of poverty. She was fortunate enough to receive a good education and strongly feels that those who are educated should be tasked with improving its access.
Her journey seems to be going well, particularly after being invited to discuss her Soular Backpack with Uhuru Kenyatta, Kenya’s president. Visram created the backpack a year ago when she was in the final year of her studies at McGill University, and over the past year has worked hard to get more of these brilliant bags into the hands of Kenyan school children. We first learned about Visram’s story from the Dobson Centre for Entrepreneurship.
The aptly-named Soular Backpack allows kids in rural areas to leverage the power of the sun on their long walks to and from school every day. It takes an hour to charge in sun light, and provides up to five hours of light for children to study at night. This is important given that 1.2 billion people in the world are without electricity. They mostly rely on kerosene lamps, which cost money out of a family’s monthly budget (about 25 per cent, according to Visram). In fact, every day, 4,000 people around the world succumb to kerosene-induced death.
Each backpack contains a battery, an LED lamp, a solar panel and ample space for books. It costs $20 to buy, and “gives children a tool for empowerment, allowing them to take control of their own education and their own futures. As they walk to school under the African sun, they are collecting its energy in order to power their studies through the night.”
“Growing up, I witnessed poverty and saw how detrimental it could be, especially to children. I was always taught to use education to try to give back or find solutions,” said Visram, 23, who spoke at McGill University’s TEDx conference this past weekend. “Anyone who’s educated, it’s their responsibility to do something to benefit the world. That was my inspiration. There’s so many kids who didn’t have the same access to education I did and I wanted to do something.”
Their first pilot distribution event happened last summer in Kikambala, where Visram is from, with 30 kids. More recently, Visram and her team launched their first distribution event in the slums of Kibera, the largest urban slum in Africa. There they partnered with SHOFCO, an NGO, and distributed 210 backpacks to the Kikambala Primary School for girls.
Visram is from Kikambala, where 22,000 people live below the poverty line and are without electricity.
“It was such an inspiring day because it was the culmination of a year of hard work and something that was once just an idea coming to reality,” said Visram.
The Soular Backpack, a very early-stage social enterprise, seems to have it all: a product that potentially can help transform the lives of the people who buy it, provide employment for the community, incorporate a one-for-one model, and involve idealistic students on campuses as champions. And its founder hasn’t even graduated from college yet.
Soular Backpack’s next distribution event will be held at the Dadaab Refugee Camp, the largest refugee camp in the world, based near the border of Kenya and Sudan.
Visram’s operations are truly international. Her company is incorporated in Canada, its operations are in Kenya (with plans to expand all over East Africa) and its suppliers are in China. Visram admitted it makes things tough when dealing with three different continents.
As one would expect launching any business, there have been more challenges for Visram. One in particular has been doing business as a woman in Kenya, where business is largely a male-dominated world.
“Hopefully that’ll change soon,” said Visram.
Moreover, Visram made it clear that drawing the line between for-profit business and doing social good can be tricky. She states in no uncertain terms that Soular Backpack is a business, where the objective is to make money. But that doesn’t mean one can’t make efforts to create social good.
“It’s not a charity, but a huge part of it is the social good you create. How do you find a good balance between the two?”
For now, the plan for Visram and her group is to find corporate partners who can take on the Soular Backpack as part of their corporate social responsibility (CSR) budgets. She also wants to find banks to partner up with. According to data collected by Visram, 85 per cent of parents would want to buy a Soular Backpack for their children, and they would save about 20 percent of their kerosene expenditure with just one Soular Backpack in the family.
“Through that I think theres a lot of potential to market it in Kenya by partnering with banks, who can give the child a Soular Backpack on the condition that the family opens up a savings account, and somehow create a savings fund for education or food,” said Visram.
For those MTLinTech readers who find themselves inspired, Visram said they should support the Soular Backpack: like the Facebook page, visit the website and maybe even make a donation
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