Nights in Africa put end to childhood habit

By Bharath Balusubramanian ’11 / Uganda


In January of 2011, I was preparing for the spring trimester to begin at Thunderbird. A good friend spent the night on my sofa in my apartment because his dorm on Thunderbird’s campus was not ready. After dinner, as we were about to head off to sleep, he pointed to the light in the walk-in closet and asked me to turn it off.

“I’m scared to sleep when it is entirely dark,” I replied, “so I turn the light on and leave the door half open. That way a little bit of light comes into the bedroom. This is how I have slept all of the 32 years of my life.”

For the next few hours, I heard intermittent but sustained whining about the light being on and his not being able to get any sleep.

“This is the last time I am sleeping over in your apartment,” he said. “Even if I have nowhere to go on a Thursday night after drinking too much at the Pub, I’d rather lie down in the Talley building or in the Commons dining room than come here and deal with you and your closet light.”

I was upset about disappointing a guest and disappointed with myself too. I was embarrassed by my childhood habit of wanting to hold on to a bit of light while I slept.

Later that same year, in March, I had the opportunity to apply my MBA coursework to a project in a real-world situation. Four other classmates and I were selected to go to the African country of Uganda to live and work for five weeks.

Our assignment was to help a startup social enterprise, known as the Smallsolutions Energy Enterprise Development (SEED) program. SEED’s ultimate goal is to help create a self-sustaining market infrastructure where resellers can sell renewable energy solutions, such as solar lamps and stoves, to their communities. The revenue and margins generated at every level of SEED contribute to the sustainability of the entire business model. Our team was to perform a current-state analysis of the SEED program and provide suggestions in a standard operating procedure manual for program improvements.

Lyantonde was the village that became our home for the five weeks. This village is 110 miles southwest of the Ugandan capital of Kampala and a few miles from the equator. After a three-hour ride on state highways, village roads and bumpy pathways that were not really roads, but could accommodate cars, we finally arrived in Lyantonde. Numerous villagers and kids greeted us when we finally disembarked from our van.

In Lyantonde we interviewed our clients and their partners, who were mainly micro- finance and rural cooperative institutions, local entrepreneurs identified by the program, and end-users who would be buying the lamps and stoves.

One of the local entrepreneurs we interviewed was a tall, considerably well-built man named Malefu. A farmer by profession, Malefu was considered one of the most successful entrepreneurs in the area and had gotten involved early in the SEED program. He had conducted numerous demonstrations and awareness campaigns to spread the idea of renewable energy to his village and nearby communities.

We walked up to what looked like a small mud house with a seemingly fragile roof. Malefu lived with his wife and three kids in a house whose only appliances were a small lamp in the living room, another in the bedroom, and a table fan. They were often affected by power outages. If there was no power—which was usually the case—the house would be illuminated for a few hours by one of the solar lamps that our client sold. When the solar cell was drained, total darkness would reign. My thought was, “If this is the house of a successful village entrepreneur, I could only imagine the plight of an average villager: the SEED customer.”

I am sure Malefu and his family spent most, if not all, of their nights in darkness; they did not sleep with a light on. His children were not afraid of the dark, as I was. My personal feeling was that his children were some of the most cheerful and brightest children I had ever seen. In fact, one of his younger daughters, wearing a beige frock with a little dappled hoodie pull- over, melted my heart with her wide, contagious smile. After the interview was over, she followed us out the door and down the mud walkway to the road, wanting to come with us.

Returning to our hotel, I began thinking about the ubiquity of power and other resources available in the developed world. That was when I re- called that little argument I had had with my friend a few months before in my apartment about leaving the light on when I sleep. In Lyantonde, the electrification rate is a mere 1 percent. In other words, just one out of every 100 families is able to light one or a maximum of two lamps for three to four hours a day. I realized that I had wasted so much energy for 32 years by leaving that light on every night. Later that same night, I decided to kick my childhood light habit. For the first time in my life, I slept in the dark.

When I returned to Arizona, the spring trimester at school was coming to an end. I called the same friend who had stayed on my couch in January to let him know that when he vacated his dorm room for the summer, he was welcome to sleep at my apartment again.

“Machan, don’t worry about the light,” I said. “It won’t bother you anymore. I promise.”

Bharath Balasubramanian graduated from Thunderbird School of Global Management in 2011. He is from Chennai, India, and worked in supply chain optimization, logistics and business intelligence prior to attending Thunderbird. At the time of this writing, he was working for American Express as the Manager of Emerging Payments, Global Business Network in New York.