Deflating the SOCCKET ball.


It’s a soccer ball. It’s an electrical generator. It’s innovation and social entrepreneurship out to save the world. It’s everything that’s wrong with international development today.                                                            .

The SOCCET: a premium soccer ball and an eco-friendly generator.

Since learning of the SOCCKET a couple weeks ago, I’ve been perplexed by the lack of critical chatter in the development blogosphere. We shredded 1 millions shirts, bruised World Vision over its Superbowl t-shirt debacle, and happily beat the hell out of PlayPump. So why the awkward silence over the SOCCKET, which to me looks to become PlayPump 2.0? Even Bill Easterly was surprisingly light-handed on his blog after his initial tweet saying that “Lant Pritchett gave this [SOCCKET] as a hilarious example of what’s wrong with development today”. I thought this was a prelude of much snarky scrutiny to follow. Instead he writes, “Now I’m not going to do what you expect and get all crotchety at this point and say this is all useless nonsense.” I say, “Why not?”

As far as I can tell, the SOCCKET is just another example of donor-driven development deserving of some seriously snarky jibes.  Maybe everyone’s just getting tired of pointing out the same basic fallacies again and again to well-intentioned social entrepreneurs and the donors they market to. And, as TOMS shoes has proven, people’s aspiration to do something both easy and good for the world (and, in the case of TOMS, the appeal of  winning social kudos for displaying these philanthropic impulses) trumps our efforts to say, “hold on a minute, there’s a problem here; this is not good aid!

The SOCCKET sounds pretty cool. I’d like to have one quite frankly. It’s a soccer ball with a gyroscopic mechanism inside that captures the energy of motion and converts it into clean electricity. It’s a soccer ball and it’s a mobile six-watt power generator. Cool. I’d take mine to the beach. According to the story on their website, Unchartered Play, the maker of the SOCCKET, was founded to “show the world that doing good and doing good business need not be mutually exclusive.” The thing is, I wonder both about the good they claim to be doing and about how their business model demonstrates ‘good business’ rather than say, so-so charity.

Cost-Benefit Failure. Uncharted Play says that 1.6 million people are killed by alternatives to the SOCCKET. Specifically, they are referring to the effects of harmful emissions from kerosene lamps, diesel generators, and wood burning stoves. I’ll accept that. But what I won’t swallow is that the SOCCKET is a sound alternative to these. There are already many far cheaper and more efficient solar/LED alternatives to kerosene lamps available for lighting (like this or this or this). There are also many other clean-burning alternative cookstoves out there. Although the SOCCKET is cheaper than some of these, I can’t imagine how it could possibly compete as a family’s primary source of cooking heat. Plugging a hot plate into a soccer ball with the power output equivalent of four AA batteries is just not culturally or practically commensurate with cooking on a fuel-burning stove.  As far as diesel generators go, this is really a stretch. Communities use diesel generators to produce large amounts of electricity – as in several thousand watts of electricity. You would need 1000 SOCCKETs to equal the power output of a single 6000 watt diesel generator.* That would cost donors $60,000 (at $60 per SOCCKET) vs. $2-5,000 for a decent diesel generator. I don’t know how to calculate the comparison between diesel fuel for the generator and food fuel for the caloric input required to power 500 hours of kids kicking these SOCCKETs around for a charge, but I’m guessing the diesel’s cheaper.** Maybe I’m thinking too much like an economist here, but this doesn’t seem like a sound option for replacing community diesel generators. I hope this isn’t an example of the ‘doing good business’ thinking at the foundation of Uncharted Play.

Targeting Failure. Uncharted Play says that 1/4 of people in the world live without access to reliable electricity. Again, I’ll accept that. And then I’ll wring my hands and ask “What can I do about it?” I can give a soccer ball/electrical generator to children living in one of 19 countries through their ‘unique distribution process’. Now, certainly these countries were selected because they represent some of the most glaring cases of need, right? Wrong. Eleven of the 19 countries have rates of access to electricity higher than their own statement of global need. Let me say that again – most of their targeted countries have above average access to electricity. For example, you can give a SOCCKET to a kid in Brazil, where 97.8% of the population has access to electricity. Or China (99.4%), Mexico (98.5%), Cuba (97%), Dominican Republic (95.9%)…shall I continue? As I read their list of places where you can donate a ball, few rank in the bottom half of their respective regions for access to electricity.*** I mean, if you were going to target an electricity access intervention based on need, there’s just no way that Brazil, Mexico, and China make the cut.

Now, certainly there are pockets of people in these countries that don’t have access to electricity, and we might assume that their distribution partners are targeting intra-nationally to reach these people. But many of their targeted countries have largely shown a capacity to supply their populations’ demands for electricity through governmental and/or private service providers. The basic problem here is that distribution is based on the supply of distribution partners rather than a mindful targeting based on unmet demand. Shoot, there I go again sounding like an economist, what with all this talk of supply and demand.

Image from Gwenn Mangine. Used without permission. Is that cool Gwenn?

Market Force Failure. Speaking of supply and demand, the most egregious thing about this ‘good business’ model is that the buyer, the distributer, and the user are all three different. In other words, the families that get these things don’t have to be convinced they are worth the $60 Unchartered Play is charging for them. They get them for free. Of course kids eyes are lighting up with free soccer balls that are all gadgety with a plugin light. Ask their parents to cough up even $30 for one, though, and I bet you’d have a pretty hard time moving these things in rural villages across Malawi or El Salvador or Laos. I’m not sure the SOCCKET would survive long if its makers were accountable to the end users for the value of the good – unless maybe they sold them online at The Sharper Image.**** Take TOMS shoes for example – priced at over $50 a pair in the US, they only fetch $1.25 in the Haitian marketplace. Ouch.

Luckily for Unchartered Play, the business model divorces their revenue from consumers’ cost-benefit calculations. They don’t have to convince the end user that the SOCCKET is a good deal, they only have to convince a donor that they’re a good deal. How do you do that? Insinuate that you can provide poor villagers with reliable electricity, save 1.6 million lives, and save up to 30% of families’ incomes. Paint a mental image of needy children discovering joy, line up smiling celebrity endorsements, and use words like ‘innovation’ and ‘eco-friendly’.  Tell them, “give a SOCCKET – for $60 you can make a world of difference.”

Correct me if I’m wrong, but this is the ‘business model’ of a charity, not a social enterprise.

Oh, Joy! PlayPump 2.0. Play is great – awesome even. I totally support the right of children the world over to play. I think keeping ‘joy at the forefront of our lives’ is a great aspect of Uncharted Play’s mission. But will it still feel like play when daily access to a basic need like light or cooking heat is tied to it?  In the marketing pitch, the SOCCKET runs on child play. But I suspect that with extended use in the real world, kids and parents will tire of having to invest 30 minutes into kicking the ball around to get back 3 hours of relatively limited light. Might the reliance on child play end up being a source of child labour?

The infamous PlayPump at its best (not its usual).

The PlayPump is an instructive forebear to the SOCCKET. Its maker, Roundabout Water Solutions, also talked about joy, claiming to “bring joy and access to clean drinking water” by utilizing the rotational movement of children at play to pump water. According to them, “Playing on a roundabout or merry-go-round has always been fun for children, so there is never a shortage of ‘volunteers.’” But, this claim was not borne out in the field. Owen Scott, an aid worker with Engineers Without Borders Canada in Malawi documented his observations in a remarkable series of six blogs, noting “Each time I’ve visited a PlayPump, I’ve always found the same scene: a group of women and children struggling to spin it by hand so they can draw water.” WaterAid refused to adopt the PlayPumps technology, in part, because it’s “reliance on child labour.” Owen’s fourth post in the series includes a video of local teachers pleading with aid organizations to stop building the PlayPumps.

Like the SOCCKET, the PlayPumps were a relatively expensive and relatively inefficient solution to a basic needs access problem that required an inordinate amount of kinetic energy input for the output given back. Like SOCCKET, they were marketed to donors who paid to have them built by the hundreds (thousands?). Eventually, the realities of the lame cost-benefit equation could no longer be ignored and their construction has all but ceased, replaced by the reliable if unremarkable, proven if uninnovative, old school hand pump.

To use Laura Freschi’s language when talking about the PlayPump, I suspect the SOCCKET will for a time “represent the triumph of bad but photogenic solutions in a broken aid marketplace” and be shown to be another “donor-pleasing, top-down solution that simply [doesn't] fit many of the target communities.” To use Owen Scott’s language when talking about the PlayPump, I think the SOCCKET illustrates well the “triumph of rich-country whimsy over poor-country relevance. It illustrates how standards, like basic cost-benefit analysis, that are routinely applied to public expenditure in developed countries, aren’t applied to our foreign aid spending.” It is the quintessential donor-driven development intervention. It is a solution dreamt up by innovators in the rich world, marketed and sold to donors in the rich world, and dumped into needy communities. Because it’s free, there’s no incentive for communities to even bring up the opportunity costs involved. I guess that’s where we, the snarky development bloggers come in.

Why it Matters. Look, I actually like these guys over at Unchartered Play. I like their mission; I like what they’re trying to do. I think they’ll sell lots and lots of SOCCKETS. They seem like a smart, innovative, and distractingly attractive team of people. The co-founders are even fellow Harvardians. I’d like to be friends with these folks. Unfortunately, I’m pretty sure this blog post blunts that possibility. So why am I socking it so hard to their beloved SOCCKET? (bah-dump-bump.)

The SOCCKET is a pretty cool innovation that deserves a shot to live or die in the marketplace. What bothers me, though, is that its impact in the developing world as a solution to scarce electricity access is just way oversold. It’s not just that I figure the cost-benefit ratio of their product fails to be competitive against other alternatives to kerosine lamps and wood burning stoves, or against diesel generators. It’s not just that they are grossly mistargeting countries on energy access grounds. It’s not just that their business model side-steps direct market forces that might otherwise determine that their product’s cost exceeds its actual value – making them functionally a charity, not a sustainable social enterprise. It’s not even that the SOCCKET has yet to prove its relevancy in the field under extended use. It’s all of this coupled with the fact that their super slick marketing all but guarantees that thousands of these things will get fabricated and shipped all over the world, crowding out donor dollars that could be going into field-tested, rigorously-proven development interventions that have actually been shown to ‘make a world of difference’.

I know that when innovation is involved, competition for aid dollars isn’t a perfect zero-sum game, but donor dollars make, to a substantial degree, a finite pie. They aren’t as sexy or innovative or gadgety, but bed nets, deworming pills, bore holes, some improved cooking stoves, or chlorine dispensers at water sources beat the pants off of the SOCCKET as ‘tools to address major issues facing society today.’ And, when donors get caught up in the excitement of well-marketed, but ultimately ill-conceived interventions, less money is available for that which is proven. Granted, these proven interventions don’t help much with the last part of Uncharted Play’s mission statement to keep ‘joy at the forefront of our lives’. … Unless you think supporting proven cost-effective interventions that help people live longer, healthier, more educated lives is something worth getting all joyful about.

Update – July 2, 2012: You can read Uncharted Play’s Co-founder and Chief Social Officer Julia C. Silverman’s response to this post at The SOCCKET ball bounces back?

______________________________________

* The SOCCKET supplies a 6-watt power output.
** Based on their claim that 30 minutes of play equals 3 hours of light from the SOCCKET.
*** Certainly Malawi (9%), Uganda (9%), Kenya (15%), Haiti (38.5%), and Laos (55%) qualify, but that’s about it. But, even these are considerably better off than other countries in their respective regions. What about Burundi (2.8%), Chad (3.5%) or Rwanda (4.8%) in Africa, Bangladesh (41%) or Cambodia (24%) in Asia, Honduras (70.3%) or Nicaragua (72.1%) in Latin America?
**** Same goes for the distributers. It’s like the losing team Superbowl t-shirts distributed by World Vision. This would never happen if World Vision had to actually pay the tax-deductible value claimed for each shirt ($11.65) instead of counting this value as donation income and just paying the shipping costs. The distribution partners don’t have to be convinced that the value of the Soccket is $60 a pop, they get to count that as donation income. GIK is great for making organization look efficient. Its an almost unethical incentive to distribute. The final cost to provide a SOCCKET to a poor family can be approximated by the per unit sum of the funding partners’ and distributions partners’ contributions.
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26 Comments on “Deflating the SOCCKET ball.”

  1. June 24, 2012 at 12:16 am #

    “… I’ve been perplexed by the lack of critical chatter in the development blogosphere…”

    For me it comes down to three things:

    1) The so-called “snarky” aid blogs are off the air. AidWatch, Good Intentions. Tales From the Hood. The negative blogosphere momentum around some of the other dogpiles you mention mostly started with one or more of those three.

    2) SOCCKETS is kind of small beer. Plumpy’nut is a product literally designed to save lives. It’s ubiquitous in complex humanitarian emergency zones around the world. We have to deal with it because of the direct and immediate consequences in the lives of beneficiaries. World Vision is one of, if not *the* (depending on how one crunches the numbers) largest NGOs in the world. They have the ability (although they rarely exercise it) to change the entire aid industry simply by weight and momentum. So when they pull a stunt like the 100K loser T-shirts thing, it has some potentially far-reaching consequences. Again, worth taking seriously and reacting to.

    But SOCCKETS? They’re gonna get some retweets and some “likes” by all the hipsters. Maybe a few little start-up charities will use them. They’ll bask in the glow of having been written up in GOOD.is. Maybe Kristof will give them a nod. But they’re not gonna win any UN supply bids. Nor any USAID IQCs. IFRC and UNICEF are not going to move jerry cans or tarps out of their warehouses in order to accommodate SOCCKETs.

    Yeah, it’s a product that meets a donor’s need for relevance more than an poor person’s need for anything. Yeah, the rhetoric about ‘making the world better’ coming out of the producers triggers my gag reflex. But at the end of the day, SOCCKETs will not fundamentally change the way that either aid providers or aid donors go about doing their thing. (And I’d put TOMS Shoes in this general category as well. Fun to rant about. Totally lame. Love to hate ‘em. But at the end of the day, in programmatic terms, they pretty much don’t matter.)

    3) Can’t speak for others, but I’m tired of ranting about aid techs.

  2. June 24, 2012 at 8:06 am #

    What the man says. Especially number 2.

  3. June 24, 2012 at 1:26 pm #

    Yeah, ‘small beer’ I guess. On the other hand, when you have Clinton, TED, CNN, Popular Science, etc handing over awards and testimonials like Halloween candy, it influences people’s attitudes about what makes good aid. They start to look pretty legit to someone who’s never actually worked in the development/aid sector. And smart, young, caring people who want to get involved start emulating these types of things. If we don’t push back on the Jasons, SOCCKETs, and PlayPumps out there, does good aid suffer from a thousand cuts?

    • June 24, 2012 at 3:07 pm #

      On the other hand: if we run for the sutures every time good aid suffers a minor scratch, will there be time to do anything else?

  4. June 25, 2012 at 1:59 pm #

    Aaron, you’ve made a strong case against the SOCCKET. It does not seem like a sustainable effort (from a purely business perspective), and it is not a good return on inestment for donors. Your cost-benenfit discussion, though, raises a basic problem that non-economists often raise withe economists: environmental (and other costs) are often very difficult to account for. Whatever its limitations, the RIO+20 conference has at least put a spotlight on the challenges associated with improving energy access for the poor. Hopefully this can be done without undermining efforts to deal with climate change.

  5. June 26, 2012 at 8:41 am #

    Touche and well put. Some thought that went through my head when I read Bill Easterly’s blog and went to check out their website and their promo videos. I think I might have been even heavier-handed than you were, but perhaps that’s to your credit. One thing I would be less picky on is the locations. Sometime starting in the worst environment is tantamount to never actually reaching those people effectively.

    Anyways, the most egregious transgression here is the overselling and the outright deception in the promotion of the Soccket.

    PS – I’d love to kick one of those around, I’m betting an additional complaint about this ball is that it’s one of those “stuck in the middle” innovations, where it’s neither a good source of energy nor a good soccer ball…Ever played soccer with a soccer ball with a generator inside?

  6. Chance
    June 28, 2012 at 6:25 am #

    Someone just told me about Empower Playgrounds. Rather than pumping water, they charge batteries for light. Empower also provides science kits to schools. But it all looks a bit, well, like PlayPump…

  7. June 28, 2012 at 6:30 am #

    Wondering whether PlayPumps is being cloned/adapted as http://www.empowerplaygrounds.org/ No water being pumped – now it’s solar lanterns, batteries being recharged, and an added bonus – hands-on science kits. Looks like they are only in Ghana for the moment. Hmm, I wonder about the cost effectiveness (and longevity) of mechanical production of electricity vs solar….Like many in the field, they seem to have the best of intentions….

  8. lant
    July 3, 2012 at 7:45 pm #

    Bearing some responsibility for all this (via Bill Easterly) I thank Aaron for really filling in the facts. My main concern was that on the same day I saw this on CNN as a great idea I heard that OPIC was banned from financing projects that were not carbon neutral. If only subliminally I worry the typical well-meaning but under informed person could reconcile their insistence that poor people not get (carbon based) power by imagining that these “new solutions”–soccer balls that light–what could be cooler?–obviate the need for old fashioned development things like lots and lots more power (from whatever source, perhaps non-carbon based but a lot of it) and reliable grid electricity and the infrastructure (both physical and institutional (markets and government)) that make those work reliably. At the meeting will Bill I called this “defining development down”–making it seem that hip philanthropy–that, at its best, does a minor job in mitigating the worst consequences of the lack of development for some people–really is development.

    • July 3, 2012 at 10:19 pm #

      Thanks Lant. I really appreciate you taking time to give us your thoughts.

  9. July 14, 2012 at 12:16 am #

    Great information on soccer ball socket. Thanks for sharing.

  10. December 11, 2012 at 11:26 am #

    Hey there author. I would actually like to be your friend despite your critique. In fact, possibly because of it. I work for Uncharted Play, and as the VP of Social Development and Impact, the concerns you raise here are precisely what I spend my days trying to address. Please be in touch, as my aim is to maximize our impact and you address very real concerns that need to be tackled head on as we iterate our business model and explore new and exciting opportunities!

    Thanks.

    Abby Cohen
    Uncharted Play
    Vice President of Social Development and Impact

    • December 11, 2012 at 2:45 pm #

      Hi Abby,

      Greetings from the Kingdom of Swaziland. Name’s Author, I mean Aaron. Good to meet you, sort of. Sort of meet you that is, not sort of good. So, you’ve been charged with ensuring the ball has meaning. Good luck with that. And I mean that with almost no sarcasm whatsoever. I’d be happy to be your friend. (Assuming you’re as good looking and as smart as the rest of the team over there.) I’d be interested to know if you’ve made any modifications to your impact story or have built any evidence around the old one. I’d be happy to engage with you here publicly, or offline as you may prefer. I appreciate you reaching out and invite you to initiate a substantive conversation here or in my inbox at “theglobalcitizen(at)me.com” Of course, for the sake of my legion followers (a few hundred at most, who am I kidding) I’d prefer the discussion be online. Best, the author.

  11. JeffC
    July 1, 2013 at 11:47 am #

    This is about the donors and the company showing they are “good” people … nothing more … intent is all that is measured, not results …

  12. Will Davidson
    February 23, 2014 at 1:33 pm #

    The device is a scam anyways, I pulled apart my SOCCKET and found the batteries come fully charged from their factory. Besides the terrible quality of the “ball”, I’m doubtful the device can ever create a serious amount of power.

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