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. .
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.
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 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?