When Rockdale County native Jodie Wu wants to reach customers for her business — Global Cycle Solutions — she doesn’t rely on internet marketing, direct mail, print ads, commercials, phone calls or signage. Instead, she gathers up a sales force of representatives and sends them deep into the Tanzanian bush where they visit villages, schools, and local markets to sell her product.
Where Wu’s customers live, there are no computers, shops or bustling city centers — which is precisely why she is in business in the first place.
Wu’s GCS sells solar-powered lights to villagers living in remote locations (sometimes hundreds of miles) outside of the city of Arusha in Tanzania, East Africa.
Wu, who spoke from her office in Arusha by phone, said that the villages she sells to have no electricity, (and no transportation, save for maybe one bus a day or an occasional cab). When the sun sets, people must go about their business in the dark or by firelight.
Wu’s solar-powered lights not only allow people to see at night but also double as phone chargers, preventing the need for the villagers to have to travel dozens of miles to a town to charge their phones.
Wu’s company also sells cooking pots which run on coal, and save up to 70 percent in fuel costs for the residents. It also reduces fire risk and is better for the environment.
For her efforts with Global Cycle Solutions Wu, 29, has been named as a TEDGlobal Fellow, and been recognized as Bloomberg Business Week’s America’s Most Promising Entrepreneurs and Forbes’ 30 under 30.
So, how did a young woman from Conyers find herself half way around the world running a business designed to improve the lives of poor Africans?
Her journey began with her parents’ efforts to better their own lives. Chinese immigrants from Taiwan, Wu’s parents came to Conyers in 1980 and opened a restaurant, Yen Ching Garden, which they ran for two decades. Though they both held college degrees, and could have had good paying professions overseas, they chose to come to the U.S. to provide their children with more opportunities.
“I feel like they gave up a lot,” said Wu, who added that her parents also made sure she had chances to travel to Europe, China, Taiwan and Mexico.
Wu worked at her parents restaurant as a child and attended the Rockdale County Magnet School for Science and Technology, where she earned the distinction of salutatorian of her class of 2005.
She attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where she majored in mechanical engineering and as part of a class traveled to Tanzania. For the course, Wu had to conceive of a technology which helped alleviate poverty. She chose a stationary bike pedal-powered maize sheller. In Tanzania small farmers get the corn off the cobs by hitting it with a stick or picking it off by hand, so she thought the machine would save them time and put more money in their pockets.
While she didn’t invent it, she modified it so that it could travel easily to Tanzania. Yet, once there, the sheller proved bulky and expensive and couldn’t be easily moved from place to place. So, Wu and her team decided to attach it to a working bicycle, so that it could also serve as transportation between villages.
“The trajectory was very much around applying engineering to something that would have a big impact in terms of improving quality of life for people,” said Wu of the class.
Upon graduation, Wu received a full scholarship to University of California, Berkley, but chose to pursue her interest of aiding the Tanzanians instead.
“Tanzania has some of the nicest people in the world. People who are struggling to put food on the table manage to feed you and I say ‘you don’t need to feed me’ but because they value you so much they go out of their way,” said Wu.
Start-up money for her business came from $100,000 she won in the MIT Business Plan competition, as well as additional grant money she obtained, some from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. She established her company in 2009, and has lived in Tanzania ever since.
As Wu set about manufacturing the maize threshers, she found it more challenging than she expected. Rolling blackouts meant less time to make them, and she encountered difficulty getting farmers to buy them.
One day while in the field trying to sell her product, Wu said a villager wanted to know where she got her solar-powered light, and even offered to buy it.
“They seemed more interested in the light” than the thresher, she said.
That’s when she did some serious soul searching and switched her strategy from research and development to distribution. She now works with a company in Washington state to obtain the lights.
Rather than make sales calls herself she allows Tanzanians to be entrepreneurs and sell the product for her. In addition to her field sales representatives, she also employs about 20 Tanzanians at her office in Arusha. The idea is to empower the Tanzanians to address their own challenges through the business, she said.
“My dream is that if I left my organization in 20 years it will still be running,” said Wu.