Social entrepreneurship in the midst of a pandemic, a conversation with bioengineering professor Joe Bradley

1/7/2021

Huan Song

Over three billion people on the planet cook with open fires, kerosene, biomass or coal. Every year, close to four million die prematurely from respiratory complications as a result of household cooking pollution. Families also spend up to 30-40% of their household income on fuel for cooking which is a significant drain on their resources.  Outside of the home, deforestation is another major issue in communities that depend on wood as the main fuel source. The mission of Sun Buckets, a social venture started at UIUC, is to solve this global cooking crisis with a new cooking device that captures and stores energy from the sun. We spoke with bioengineering professor Joe Bradley, a co-founder of Sun Buckets Inc., to learn more about this work and entrepreneurship in the time of a pandemic.

How did you get involved with Sun Buckets?

We started Sun Buckets in 2014 after professor Bruce Elliott-Litchfield from the department of agricultural and biological engineering invited me to the team that he had started with then Ph.D. student Matthew Alonso. He had been working on this global cooking challenge for many years and I knew him when I was a student at UIUC. We applied to the NSF Innovation Corps (I-Corps) program with Sun Buckets. 

Our first big opportunity was to work with the Loving Shepherds Ministry in Haiti. We wanted to help them reduce their reliance on propane and other energy sources that were highly expensive. Our target areas are in places around the world that get great sunlight daily.

What is social entrepreneurship and how does it differ from conventional entrepreneurship?

For both conventional entrepreneurship and social entrepreneurship, you may typically start with trying to understand the problem and identifying the unmet need. Probably where they start to differ is how impact is defined. When it comes to impact we are focusing on impacting a single person with the hopes of reaching a critical mass. 

We work with NGOs and organizations, who would purchase Sun Buckets in bulk. We are working with the Humanitarian Grand Challenges Grant for conflict zone recovery and implementing Sun Buckets as part of this grant. These organizations are co-development partners who understand the last mile between us and the end-users. They have boots on the ground and are a huge wealth of knowledge so we can make a product that will realize our desired impact. 

For example, we are currently working within refugee camps. Some refugee camps have highly skilled individuals and we hire these refugees as consultants for Sun Buckets and we train them to manage our units. We are able to outsource some manufacturing within the community and try to design Sun Buckets in a way that they can be built as close to the end users as possible. Also a few years back we hired a videographer, Aminah Rwimo, from the camp so she can tell the story from her perspective.You can catch her TED talk online. Our goal is to use Sun Buckets as a vehicle for economic development so we are not just providers of a widget.

What were some planned developments for Sun Buckets in 2020 and how has the pandemic affected that? 

This year, we had plans to go back to the Kalobeyei and Kakuma refugee settlement in Kenya to do some training and install several new units there. Instead, we did some virtual training. We actually started two new Sun Buckets subsidiaries, Sun Buckets Kenya and Sun Buckets India. Fortunately, we already had installed some early versions of Sun Buckets in 2019 so people were still able to use them. We haven’t been too impacted in terms of our supply chain and getting the materials that we need to construct them. Things really slowed down on the production side because people were not able to go to work. 

During the pandemic, we also pivoted towards serving the most vulnerable communities first which is now a part of our standard operating procedures. COVID-19 is a respiratory illness and indoor cooking pollution exacerbates risk factors. In India, we initiated a COVID-19 response to target at-risk communities and transition them to Sun Buckets. 

What are some impacts of the pandemic on the humanitarian sector that people might not know?

People in refugee camps fear that if the pandemic reaches their community, it will spread quickly and be much more difficult to mitigate. There is also additional pressure on resource access. If we have limited access to paper towels in stores here in the US, people in refugee camps may not be able to access key food items. The pandemic compounds accessibility challenges. 

What is the role of collaboration in your success? 

We collaborated with the World Food Programme, which was our introduction to the camps. We wanted to tackle the accessibility to energy challenge using something that's widely available like solar energy. Also in India, we are collaborating with energy companies to manage overuse and tap into their microgrid system in low resource communities. Our collaboration has to be driven by the social mission of the partners, not just the dollar amount. We even go into the conversation with these organizations and say, “this is our vision and mission. Does your company have a similar vision for impact? What is your social mission? How do you believe your company is going to impact society and the environment in an impactful way?” 

Do you have any last words of advice for student or alumni entrepreneurs? 

 Entrepreneurship is very exciting and fun. You want to be driven by something that you have a passion and compassion for. As you are developing a product or service, have your guiding principles based on your impact. When you face challenges in your business, you’ll be able to better handle them if you always have your impact top of mind. Be driven by solving the problem and be diligent about managing and acquiring resources. 

Lastly, be willing to just try it. If you think you have an idea that can add value, give it a shot. It’s a win-win. Either you are going to learn a lot or the product will be successful.