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Wednesday, July 18, 2012 - Page updated at 05:30 p.m.
Bruce Ramsey / Times editorial columnist
Cranium co-founder aids Africa's poor through for-profit company
By Bruce Ramsey
Times editorial columnist
In 2008 the Seattle company that pioneered the board game Cranium was sold to Hasbro for $77.5 million — payday for the investors, including co-founder Whit Alexander.
He was in his 40s. He wanted to do something with his money and his life that would help people, and do it in Africa, where he had studied and worked.
He was convinced that a venture would do more if it was done for profit. For public-health crises and some other things, he says, charity is fine; his wife, Shelly Sundberg, works at Seattle's preeminent charity, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. But Alexander had seen many things done in Africa for free, and had become fairly cynical about it. Business requires mutual obligation, and "free," he says, lets both the recipient and the donor off the hook.
"It forces no choice, it demands no thought, it sets no expectations and it establishes no contract," he says. "It is not sustainable. It builds no capacity."
His company, Burro — its logo is a donkey's head — set out to build economic capacity by selling to Africa's poor. Its first product was batteries. The average Ghanaian, who gets by on just a few dollars a day, spends $2 to $5 a month on flashlight batteries. Mostly they are cheap throwaways that leak. Alexander's idea was to provide high-quality rechargeables, which cost less in the long run and don't leak.
He would build his business with individual distributors. Imagine an African Amway, and you have an idea of it.
Alexander started Burro by renting the batteries with unlimited free returns, which he now dismisses as the "all you can eat" strategy. He changed to a bottle-deposit strategy, which works better. He has also introduced a battery-powered lamp and cellphone charger, and a human-powered irrigation pump.
All this has involved rural footwork, including visits to villages with no electricity. In the provincial town where he lives, Alexander has power, but running water only twice a week. Hazards abound, from snakes and road accidents to sudden large holes in the sidewalk.
Burro has been an adventure. The story of it is told by Whit's brother Max in his new book, "Bright Lights, No City" (Hyperion, $24.99). Max Alexander was a senior editor at People, and has written a travel book rather than a business book. It is a delightful account, full of humor and personality.
The story will also be told here. Whit and Max Alexander are in Seattle and will appear Wednesday at Town Hall.
Burro is not yet a success story but it is growing. Whit Alexander has found a cadre of Ghanaians to run it, and there are more than 200 sales agents. However, it has yet to turn a profit.
"We're probably 12 to 18 months from showing a profitable scale at one branch," says the CEO, who hopes to raise some money for Burro while he is here promoting his brother's book.
That task is not easy, either.
"People here are very ready to give money to charities," he says. "The challenge for me is how difficult it is to get people excited about a for-profit venture. People have their charity pocket and their investment pocket."
Alexander is seeking backers for Burro on kickstarter.com. He also plans to hurry back to Africa.
Says the co-founder of Cranium, "This is what I want to do for the rest of my life."
Bruce Ramsey's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His email address is email@example.com
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