“I ordered room service and was watching cable TV,” Rhonda Jordan says of her stay in a five-star hotel in Africa a few years back. But when she gazed out the window, she says, “literally right outside the door people were living in mud huts with no running water or electricity. I couldn’t believe the disparity between the haves and have-nots.”
Now, this native of Clinton, Maryland, has co-founded EGG-energy, a start-up company that connects low-income customers and small businesses in East Africa to electricity through a battery swapping service. Because it’s hugely expensive to connect to the electric grid, the company rents small electric batteries that can power lights, radios, and mobile phones. Then customers exchange depleted batteries for fresh ones at local EGG distribution centers. The year-old company now operates in Dar es Salaam but plans are in the works soon to expand across Tanzania.
“There are a lot more people to service, so much more to do,” says Jordan, last year a Xerox-MIT fellow, and now a Ph.D. student in MIT’s Engineering Systems Division, and a current fellow of the Legatum Center for Development and Entrepreneurship. The Center trains students committed to launching businesses in low-income countries.
Jordan, deeply drawn to social entrepreneurship, is eager to create businesses that ease poverty, provide jobs, and help grow economies. “I realize that I have skills to help people,” says this woman, who earned two degrees in electrical engineering at Columbia University before arriving at MIT.
On a recent trip to Tanzania, she encountered challenges with the company and thought perhaps she’d end the project. But customers “pushed us, encouraged us, and pleaded with us to continue,” she says, adding that people were lined up outside the battery charging stations an hour before they opened.
“I see that we are truly improving people’s lives, and I strongly believe that service is one of the most rewarding things in life you can engage in,” she says. “Reaching out to these people has made it possible for me to actually make a deep emotional connection with people that I don’t even know.”