Nuru Energy: Financing a Social Enterprise & From Breakdowns to Breakthroughs

authorsBringing light to 800 million people was the driving force behind Sameer Hajee’s social enterprise in Sub-Saharan Africa. Created in 2008, Nuru Energy is named after the Swahili word for ‘light’, and this case, written by Filipe Santos and Anne-Marie Carrick-Cagna, INSEAD, traces Sameer’s journey from initial vision to potential burn-out and back to a new-found energy for the future. Filipe and Anne-Marie discuss why they chose to write about Sameer and Nuru Energy.

An exciting project

We were looking for a compelling case on a social venture from an INSEAD alumnus for our social entrepreneurship course. When we first heard about Sameer’s venture, we didn’t know the case would be about financing issues; we just knew it was an exciting project. At first, Sameer and Nuru Energy were on a roll, winning grants and awards. It was only later that weariness kicked in with the continual search for funding to keep going. Over the next few years while writing the case, we kept in regular contact with Sameer by email, phone and in person. Things kept changing, but that was also what made the case interesting to write. Sameer is one of our most compelling MBA alumni social entrepreneurs and we wanted to do justice to the story. At the same time, we did not know what the outcome would be a few years down the line.

The entrepreneurial roller coaster

This regular contact with Sameer helped us to track not only the company’s progress, but also how Sameer was feeling at any given time; it was almost a diary that allowed us to follow his experiences at first hand. We could trace the ups and downs of the entrepreneurial roller coaster, most notably when he was in the middle of real ‘what should I do next?’ situations. For example, we had a long dinner conversation with Sameer when he was about to make a decision on funding, and that was when we observed his state of mind and anxiety; the dinner was pivotal in how Case A came about.

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Addressing the reader directly

For us, it was easier to write the case in the first person, as if Sameer was speaking. We had spent so much time conversing with him that we could imagine how he might phrase things. He did correct us sometimes, but he was incredibly honest in allowing us to trace the good and the bad, the challenges and the opportunities of social entrepreneurship. The benefit of the first-person approach is the ability to convey feelings as well as facts; it’s easier to debate the issues that arise and it makes for a more enjoyable read. It captures the essence of entrepreneurship, which is personal and emotional.

Normally, when we teach the case, we invite Sameer to offer his perspective via Skype at the end of the session. This is very useful and greatly appreciated by the students. It also reinforces the first-person approach.

A framework for social venture design

The teaching goal of the case is to present a framework for social venture design, from focusing on the problem, to designing the business model, and then scaling up. Case A is about financing social ventures and finding a strategic focus, and Case B is about fine-tuning the business model and conveying a tool for business model design. It’s also very important to consider Sameer’s strengths and weaknesses as a social entrepreneur; initial classroom discussions focus on the leadership choices and personal options that Sameer has. Entrepreneurship is about many small decisions and a lot of personal challenges (as opposed to, say, one big strategic decision in a corporation).

Teaching the case

We usually start the class completely in the dark for the first minute, so that the students get a sense of how it feels to live without light. Teaching the case to social entrepreneurs in the INSEAD Social Entrepreneurship Programme in 2011 was an incredible experience. They immediately identified with Sameer and said, ‘That is how I feel! That’s me, facing a similar set of challenges around the need to focus, and balance life and financing!’ It was one of those ‘aha’ moments. MBA students, on the other hand, approach the case in a more intellectual way, not so emotionally. They usually don’t have the experience of having gone through those issues.

The cases would work well in any course on entrepreneurship or social entrepreneurship, from undergraduates to MBA students, as well as executives in the social impact sector.

An insider’s view: Sameer Hajee, CEO, Nuru Energy

‘Do it!’ That’s Sameer Hajee’s advice to anyone invited to take part in writing a case. Here, he explains why and outlines the many advantages of being involved.

The benefits

Our interaction with the INSEAD team led to fresh insights. As an entrepreneur, you face hurdles that at times seem insurmountable. You might believe that they are unique to you or your business, and that can make you feel very alone. But because the case writers have usually worked with many entrepreneurs before you, they see similar growing pains and are in a unique position to offer some sage advice based on what they have seen others do. Our engagement with them sometimes felt like much-needed therapy!

We also gained visibility among people who would otherwise not know about us. We are constantly approached by researchers and students who have come across the case and are keen to learn more. 

For better or worse

I think the fact that the case is written in the first person, as if I were writing it, works well. It is very easy after a situation has passed to rationalise why you did this or that. When the case is written in the first person, it is ‘live’; you can’t go back and revise the situation to make it sound better. For students, there is a lot more learning to be had this way. They get to see the situation for what it really was, for better or worse.

Insightful and thought-provoking

I took part in a Skype Q&A session with students who had covered the case and their questions were often insightful and thought provoking. They demonstrated a very real interest in our work and that was certainly encouraging.

The more you give the more you get

We were initially concerned about having to divulge too much information and that the engagement would take too much of our time. However, the case writers respected our boundaries and were happy to work with whatever information we were comfortable to disclose. That said, if, like us, you are an organisation in its start-up phase, the more you give, the more you get. And yes, the engagement did take time, but in the end, the benefits of participating greatly outweighed the costs.

Case details

Click on the case title to view further details and, where available, an educator preview copy.
Nuru Energy (A): Financing a Social Enterprise

Filipe Santos and Anne-Marie Carrick-Cagna
Ref 813-006-1
Nuru Energy (B) From Breakdowns to Breakthroughs

Ref 813-007-1
Also available:
Teaching note

Ref 813-006-8

About the authors

Filipe Santos is Associate Professor of Entrepreneurship at INSEAD, Fontainebleau, France.

Anne-Marie Carrick-Cagna is a Research Associate at INSEAD, Fontainebleau, France.

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