Bright lights, no city

By MAX ALEXANDER  |  August 22, 2012

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They needed the power of the marketplace to invent solutions that would improve their lives. Come up with the right product at the right price, said Gates, and the poor will beat a path to your door. He described this model as a win-win situation: the poor improve their lives and become modern consumers, while companies make money and gain recognition. In some cases, he noted, corporations might even apply their third-world innovations to first-world markets. "This kind of creative capitalism matches business expertise with needs in the developing world to find markets that are already there, but are untapped," Gates said.

It sounded great. I pictured Indiana Jones riding shotgun with a spreadsheet across the savannah, Willy Lowman shuffling through the casaba. But if they were out there, they weren't blogging, or hiring public relations agents. Maybe they only existed in speeches and polemical textbooks.

Whit knew a few people out there on the advance guard, both Westerners and indigenous pioneers, looking for new solutions in the developing world. But few were as passionate as he about applying conventional business approaches to financing and investors. Most were seeking some sort of start-up subsidy from the nonprofit realm, and very few were attracting profit-motivated investors. Nor did they seem as focused on brand development as Whit was. What's more, no one was documenting what it was really like on the ground, village to village.

The more I tried to learn, the more I saw my own brother as being pretty far out there on the edge — maybe one of the first few in a new movement. Maybe it would only last a moment. Maybe it would change the world.

Either way, I wanted to be there, and not just because he was my brother. With the global economy imploding, jobs disappearing, banks tanking, and abandoned swimming pools across Southern California turning green with algae, I wondered if doing business in the developing world could do more than help the poor. I wondered if the poorest people could teach the rest of us how to live better.

Excerpted from BRIGHT LIGHTS, NO CITY: AN AFRICAN ADVENTURE ON BAD ROADS WITH A BROTHER AND A VERY WEIRD BUSINESS PLAN by Max Alexander. Copyright © 2012 Max Alexander. Published by Hyperion. Available wherever books are sold. All Rights Reserved.

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