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June 1, 2009 at 7:01 PM

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Cranium co-founder starts new venture as creative capitalist

Posted by Kristi Heim

Whit Alexander hopes rechargeable batteries can give a boost to incomes of people in Ghana.

It's the first product in a new Seattle venture that Alexander has started called Burro, a for-profit company with a social mission: to help people in developing countries improve their productivity.

"Our mission is to profitably deliver affordable goods and services to empower the poor to do more with their lives," Alexander said.


Hayford Atteh (left), field agent with new Seattle startup Burro, Philip Sarpong (center), the first Burro employee, and Burro founder Whit Alexander, a Microsoft veteran and co-founder of Cranium.

He started Burro last October, after waiting two decades to get back to the part of the world that held a special appeal for him since high school. He and his wife majored in African studies at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service, and Alexander later did consulting work in the region for World Bank projects.

After that came a five-year stint at Microsoft, where he created the Encarta world atlas, and then more than 10 years at Cranium, which he co-founded with Richard Tait. Now owned by Hasbro, Cranium closed its Seattle offices just last week.

"I'm coming up on 48 and I thought if I don't do this now when am I ever going to do it?" Alexander said of his new project.

The startup will focus on products that help people earn more income or provide a more affordable replacement for a product they're already buying.

He came up with the name Burro, using a symbol that is "a good animal in most cultures, hardworking and trustworthy, with extraordinary productivity," he said.

It also serves as a kind of "call to action" to do more, he said. "This isn't a handout."

Giving away the batteries wouldn't be sustainable, so Alexander had to figure out how to charge for them.

Burro Logo.jpg

"The for-profit model is fundamental for me personally," he said. "We really do have to demonstrate that private enterprise can create opportunities that are sustainable, responsible and driving important social change."

He began by looking at where people were spending their money. People earning about $1 a day spend $2 to $6 a month on disposable batteries. Rechargeable batteries would save people money in the long run, but they couldn't afford the higher cost up-front, and most of them didn't have electricity to charge them.

So Alexander is introducing rechargeable batteries that people can rent rather than buy, and pick up through Burro agents who then take them to a central office to be recharged.
The customer pays a flat fee of 60 cents a month per battery, with unlimited exchanges for a fresh battery. Alexander figures his customers will get four times the energy of their standard batteries for about the same price.

He's starting in Ghana but believes the products could work well in many developing countries. For now, until he can prove the business model, Alexander says he's funding the venture himself with a lot of "donated sweat equity" from friends, including Jan Watson, Cranium's former operations manager.

Alexander is already experimenting with two additional products -- battery-powered lighting to replace kerosene and battery-powered cellphone charging. Both are significant expenses for people in Ghana.


Burro produces rechargeable batteries for the West African market.

When Cranium closed its doors in Seattle last week, Alexander was there for the send-off with employees. "It was bittersweet," he said. "It's not the storybook ending we hoped for."

Now he's turning to a different market, one that relies on consumers in Africa and the uncertainties of their disposable incomes, which often fluctuate around harvest time.

"We are literally waiting for the corn to come in," he said.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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