A child with her Soular BackpackThe Soular Backpack
Like all entrepreneurs, creators of social enterprises typically pivot at some point. But for many impact founders, that change in plans results from an unexpected discovery: Consumers typically buy their products based not on the enterprise’s larger social purpose, no matter how compelling, but because they simply like the stuff.
That’s certainly been the experience of Salima Visram.
She launched The Soular Backpack in 2015 to sell backpacks for school children in Kenya—not any book bags, but carriers with a solar panel connected to a battery pack that would be charged while students walked to and from school. At home, they could connect those batteries to an LED lamp, providing light in homes without electricity for five hours or so. Then she added a one-for-one model—for every product sold, a Soular Backpack would be donated to a child in need.
A few years later, however, she changed gears, launching SAMARA, a fashion company selling vegan leather bags, using earnings to fund Soular Backpack.
Visram thought of the idea for Soular Backpack while still a student at McGill University. Growing up in a well—off family near Kikambala, a poor village in Kenya, she knew she wanted to address the poverty she saw around her as a child. Families in Kikambala, like many households in rural Africa lacking electricity, had to use costly and dangerous kerosene. With solar-powered electricity, Visram realized, households would have a less expensive, safer alternative that also could provide more light for school kids trying to study at home. Eventually, she zeroed in on backpacks sporting a lens charged by a battery pack that could be easily powered during children’s long walk to and from school.
Of course, there were setbacks. After the first pilot, Visram learned that the lenses could easily get shattered if, say, a child dropped a backpack by accident. So in 2016 she went back to the drawing board and spent a full year creating a new mould for a different lens.
She also introduced a one-for-one model. But by the end of 2017, she realized she had to face facts. “People loved the Soular story, but it was hard to push it as a product in North America,” she says. “Ultimately, people want a product they will use.” Plus, the whole solar-powered battery thing wasn’t that effective in places like Canada, where long months went by without a sufficient amount of sun.
So, Visram decided she needed a different business model. When she couldn’t find a handbag she liked—something simple, affordable and made of something that didn’t involve killing animals—she designed her own. Friends loved it and, with that, she had her solution: to sell vegan handbags with an under-stated elegance. In late 2017, she launched SAMARA. She started with $500 for a production run of 10 bags and sold out almost immediately.
Soular Backpack, she decided, would focus on working with corporations and NGOs for distribution, with a small online presence. All the while, SAMARA would plow a portion of earnings to Soular. (Soular Backpack originally was registered as a nonprofit, so Visram could raise money through a crowdfunding site. Then she added a for-profit arm under the name The Soular Group Inc. Then she turned that into SAMARA). Also, marketing-wise, Visram would play up SAMARA’s minimalist styles, subtly telling the story of Soular Backpack on the web site. “We’re an impact company, but people think of us as a fashion brand,” she says.
Visram, of course, is hardly the only social entrepreneur to move from highlighting a social mission to placing it more to the background. Other examples range from one-for-one eyeglass company Warby Parker to Darn Good Yarn, which sells yarn made from discarded saris and other material.
Visram has also revised her thesis for how best to address poverty alleviation—focusing as much on creating employment as providing solar power. “I realized the best way to create impact is to employ children’s parents,” she says. In late 2016, she moved Soular Backpack production to Kenya from Asia, the better to provide jobs there. She hopes to do the same for SAMARA’s four productions lines next year.
Now, she’s working on creating a new way to make vegan leather using less plastic. Next year, she’s also coming out with a bag created from recycled ocean trash. Her goal for Soular: to distribute 30,000 backpacks by 2020.