observations at the intersection of business innovation, culture, finance, leadership and political economy

Meet Mobius One

Meet Mobius One. I’m a little bit in love with this sassy little car. Never mind the fact that it happens to be the prototype for a feel-good durable, functional, affordable car for the African middle class consumer. It’s just feisty.

Mobius One may be tiny, but manufacturer Mobius Motors’ ambitions are anything but. It estimates that the African transport market is $60 billion. It wants to play a role in transforming and refining that market–and, in the process of doing so to generate $2 billion in revenues by 2020.

Mobius’ founder Joel Jackson was in New York last week as one of thirty eight finalists for the 2011 Echoing Green social entrepreneurship fellowship. I spoke with him at the kick-off event for fellow-candidates’ rigorous final pitch weekend–Echoing Green’s annual benefit.

Two things struck me about my conversation—and several follow up emails–with Joel: first, the beauty of his perspective and approach. And second, the boldness of his vision and conviction.

First, his perspective and approach. At its most basic, Mobius is a for-profit car company with designs on the African automotive consumer. But at its heart, for Joel, it’s a vehicle for greater prosperity across the continent—and this is what turns Mobius into a social enterprise.

Reliable, affordable transportation catalyzes economic development—Joel learned this first-hand while living and working in eastern Kenya. Give a community a car, they mobilize health care services, education, products, workers—foundational economic activities.

So in targeting African entrepreneurs as one of its two core customer segments (the other is simply the individual and family driver) Mobius will sell not only an auto, but also provide business-in-a-box advice alongside, empowering entrepreneurs with tools they can use to run a profitable enterprise on wheels–and it will collaborate with them over time to make sure that its cars’ designs remain relevant to their top transportation needs. Expected impact: improved access to basic inputs, greater community wealth. Beautiful.

Second, Joel’s background is computer science, management consulting and rural community development. There’s nothing in there that screams: start a car company from scratch–in Africa. And yet, he’s setting audacious goals, assembling an international and local team, designing and creating prototypes, establishing relationships with vendors and manufacturers locally in Kenya, as well as in India and China, raising seed capital. Really, there’s only one word for all of that: wow.

Joel shared with me the CAD renderings for Mobius Two. It’s a little more boxy, a little less sporty than Mobius One, just as feisty. I see a fleet of them tricked out by an all-star team of designers on a visibility-building tour of London, New York, Los Angeles, Shanghai, Sydney. You get the picture.

Joel stood alone as the founder of a for-profit, industrial manufacturing enterprise amongst the Echoing Green finalists. But he was not the only purveyor of wow. Context: this year over 2,800 applicants from 118 countries tossed their hat in the ring for what will ultimately be 20 or so two year fellowship slots, to be announced in June. So, all who make it to the last round are extraordinary.

A few of the others who happened to catch my attention over the course of the benefit evening: Mark Hecker, founder of Reach Education (you can read his blog about the rigorous Echoing Green finalist weekend here), Jen Medberry of Drop the Chalk, Amy Bach of Judicial Outcomes, Ani Vallabhaneni and David Auerbach of Sanergy and Ameca Reali and Adrienne Wheeler of Cooperative Advocacy for the People. You can read The Daily Beast’s post on the evening here.

It was a coincidence that I ended up attending the Echoing Green benefit–the result of a last minute invite from a friend–the day after I’d written about recent conversations I’d had with one of one of the organization’s board members, B Corporation founder Andrew Kassoy. In that article I observed that impact investing’s innovations are likely to spillover into the broader market.

That spillover–and integration–can be seen heading in the opposite direction when heavy manufacturing enterprises targeting multi-billion dollar market opportunities make it to the social enterprise fellowship’s finalist round. It will be interesting to see if more show up in next year’s applicant and finalist pool. And Mobius Motors? Perhaps Echoing Green’s first IPO candidate.

Update

(June 2, 2011) Mobius Motors, Reach Education, Judicial Outcomes, Sanergy and Cooperative Advocacy for the People have each been awarded 2011 Echoing Green Fellowships. You can see the full list of 2011 fellows here.

Photo: Mobius Motors

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