Interview: Trade Without Borders (2013)

A talk with Joe Fernandez, founder of TWBHK Limited

In an interview conducted a few days ago, Joe Fernandez reflects on the role of supply chains to access existing clean energy technologies from global suppliers. Joe shares with us how TWBHK addresses this challenge.

When was TWBHK founded?

We have been in business for about 3 years.

Where is your business based?

TWBHK is a Hong Kong low-profit entity (there is no legal structure for B-Corps. or L3Cs in HK)..  I am based in Hong Kong.  However, TWBHK is affiliated with Trade Without Borders (TWB), a U.S.A. non-profit.  In tandem, the U.S.A. and Hong Kong entities comprise a global, hybrid Social Enterprise. 

What problem are you trying to solve? What is your solution to the problem?

What we know is that access to energy is essential for development to take place, and access to clean energy is essential to mitigate the effects of climate change today. The problem isn’t the lack of clean energy technologies, but the lack of adequate supply chains so local clean energy businesses in developing countries can efficiently access those technologies. It is actually a huge problem.  We are working to address the problem of more cost-effectively and efficiently accessing existing clean energy technologies from global suppliers.  Longer-term, we hope to also contribute to development of new clean energy technology solutions to meet unmet needs.  

How did you become interested in that problem?

Well I guess I would say it’s been a journey. I have spent 17 years in Hong Kong providing global trading services to a global clientele, helping to supply products to the likes of Walmart and Tesco. While working with such companies, I got to know the entire global supply chain for products from manufacturers in the Far East to the shelves of retailers.  While engaged in this work, I realized that most of what I was doing was for customers in developed countries, and that there was a huge gap in product access to developing countries. Beyond the major cities in those countries there was even a bigger gap. So TWBHK Limited grew out of my passion to address the needs of those in developing regions of the world.  That passion first developed when I served as a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in Africa.  Through TWBHK, I was able to leverage that passion together with my practical knowledge of global supply chain management.  TWBHK actually started working with school supplies, but shifted to clean energy products as we received more and more requests for such products.  With lower cost solar and LED products, there was an opportunity for a leap of technology access, similar to what we have seen with mobile phones, which have leap-frogged landline connections. 

What are your major challenges?

Our single biggest challenge is on the financial front. TWBHK Limited is starting to see some revenues but it is about trying to stretch our resources until they become sustainable. For example, we’re trying to build an online marketplace for clean energy technologies to better serve local clean energy enterprises globally.  Building that online marketplace, however, requires funding.  
So, we are working to better define and communicate about the online clean energy technology marketplace to prospective stakeholders. 

Who are your customers?

Our customers – those who pay us – are primarily organizations that operate networks of small and medium clean energy enterprises in developing regions of the world.  We also sell clean energy technology products to NGOs.  In addition, we also generate revenue from work we do on behalf of clients.  This might include product development, manufacturing representation, and logistics coordination out of Hong Kong/China for a client based in another part of the world.  We essentially serve as the client’s eyes and ears in China.  

One of our clients is a US based organization called Unite to Light (UtL). They are a nonprofit affiliated with the Institute for Energy Efficiency at UC Santa Barbara. The Institute developed a solar LED light for the Department of Education in Ghana that was intended to serve students living in off-grid areas.  UtL was set up to distribute the lights globally.  TWB has helped UtL access lower cost manufacturing, coordinates global shipments of the lights from China, and is now helping to expand global distribution of the lights.  

One of our customers, Solar Now, is a Dutch organization operating in Uganda. Our relationship with them is that they place orders for products such as rechargeable or low-power DC appliances directly with TWBHK.  We procure and ship such products to them, ensuring the quality of the products supplied, and also ensure delivery to Uganda at the most economical rates.  We are now also getting involved in pre-certification of products for Solar Now, which the Uganda Bureau of Standards now requires.

How many people do you employ?

We currently employ three people but we have numerous partners and advisors and a large network who provide support and help us fulfill our mission.

What are your annual revenues?

This year we expect to see revenues between $500k and $1m. This is a big shift from our first and second years, which saw minimal revenues. 

How has the William James Foundation competition and mentoring program helped you?

In the social enterprise space, there are two types of organizations focused on developing regions of the world that are usually recognized. These are organizations with an innovative product, or ones that are working on the ground directly with their target audience in a developing country. So for us, getting recognition for our work was more challenging because our work lies in between those two types of organizations. The recognition provided by WJF has been very helpful. 

Participating in the WJF Sustainable Business Plan Competition has helped us to better communicate what we do and what we are looking to create.

The specific feedback from the judges has also been great. They gave us wonderful grains of wisdom and knowledge.

Another great thing is that we are currently in contact with a former WJF semi-finalist from last year, Maternova.  They supply essential products to maternity clinics that also need access to clean energy.  So, we’re hoping to collaborate in the future.

What other resources have you found that are particularly useful for social entrepreneurs?

Lean Startup Machine, an intensive workshop for entrepreneurs was a great resource. They work on a global scale and we participated in a workshop in Hong Kong.  I gave a short 5-second pitch about TWBHK at the beginning of the workshop.  I then had a chance to team up with 4 other workshop participants to refine the pitch. It was an exciting program and we ended up getting third place.

TWBHK had also been accepted into an incubation program at the Hong Kong Science and Technology Park for web and mobile app development companies.  This was to focus on development of our online clean energy technology marketplace.  We were the first Social Enterprise accepted into the Science Park.  The incubation program has allowed us to work with other like-minded enterprises and individuals.