MAX and WHIT ALEXANDER / BRIGHT LIGHTS, NO CITY: An African Adventure on Bad Roads with a Brother and a Very Weird Business Plan
Take two brothers -- one a cofounder of the Cranium board game and the other a journalist who worked for Variety and People -- and send them off to Ghana on an adventure that will test notions of charity and entrepreneurship even among the most environmentally conscious among us. Mix in a few tangential challenges -- deadly insects, terrible roads, and an assortment of culinary, religious, and governmental issues -- and you have BRIGHT LIGHTS, NO CITY.
Whit Alexander, Max’s younger brother, spent several years as a young man living in Western Africa working in development. He saw firsthand that while various aid projects did undoubtedly make a giant difference in many lives, he came to realize that truly long-lasting change needed to come from the African marketplace itself, not Western handouts. He returned to States to pursue acareer in technology but Africa was never far from his mind.
Fast-forward to 1997 when Whit, and a colleague from his old job at Microsoft, created a board game called Cranium. His older brother Max, a journalist covering pop culture, didn’t get the appeal of the game; though he helped write some of the questions for the first edition. Max was sure it was an idea destined to fail. How wrong he was: the game launched Whit Alexander onto the cover of Inc. Magazine and great success.
Then, in 2008, Bill Gates addressed the Davos World Economic Forum on what he called “creative capitalism,” and challenged businesses to start innovating products that would benefit those on the lowest rungs of the economic ladder. Whit Alexander took up this challenge (that has always been in his heart) and headed back to his first love: Africa.
Burro, Whit Alexander’s new business, was begun in Ghana, renting batteries to people who earn a dollar a day. The rechargeable batteries would allow those living largely off-grid to have battery-operated lanterns (allowing kids to do homework), radios, and chargers for their cellphones in a country where regular phone service is not available. However, Ghana was also a place where theannual inflation rate exceeded 20 percent, and the country has a history of deadly military coups -- not exactly the stable marketplace in which to launch a fledgling business. Whit asked Max to come along and see for himself what this kind of start-up looks like in the making. The business has had its trials: from signing up customers who have little income or none at all, to training employees who have no Western-style work experience, plus dealing with manufacturers who are used to creating junk for Africans, not long-lasting, durable goods.
BRIGHT LIGHTS, NO CITY is a picaresque story with a business plan. Max Alexander is the perfect guide: skeptical at first, hilariously observant, worried about much that he is asked to plunge into, and finally inspired by what he sees. It’s also a story of two grown brothers and how this seminal adventure tests and finally redefines their relationship.
Max Alexander is an American journalist, author and failed politician. Man Bites Log, his 2004 memoir of moving from New York to Maine (which details his unsuccessful local election campaign) has been called "a hilarious how-not-to". He is a former senior editor at People magazine and, before that, the executive editor of Variety and Daily Variety. He has co-written several books on subjects ranging from cooking to personal finance, and he edited George Plimpton's last book, about the Antarctic explorer George Shackleton. His articles and essays have appeared in the New York Times, Smithsonian, Money, Reader's Digest, TV Guide, This Old House and many other publications. He lives in Maine with his wife, the owner of an online retailer of natural handmade toys, and their two sons.
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