Jesse Moore ’01 came to UNC wanting to make the world a better place, but he didn’t know how. UNC helped him see the light, and he passed that light along to others — literally — by founding M-KOPA, a solar-power business that enables hundreds of thousands of low-income people in East Africa to access reliable electricity that they otherwise couldn’t afford.
Jesse’s arrival on campus from his hometown of Toronto marked his first visit to the United States. The Morehead-Cain Scholarship opened the world to him through study abroad and summer travel experiences to Costa Rica, Cape Town, several sub-Saharan countries and Bolivia. He learned French and Spanish and took note of needs in poverty-stricken parts of the world.
After graduation, he returned to Canada to work for the global nonprofit CARE and continued to travel to Africa, Asia and Latin America. He has visited 65 countries so far. He became interested in private-sector approaches to poverty alleviation and bolstered his business skills with an MBA from Oxford University.
Ironically, only after he graduated from UNC did the communications major discover that the global epicenter of business models that treat low-income consumers as customers and partners was at Kenan-Flagler Business School. He connected with some professors there as he developed his business idea of structuring the sale of a solar-powered electrical system to individual homes similar to a mortgage. Consumers make a significant down payment, then make monthly payments equivalent to what they typically would spend on kerosene and batteries until their solar system is paid off in a year. After that, the consumer pays only for usage, and payments can be made by mobile phone.
In April 2010, Jesse and his then-fiancée, now wife, Natasha Sweeney, moved to Nairobi, Kenya, where Jesse launched M-KOPA. Starting an entrepreneurial business has many challenges, including cultural differences, and Jesse faced them with no fluency in Swahili and an office that had no reliable electricity.
“Because it’s not an easy place to do business, that’s why it’s a great place to do business,” Jesse said. “The reason we need to run a generator at our office is the reason we have a huge market for our services.”
Within 15 months of launch, M-KOPA had 50,000 customers and had raised $20 million in venture capital funding. Last year, former Vice President Al Gore’s Generation Investment Management was part of a $19 million infusion of support. Now M-KOPA’s customer base tops 375,000 and is on track for a million users by 2018, despite more than a dozen competitors who have since joined the market. Today, M-KOPA employs nearly a thousand workers and is expanding into Tanzania, Uganda and Ghana and has offices in London and Hong Kong.
Jesse got an early start in service leadership. As a teenager, he had founded Youth View Canada, which grew to be a national organization under his leadership. As leader of a national movement, he presented petitions to Canada’s House of Commons. Impressive for a high school student.
At Carolina, Jesse organized the White Ribbon Campaign, a movement for men to stand against violence that victimized women. He galvanized more than 100 male students to join him and set up a press event with the football coach. Jesse’s college roommate, Will Morris ’01, recalled watching Jesse at that inaugural meeting: “He was able to very clearly articulate the vision, the purpose, the guiding principles of the group. That was a moment of visionary leadership.”
As a student, Jesse also started Heels on Wheels, collecting unused food from sororities and donating it to the IFC community kitchen. The program continues today. His contributions to making UNC a better place led to his induction into the Order of the Golden Fleece and Order of the Grail.
“Jesse is one of those people who doesn’t see the world for what it is but for what it could be,” Will Morris said. “He sees potential and possibility, and that’s been a theme for him for most of his life.”
Jesse expects to remain in Kenya (where both of his children were born and are learning Swahili) for the foreseeable future. He’s well on his way to creating a billion-dollar business that blends his vision, practicality and sense of service. Through his thoughtfulness and creativity, he has changed hundreds of thousands of lives for the better, and that total eventually might be measured in millions. Just what he always wanted to do.