Max & Whit Alexander

Prompted in part by a talk Bill Gates gave on "creative capitalism" in the Third World, Seattle entrepreneur Whit Alexander—co-founder of Cranium games—decided on an unlikely next career path. Instead of sitting on his millions and joining a few boards, he decided to sell rechargeable batteries in the West African nation of Ghana. Joining him in the project was Maine journalist Max Alexander, his brother, who chronicles their start-up in Bright Lights, No City: An African Adventure on Bad Roads With a Brother and a Very Weird Business Plan (Hyperion, $24.99). That there is a market in Ghana is beyond question; portable radios and flashlights are ubiquitous—also in villages beneath high power lines where no local electrical connection is made. Reaching that market is a different matter. The Alexanders have to inculcate a new consumer culture among those accustomed to buying the cheapest (yet short-lived) Chinese batteries on the market. They also have to train a sales force—essentially following the Avon model—and learn some local marketing techniques, like the gong-gong man who beats a bell to assemble the village. Whit Alexander's mantra is that "they deserve better" in Ghana. Less the idealist, Max is at first confounded by a "medieval acceptance of the status quo," yet comes to admire a resourceful country where nothing is discarded and everything is repaired, the opposite of our throw-away culture. But the book isn't all business. The Alexanders endure hellish roads, eat rodents, and suffer medical mishaps—not malaria, but Max somehow manages to Super Glue his eye shut. BRIAN MILLER

Wed., July 18, 7:30 p.m., 2012

 
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