Manuel Wiechers was among the brightest of a new generation of young entrepreneurs in Mexico. After graduating from college, where he studied renewable energy, in 2009 he started a social enterprise: Iluméxico. His vision was to provide solar power to the Mexicans who need it most: remote rural communities beyond the electric grid. These are mostly indigenous people, far from modern roads.
Iluméxico designs, develops and manufactures technology used for rural electrification. Iluméxico’s products include solar home systems, solar powered energy for community development, such as computer centers with satellite Internet for libraries and schools, and solar-powered water pumps for rural clinics. This company identifies the poorest customers, and tries to sell them the energy that most of us take for granted.
While the technologies helped people, the enterprise faced significant hurdles. The Iluméxico office in Mexico City was a long way from its rural customers, living in jungles and on the sides of mountains. Reaching them was expensive, and it was difficult to know when, what, and why they would buy.
Enter The Miller Center For Social Entrepreneurship– Partners For The Journey
Manuel applied to the GSBI in 2013 and reinvented his business model by opening rural energy distribution centers, known as Ilucentros.
“We learned so much from our time at the GSBI. We built out our first financial models and we frequently use those models with investors. When we went through the GSBI we hadn’t even opened one center. Now we’ve opened four centers and are in the process of opening the fifth….We plan to open ten more, depending on investment. We have coordinators at each center and local technicians. My role has shifted to supervising and starting new projects.”
— Manuel Wiechers, Co-Founder and Director
For this plan to work, Iluméxico needed to understand the perceptions of its rural customers, so while he was attending the GSBI in-residence program at Santa Clara University, he requested help from Global Social Benefit Fellows to survey his customers.
In 2014, Fellows spent 9 months studying this social enterprise, including 7 weeks in the field. The Fellows conducted over 250 interviews in rural Indigenous communities measuring customer satisfaction and helping Iluméxico anticipate future customer requirements.
What started as a dream in 2009 has evolved into a thriving company. Going through the GSBI exercises and investor presentations helped Manuel clarify his vision, crystallize his plans and tell people about his mission.
- Today, there are five Ilucentros serving 3,500 installed systems and 18,000 households, displacing 1800 tons of CO2 in the process.
- The Fellows’ reports endorsed the new distribution plan and the value of the Ilucentros as the basis for growth.
- “We recently received an ABC Foundation grant and the first investment from Banamex’s new impact investing fund, part of its corporate social responsibility program (Banamex is Mexico’s largest bank.) So next year is a huge growth year for us. We hope to close with 14 branches in total. We will be able to set up the structure and operations to expand–hopefully to Latin America.”
- In March 2015, Iluméxico received a variable payment option (demand dividend) investment from GDF SUEZ to help it reach more customers. “In five years, we want 50 branches to reach 50,000 families.”
Wiechers has also changed since the partnership. He’s become not just a visionary but also an executive. What was once an informal partnership has grown to a company with CEO and other executives. With the lessons learned from his time with the GSBI – and through hard work – Wiechers is more than a dreamer. He is a social enterprise leader.