Blazing A Trail

Written by Kamini Devadass, Be Movement issue 3 – JAPAN, published March 2014

In the course of our lives, many of us encounter struggles we wish had never happened. To avoid such struggles, we choose to accept our circumstances and over time, our will weakens. Being optimistic in the face of consecutive hardships and staying the course requires no small measure of inspiration. For Toshi Nakamura, co-founder of Kopernik, struggles are transient distractions that never give pause to the work he is committed to, especially not when it involves something as significant as poverty reduction.

Despite his previous professions – working at the United Nations (UN) and as a management consultant for McKinsey – the title of social entrepreneur best represents the man today. Both his wife and he left a decade of service with the UN to start Kopernik and they have never looked back since. “We thought that there is a huge gap between the work of the UN, basically supporting the government, and ordinary people’s lives. You support the government, you train the people in the capital city, you go to the rural area, and nothing is happening. So what is this gap? So that was the beginning, the trigger,” Nakamura explains, now residing in Bali with his wife and three year old daughter.

Fast, immediate solutions were necessary to prevent the gap from widening into a chasm. Since government efforts were only effective in the long run, Nakamura and his wife wanted to plug this needful gap, leading to the genesis of Kopernik.

Kopernik’s purpose is simple – to accelerate the poverty reduction process, by providing affordable and accessible technology to the poor in emerging countries. It has completed more than 88 projects in 15 countries, by encouraging private companies to adopt an inclusive business approach, either developing products for the poor or engaging with the poor. The belief is that through providing life-changing technology such as solar lights to replace kerosene lamps, the poor would be able to engage themselves in income generating activities and climb up the rungs of the socio-economic ladder, moving themselves away from the poverty trap.

The idea for life-changing technology was inspired by a visit to an exhibition by the Smithsonian Design Museum in 2007, which profoundly affected Nakamura, redirecting the way he perceived the design industry. Elaborating on the influence the exhibition had on him, he explains, “Designers were creating things just for the 10% of the population on the planet who can afford [them], who can pay a lot of money. But actually the majority of the population can’t afford these things. So why don’t we shift this and put some effort to really create something for the less fortunate people?”

“If you spend money you can create anything. You have to create very cheap products and be still good [at what you do],” he added.

On what gave him the push to create an agency for poverty reduction, he says, “Firstly, it was fun. I really enjoyed it, having seen the impact, creating new things and I thought this would have more impact [even] with a small amount of money. With $10,000 you can do a lot, a lot. It’s doing different things but it’s just so dynamic. Seeing a lot of people bringing new ideas, creating new companies with products [designed] for the poor, I felt this is a right direction. I think it should be like this in the future. We should get a lot of people’s ideas, combine energies involved in solving the issues in emerging countries.”


Recalling one of the most far-reaching projects of Kopernik, he says, “I think one might be the project that covered almost 50% of the district households in Timor Leste. It’s a small district, the poorest district in Timor Leste called Oecusse. There were 6,000 households and we covered more than half with solar lights. At night it used to be quite dark because they used kerosene but if you go now, it’s bright at night, brighter.”

But if not for Nakamura’s perseverence, Kopernik would not be able to carry on its worthy cause.

In the earlier days of Kopernik, Nakamura’s bank account fell below USD$2,000 on three occasions, yet he carried on with the thought that there is always a way out. Working unpaid for more than one and a half years and investing over USD$120,000 of his savings in Kopernik, he took impecuniousness to be nothing more than a momentary phase.

Indeed, the lack of money rather than the abundance of it seems to be a natural fuel for Nakamura’s commitment to further poverty reduction. “I think I’m just optimistic,” he laughs. “Worst case scenario, which is going back to a two person organisation, [when] I may have to do a part-time job and maybe consultancy for the UN. But, that’s it. We can still continue. It is not the end of the world.” He adds, “I think I can make money if I want to. So I am not worried at all.”

His biggest worry right now for Kopernik is crowdfunding. “Crowdfunding is getting more crowded,” Nakamura says matter-of-factly. More efforts are needed to diversify revenue sources in addition to increasing funding and technology partners as well as generating awareness. Aside from crowdfunding, current revenue sources for Kopernik include consultancy work and corporate sponsors such as Cisco and Exxon. Nevertheless, being the optimist that he is, Nakamura focuses on the growth Kopernik has experienced. “Luckily after a few challenging times, I think we are getting a little bit more stable. Our foundation is getting stronger,” he noted.

Nakamura sees social work as no longer being relegated to a secondary position in society but rather, being steadily embraced as a noble cause and becoming mainstream. Still, he wants more people to get involved in solving challenges in emerging countries in efficient ways.

On what was the biggest sacrifice he had to make to follow his passion, a spirited Nakamura says, “I didn’t think I gave up anything. I’m much happier; I’m much free-er.”






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