Gift Ntuli ’14, third from left, with the lights that he hopes will give children of Zimbabwe more opportunities to read.

Gift Ntuli ’14 grew up in rural villages in Zimbabwe and remembers how hard it was to get chores or schoolwork done after dark, with electricity service sporadic if it was available at all. “At night time you use candles or kerosene lamps—or you just have to go to bed,” he said, describing conditions that still exist where he visits his grandmother.

As he brainstormed ways to help people in his country a couple of years ago, he saw a big opportunity in small, solar-powered, rechargeable lamps that would to help schoolchildren read after dark and for children and adults to be more productive after the sun goes down.

Last summer, with financial support from Colby’s Linda K. Cotter Endowed Internship Fund, he set up Light Zimbabwe, a charity that gave solar-powered lanterns to poor orphans and displaced families. This year Ntuli resolved to support his charity with a sustainable business and to expand its reach. He entered his proposed social-enterprise startup, Photons, in the Colby Entrepreneurial Alliance’s 2013 business competition. One of six competing business plans, Photons garnered $13,000 of the available $15,000 in startup funding, and it’s off and running.

In some ways, it already was. “His business plan was actually pretty well developed,” said Professor of Computer Science Bruce Maxwell, one of the judges, of why they funded Ntuli’s project. With groundwork laid through the Light Zimbabwe charity, Ntuli and four rising juniors who are his partners already have people on the ground in Zimbabwe and a proven strategy for distributing the lamps.

“It’s not to make a lot of money for him,” Maxwell said, “but to pass it off to people in Zimbabwe who could make a living.”  Fifty percent of the profits will go to the charity Light Zimbabwe.

Maxwell stressed that judges are instructed not to award funding if they don’t find a worthy proposal. They were persuaded to fund Photons because Light Zimbabwe has an established network of contacts, which includes rural schools that stand to make money as distributors of the lamps. Also, he said, the scale of the project is such that the award can get Photons up and running, rather than having the Entrepreneurial Alliance funding be a small piece of a larger venture.

Business development so far includes selecting a reliable product that can be sold at a reasonable price, getting units bulk shipped from Hong Kong, working out duties and tariffs (solar products are duty-free but are subject to value-added tax), partnering with a Swedish NGO already established in the region of Zimbabwe targeted, and bringing schools into the mix as partners and beneficiaries, Ntuli said. He’s also working with Rotary Clubs and other civic organizations in Maine to get support for Light Zimbabwe.

Ntuli relishes the resources available in the liberal arts environment. “Even though I’m a physics and geology major, I can walk up to any econ major, even professors, and ask questions,” he said. Whether it’s economics or web programming, “I can get a free consultation.

“They have really good ideas.”