Shari Berenbach, late leader of the U.S. African Development Foundation. Photo by: USAID KDMD Project / CC BY-NC

Shari Berenbach was an advocate for innovation done well — and not just for its own sake.

Berenbach, who died this week of breast cancer, led the U.S. African Development Foundation, an independent U.S. agency that awards seed grants to African communities and entrepreneurs.

At USADF Berenbach championed imaginative ideas — solar-charged sharable motorcycles for food transport, rural cooling stations, umbrellas that shade kiosks while they charge cell phones. But with all of these, according to her colleagues, Berenbach invested not in things, but in the people with the skills to create them, their business acumen and local knowledge.

“Maybe our most important innovation is the energy entrepreneur.”

— Shari Berenbach

“Shari fearlessly led the Agency towards its mission of serving the most vulnerable communities in Africa with visionary approaches designed to address income disparity through entrepreneurial, African-led and managed solutions,” said USADF Chairman Jack Leslie.

Devex spoke to Berenbach a year ago at a summit to tackle Africa’s energy challenges.

Here are a few things she said from that conversation:

One of the things that’s really different about the approach that we’re taking is bringing energy entrepreneurs into the mix. They’re there to provide ongoing service, to continue to refine their product. They’re really making a business out of it.

A lot of the early days of the [Sustainable Energy for All] efforts really looked to NGOs to be the executors — or just anyone thinking that it’s the innovation that’s the answer. To us the real question is: who’s going to take that innovation and turn it into a viable, profitable, and potentially scalable business? And that, to me, is the one thing that USADF is trying to shine the light on.

At the end of the day, is somebody really turning that into a business? If somebody doesn’t turn it into a business that can be profitable and scalable, these things are just going to be around. And that’s what we see a lot, things that are just around.

A lot of my original work in the 1980s and 1990s was in the microfinance sector, and we had NGOs doing microfinance quite well. But it was only when people became serious about it being profitable — and then potentially scalable — and really bringing in serious management that you saw these things overcome.

You have to really be thinking about the ecosystem that entrepreneurs need to really be successful. Then the intention is to be able to do a lot of financial packaging and structuring to link these into really investable deals.

So maybe our most important innovation is the energy entrepreneur.

Read more international development news online, and subscribe to The Development Newswire to receive the latest from the world’s leading donors and decision-makers — emailed to you FREE every business day.

About the author

  • Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.