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Innovators

Dale William

Project

Koinonia Foundation

80 Ottawa Ave. NW
Suite 101
Grand Rapids, Michigan 49503

Dale Williams and family spark ideas worldwide

Profit, sustainability, and social benefit are all equal in the eyes of Dale Williams and Andrew Williams.

This framework has helped them found three organizations: The Koinonia Foundation, GR8Lakes Essentials, and their partner charity, The Spark Foundation. These organizations have ignited a variety of innovative products such as the K-Light, a solar-powered lantern which has been used by teachers, entrepreneurs, and disaster relief efforts around the world.

After running a health clinic in Muskegon for twenty years, Dale Williams created a business selling medical equipment. The business generated great success and he eventually sold it to Stryker Corporation. A portion of the proceeds were used as an endowment for the Koinonia Foundation.

Founded in 1996, the Koinonia Foundation was inspired by humanitarian work conducted in Rwanda by Dale Williams and his son, Andrew Williams. During the Rwandan Genocide of the early 1990s, the Williams family worked in a refugee camp to aid fleeing victims.

“We helped a pastor work with the vulnerable, the elderly and people with disabilities,” said Dale Williams.

The mission of the Koinonia Foundation is to “save and enrich lives by fighting disease, advancing education and implementing clean and renewable energy sources.” A Greek word originating in the bible, koinonia means any group coming together for a common purpose.  At first, their goal was to improve education in Rwanda on a basic level.

“We needed to put computers in schools, (so we) set up a whole solar system to set up computers,” said Andrew Williams, current President of the Koinonia Foundation, “We would take a team (to Rwanda) to do all the panels, and we did about seven or eight schools.”

While working with schools, the Williams family started to notice the prevalence of kerosene lanterns. These kerosene lanterns were both a fire hazard and polluted heavily. Determined to improve upon the model, the Koinonia Foundation worked to develop a solar lantern. Dubbed the K-Light, the lantern is quickly becoming successful in both the developing and developed world.

“The lantern itself is perfect for so many people,” Andrew Williams said, “(It’s) a full solar system.”

On a full charge, the K-Light provides 10 to 20 hours of light depending on which brightness setting is selected; users can opt for a “full” or “half” brightness setting.  It can be charged with an automobile adapter, a power socket, or with an internal solar panel. The panel charges a nickel metal hydrate battery, which can also charge small appliances such as cell phones. A K-Light kit sells for a retail value of one hundred and ten dollars.

The lantern can be rotated to function as a flashlight or personal spotlight.  It can be used for anything from camping, recreation, personal emergencies, or global disasters situations. The Koinonia Foundation is in the process of shipping 10,000 K-Lights to the UNHRC efforts in the Philippines following Typhoon Haiyan. In November, the typhoon ravaged the Philippines, killing up to 5,000 and displacing over 4 million people. The lanterns will serve as key support instruments to aid the victims of the typhoon.

In addition to disaster relief, Koinonia Foundation has also used the K-Light as a tool to teach entrepreneurial skills. In 2009 Williams traveled with his family to Kungali, Rwanda to initialize a new K-Light Beacon Program. The goal of the Beacon Program was threefold: to empower single mothers, to teach them with entrepreneurial skills, and to allow them to profit financially from the experience.

“We don’t believe in charity,” Williams said. “We found that the most success we have seen is with entrepreneurial growth.”

The program gathered local women together to form a cooperative which was gifted K-Lights. The women were trained in a five-day seminar on entrepreneurship and business management. For Williams, it was crucial that he followed three basic rules for the Beacon Program.

“The lanterns were theirs, the cooperative was theirs, (and) the money was theirs,” Williams said. “We had no interference with their process, we (only) helped when asked and provided advice.”
Though Williams had high expectations, others did not.

“Everyone in the village (thought) the women would fail,” Williams said. “We had high expectations and they succeed every time.”

The women were able to sell all of the K-Lights and use the money to fund future ventures. The first group started a second-hand clothing and shoe store. Others have led to the development of sewing cooperatives, bakery restaurants, and even a pub.

“I cannot take credit for their success because we (stood) back,” Williams said.

Another new product championed by the Williams family is the SafeWick, a safety candle designed for the developing world. The candle comprises of a wick and a plastic piece to be used on the interior of a glass.

A glass is filled with water and a small portion of cooking or vegetable oil is added onto the surface of the water. The plastic piece is set on the surface of the water and the wick is placed inside a hole in the center. The wick absorbs oil from the surface of the water, using it as burning fuel. If the glass is knocked over, the water extinguishes the wick. It can produce up to 10 hours of candle flame.

The K-Light and the SafeWick are two of the increasing number of innovative products manufactured by the Williams family through their for-profit venture, GR8Lakes Essentials.

 “We have found this arena (of) products that are necessary in developing world, but are also a huge need in the West,” Williams said.

The partnership between their for-profit venture and foundation work provides the basis for the family’s social enterprise model.

“(We) believe profit, sustainability and social benefit are all equal,” Williams said. “Ten percent of profits of the company go to Koinonia Foundation for projects.”

In addition to the Koinonia Foundation and GR8Lakes Essentials, The Spark Foundation serves as a separate charitable branch of the Koinonia Foundation. Founded by Alejandra Portillo Taylor and Trayce Williams, the Spark Foundation provides solar-powered lighting to people who have little or no access to electricity. Part of their strategy is having teachers in United States sponsor lanterns for teachers in developing countries.

The Koinonia Foundation will soon be conducting a fundraising campaign to support their efforts in Africa, the Philippines and other countries around the globe. To learn more, visit www.kfaid.com.

Kevin Lignell is a community activist, globetrotter, and freelance writer for UIX Grand Rapids


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