I’ve taken a recent interest in Goal Zero. For those that don’t know, they make what I consider to be the best consumer solar products in the world. Their gear is super rugged, ultra-reliable, expertly engineered and fairly priced. I was further drawn to them as a company because of the story of their founder, Robert Wrokman who got into the solar business as a way to help folks in DRC, Africa who were struggling without power. His heart for the less fortunate and his willingness to get directly involved inspired me and on that level I very much related to what he was trying to do.
Last year, I was visiting my son in Salt Lake City Utah, and I was searching online for Goal Zero retailers and I was stunned to discover that Goal Zero was based in Salt Lake and thrilled when I realized that they had a factory store. I made a bee-line for the factory and in the weeks that followed I stopped by nearly a dozen times. Each day, they would release different refurbished products into the store at 50% – 70% off the retail price. As I loaded up on gear to help us with our work in Uganda, I got to know Chris, and many of the other Goal Zero employees. Each employee was super-friendly, very knowledgeable and every single one of them loved their job. More than that, they were passionate about what they were doing. It was infectious. I was already in love with their products, but I was drawn to the culture that is Goal Zero.
As I spoke with folks in the factory store, they inevitably asked what I was doing with the gear I was buying. I told them about our work in Uganda, from the Computer Training Center to the hackerspace and everything in between. I told them about our poor power and how the technology work we were doing was transformative, changing lives and we needed a way to extend our training times and hours with more reliable power, especially since many of our students traveled a long way to get free training and power outages are extremely debilitating, forcing students to return to their homes (sometimes at great expense) without training.
Discussion turned to Goal Zero stepping alongside us to help with donations.
I’ve had this kind of interaction dozens of times with dozens of well-meaning people from various walks of life in various industries. Folks mean well but life happens and things get difficult and very few of these discussions bear fruit. I’d say we have an “offer of donation completion rate” of about 2%. I’m not trying to be disparaging. The folks that offer to help, especially with gear destined for Africa are often stunned at how difficult and expensive it is to get stuff here. So while I appreciated the offer, and excitedly told my family about it, I didn’t have high hopes.
But a couple of months later, I was back in Uganda, having forgotten about the Goal Zero donation, I got an email from Dave at Goal Zero. After introducing himself, he asked various questions about what our needs were, and what we were looking to accomplish. He shot back a list of products he was thinking of sending, and my jaw dropped. Among the list were several lighting systems, a bank of four Boulder 90 solar panels and several levels of Yeti, including the 250, 400 and the flagship 1250 which I had seen in person at the factory but had written off for our work in Uganda because like the solar panels, they were far to heavy and bulky to check in as airline luggage. I was stunned to see the list contained not one but two 1250’s.. a 110v version and a 220v version.
I expressed my stunned appreciation, but I felt obligated to tell Dave how difficult this transaction would be. I told him about the corruption in the system, the possibility for exorbitant tax penalties, and the possibility of his shipment just vanishing. All this stuff happens, especially to people shipping for the first time who don’t have honest contacts. He blew it all off. He was insistent on getting the gear to us. We put together an airball, and built solar “systems” with panels, charge controllers and batteries (Boulders and Yetis) which can be imported tax-free. And just like that, Goal Zero made good on their offer to send us gear.
A few weeks later, I received a call that the gear was in Mombassa, Kenya. A few weeks after that, I got another call that the gear was in Entebbe, Uganda. And that was the end of the good news for a while. As it turned out, Goal Zero’s shipper put the wrong HS codes on the shipment, and all the equipment was to be taxed at a rate of approximately 56% of the invoiced value. The standing tax bill was $3700! To make matters worse, the shipment was in storage, racking up storage fees of something like 40 shillings per kilo per day. The longer we fought the system to get the shipment re-assessed as tax-free, the higher the storage fees would climb.
I had a dilemma. Goal Zero had been extremely generous, donating the gear but also paying the shipping charges. I could not go back to them and ask for the tax money, but we couldn’t afford to pay the taxes, storage, transportation and handling either, especially since we can only get $600 a day from the ATM machine and it was the beginning of the month, when all our rent, utility and salary payments are due.
I emailed Dave about what was going on, and he didn’t hesitate. He asked if we could clear the gear, in any way possible, and they would reimburse us.
I couldn’t believe what I was reading. This was an unbelievable gesture, and raised my already high esteem of the company.
We dug into our savings, hit the ATM machines as frantically as possible, strung out our rent, staff and utility payments as long as possible and contacted our clearing agent Ronnie who helped us with a palette of goods almost five years ago. It was a small miracle that he still worked at the airport.
And after months of effort, the gear finally arrived. It was all in excellent condition. None of the boxes were even damaged!
Needless to say, I am testament to the fact that Goal Zero is more than the “Apple” of solar design and engineering and leading manufacturer of consumer solar solutions. They are just plain good folks who are as passionate about their work as they are about helping make a difference in the world.
Hats off to all the folks at Goal Zero. You’re all pretty amazing.
If you’re in the market for world-class solar solutions, please check out Goal Zero!