Solar for Africa Blog
Small solar lights are set to transform the way rural Africa lights up its homes in much the same way mobile phones have transformed the way people communicate. This site is all about this solar revolution which is taking place…right now.

Jul
18

The Sierra Club and the Center for American Progress (CAP)  have just launched the world premiere of their video series, “Harnessing the Sun to Keep the Lights on in India.”

With 400 million people lacking access to electricity in India, off grid solar is presented as a key solution. Just as mobile phones have leapfrogged the need to extend landline phone networks across India, solar is set to leapfrog grid electricity to meet some of the immediate energy needs of this vast off grid population.

Sierra Sun Video

This video is part of a series which documents the health, economic, and environmental benefits to local communities living in Uttar Pradesh, India, a rural, low-income, off-the-electric-grid region that is rapidly becoming a hotbed of solar activity.

 

Jun
12

In March this year SolarAid celebrated one million solar lights in Africa and whilst there is still much to do, I used this milestone to take a moment to look back and reflect. 13 years ago I was living in rural Tanzania. Uhomini village was my first experience of Africa and I lived next door to a family of six, who lived in a very basic, two roomed house which was always full of children. One of those children was a small boy called Festo, who came to visit me every day for months on end – you can see him pictured with his cousin opposite.

Uhomini village in 2001

Festo (left) wearing my hiking boots in Uhomini village, rural Tanzania  in 2001

It was in Festo’s home that I became all too familiar with the kerosene lamp, the dangers of burning these lights in small houses with children around and the poor quality of lighting they provided. Not to mention the distance villagers had to travel each time they needed to buy another litre – for it wasn’t sold in the village itself.

When I left Uhomini, Festo was a small boy of 4. As I walked away from the village it struck me that while the rest of the world was changing quickly, the kerosene lamp in his house would remain. When I returned to visit his family a few years later, it was just as I had suspected. Festo was growing up and now at school, but the kerosene lamp was still burning. I asked myself, would this be any different if I came back in another few years? What about in ten, or fifty years?

It was the answer to that question that spurred the beginnings of SolarAid, and it was an answer that I couldn’t accept. With the belief that no one should have to risk their life or drain their income to light their home at night we got to work. This belief has driven us to where we are and it is still what motivates me today. Our social enterprise SunnyMoney is building a sustainable solution to eradicating the kerosene lamp, by making solar lights available and affordable in rural communities across Africa.

It took over six years to sell our first million solar lights, but we intend to achieve the next million in just 12 months. It’s important to me that we do not let these numbers lose their meaning and I can’t help but think back and wonder: what is lighting Festo’s home today? I haven’t visited Uhomini since 2009 so I don’t know the answer, but I know there’s still work to be done, with over 110 million households living without electricity across Africa. That translates to alot of children just like Festo.

 

Revisiting Festo and Uhomini village in 2009

Revisiting Festo and Uhomini village in 2009

If we want to achieve our goal we need to grow, and fast. So my job over the coming years is to take our work into new countries, and next on the list is Uganda. Known as the Pearl of Africa, it is a beautiful country with plenty of sunshine ready to be harnessed into clean energy. Currently, only 4% of the rural population have access to electricity, with many families spending up to 25% of their income just to light their home.

Breaking this cycle of poverty is a huge challenge but our solar customers save $70 a year on average. Our research shows that they mostly invest this in better food, costs of education and improving their livelihoods. So it is easy to see how one little light could have a phenomenal impact on the lives of families in rural Uganda.

As I look back on my time in the village of Uhomini and wonder what Festo uses to light his homework at night, I am also looking ahead to a time when no family in Africa has to depend on kerosene. It is, afterall, the 21st century.

You can find out more about our work at www.solar-aid.org

Apr
11

I’m thrilled to announce the release of my book:

PICO-SOLAR ELECTRIC SYSTEMS: THE EARTHSCAN EXPERT GUIDE TO THE TECHNOLOGY AND EMERGING MARKET30 Book cover

                           You can order it HERE

                      (Please share and retweet!)

Pico-solar electric systems are a category of small solar systems, revolutionising off-grid communities in developing countries and increasingly common in urban centres as a means to charge low power appliances from mobile phones and lighting to digital bus stops.

The book covers a wide range of subjects and will be of particular interest to Social Entrepreneurs; NGOs and development workers; Business, social science and technical students; Manufacturers; and anyone interested in how pico-solar can quickly and effectively reduce reliance on fossil fuels and tackle poverty at the same time.

Below is a quick snap shot of some of the topics includes in the book:

  • A comprehensive overview of this cutting-edge technology and an in-depth analysis of the growing market and the increasing array of devices which can be powered by pico-solar (it’s not just LED lights and mobile phones!)
  • An overview of the rapidly evolving technology and the increasing array of small electronic devices which can be powered by pico-solar systems
  • Guidance on how to care for, maintain and repair systems as well as what to look for when choosing which system is right for you
  • The socio-economic and environmental benefits of pico-solar systems – such as how electric light can improve education and health and safety conditions as well as contribute to local and national economies.
  • Selling pico-solar at the base of the pyramid (BoP): With a focus on the challenges facing the sector and insights into how companies are finding solutions so that they can effectively reach and serve customers living without electricity access at the BoP.
  • Case studies of enterprising and pioneering organisations across the world – including Greenlight Planet and Orb in India and Fosera and SolarAid’s SunnyMoney in Africa
  • Future trends in this fast moving and rapidly growing sector

Special thanks to

  • Kat Harrison who wrote a chapter on the social impact of pico-solar systems (Check out her great blog Sunrise Kat
  • Solar expert and pioneer Mark Hankins for permitting reuse of materials from his book Stand Alone Solar Electric Systems
  • Series Editor Frank Jackson
  • Many more (who I thank in the book itself!)

Thanks

John

 

Apr
04

As we celebrate achieving 1 million solar light sales across Africa, now feels like a good time think a little about how this incredible milestone has been achieved.

In truth, there is no single reason. Instead, there are many ingredients. If forced to summarise in a few bullet points (that’s what blogs are for – right?), I’d say the ingredients are:

  • Unbelievable supporters who always believed in us
  • Unwavering commitment and self-belief of our teams (Thanks guys)
  • Appetite to try, fail and learn
  • Not being afraid to disregard the ideas that don’t quite work
  • When something starts to work, adopt it, adapt it, evolve it, replicate it and focus
  • Ever improving value of the solar lights we sell
  • A bit of luck (but ya make your own luck…right!?)

I have learned an incredible amount on this journey, from the very first light we made…which you can see here (yes we have it on video!) to the celebration of reaching a million, which you can see here.

We’ve had plenty of challenges over the years and I (and everyone at SolarAid and its social enterprise SunnyMoney) will continue to learn, as the journey towards eradicating the kerosene light from Africa continues. But so long as we stick to the bullet points above, I know that it won’t be too long before we’re celebrating our next million.

Thanks to everyone for believing – it’s a dream come true.

John

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mar
05

Some great pictures which our SunnyMoney team in Tanzania sent through recently. They show how challenging it is to reach certain rural populations with solar lights. Our teams across Kenya, Malawi and Zambia will also recognise this sort of terrain!

SunnyMoney Tanzania in Action

SunnyMoney Tanzania 2

SunnyMoney Tanzania 1

SunnyMoney Tz Mud

Oct
14

A couple of weeks ago, SunnyMoney, SolarAid’s social enterprise, sold its 700,000th solar light in rural Africa. Incredibly, over 75% of these (532,368 to be exact)  have been sold in the last 12 months. We’ve done some sums, and that equates to a solar light reaching a new customer every minute.  Quite extraordinary really.

All credit to our teams in Tanzania, Kenya, Zambia and Malawi who have been busy doing all the hard work.

From where I am sitting, it is clear that the future of solar lighting in Africa is (pardon the pun), bright. More and more quality solar lights and chargers are reaching consumers across the continent every minute of every day. Each light has a positive impact and means people no longer have to wait years for an electricity grid which may never come, just to light up their home.

But don’t take my word it.  SolarAid has just published a report which looks at the the impact owning a solar light has on an average family in Africa. You can download the Impact Report here and find our more at www.solar-aid.org/impact/

Impact Report Cover

Here are a  few highlights from the report which explain what owning a solar light can do:

Saves people money: Saving the average family $70 a year in reduced kerosene use; savings are commonly spent on food, school costs and farming inputs,

Improves health conditions: Seven in ten solar light users notice better health of their family members.

Improves education: Enabling and motivating children to study for an extra hour an evening; teachers notice improved attendance, concentration and performance,

Reduces CO₂ emissions: By up to 300kg a year per household thanks to reduced kerosene use.

So yes, it’s true,  little solar lights do a great job of having a big and positive impact on the people they reach. What this space for more updates on our progress.

Jun
21

We’ve been lucky enough to win two prestigious awards in the past few weeks:

  1. Google’s Global Impact Challenge 
  2. International Gold at the Ashden awards

At the same time, our teams have continued the great momentum we have with solar light sales in Africa. We’ve now topped half a million sales and, incredibly, over 20% of these have been in the past two months….and the truth is, we would have sold even more in May, but we ran out of stock!

Just want to say, ‘Huge thanks and very proud of all our staff.’

Watch a great video about our work here!

SunnyMoney Video

 

 

Apr
26

This blog is about how setting up SunnyMoney in 2011 as a social enterprise (owned by the charity SolarAid) has enabled us to have more social impact in the last 6 months than we had in the previous 6 years. Interested? Read on:-

In 2006 SolarAid was established with the vision ‘to create a world where everyone has access to clean, renewable energy.’ Anyone who knew us at this time, knew that we were a small, motivated bunch of people who were ready to put in whatever hours it took to kickstart a range of projects all aimed at  providing as many people as possible with access to electricity.

We worked hard. We believed in our mission, we believed that we could make a real difference and we convinced others to join our cause. Within about 18 months, we had secured funding which enabled us to set up operations in five countries – Malawi, Tanzania, Zambia and Kenya. We also set up a pilot project in northern Argentina. Our goal was to bring solar lights to rural schools, clinics, community centres and the everyday man on the street.

Between 2006 and 2011, SolarAid brought solar light to 415 rural schools, clinics and community centres reaching tens of thousands of people. That was a lot of work… the teams that we built know how much work. During this time, we also tried many, many, different strategies all aimed at bringing thousands of small solar lights (pico-solar lights) to rural populations. Our goal was to keep trying new strategies and adapting our models so that we could find the most effective way to reach as many people as possible.

Reaching people – that’s what donors were paying us to do and –driven by our social mission and our desire to make a difference we managed to sell 60,000 pico-solar lights between mid 2006 and early 2012.

Did I say this was all a huge amount of work and that I was proud of what we were doing? I loved my job as Head of Programmes at SolarAid and we were bringing solar power to the people. What more could you want? Well…proud though we were, we also knew that we were not even scratching the surface with 1.6 billion people living without access to electricity.

So…ever the optimists… we set ourselves a mission to ‘Eradicate the kerosene light from Africa by the end of this decade.’

Take it from me – this meant one thing: We had to do more of what was starting to work well for us and less of what was not. This meant setting SunnyMoney up as social enterprise – albeit still owned and funded by SolarAid. My job title changed too… to Managing Director of SunnyMoney.

This year, SunnyMoney exceeded its target to sell 312,000 lights, selling over 338,000. Most of these were sold in the last 6 months. That’s a big scale up…

I’ve started to tell people ‘Hey….do you know what? We’ve probably reached more people and had more of a social impact in the last 6 months than we had in the previous 6 years…and we worked really, really, hard in those first 6 years.’

So why am I writing this blog?   Well…

Partly  just to reflect – ‘Wow. What a journey so far.’

Partly to say ‘Thank you to everyone who has supported us and worked so hard for us over the years. You know who you are!’

Partly to let you know that ‘We plan to sell over 650,000 lights this year…now that we’ve found the right model to reach people, we’re not stopping now!’

And partly to say….‘Our teams actually told us that they are capable of selling over 1 million solar lights this year’….But we had to turn around and say….’Sorry. No can do. It’s simply beyond our budget right now.’  That kills me. A million solar lights in Africa in just one year…think of the impact that would have…. A million houses all lit up. Children studying. Parents reading, chatting, seeing…not breathing in kerosene fumes. A million households being able to save more money.

This is not an appeal. It’s a statement.  But if anyone does say to me…’I want to give money to a cause that will have a quick, direct and positive impact on peoples’ lives…’ or ‘I don’t want to give to a large organisation where it won’t be clear to me if my money will have a direct impact…I want it to be well spent,’

I’d say…. ‘You’re talking to the right people at the right time. We can help.  We’ve found a way to have 6 years worth of impact on peoples’ lives in 6 months :) 

Mar
01

The BBC has just featured our work on Newsnight. In the short video below, you’ll see for yourselves what a difference a small solar light can make. You can’t help but be inspired after watching it….

SunnyMoney SolarAid Newsnight

Hear more about the work we do on Radio 4′s upcoming programme, Costing the Earth.

Mar
01

We’re thrilled to say that BBC Radio 4 are covering the work of SunnyMoney in their upcoming ‘Costing the Earth’ radio programme ‘Electrifying Africa: Beyond the Grid,’ which will be broadcast on Tues 5 March  at 15.30 GMT and again on Wed 6 March  at 21:00 GMT.

Click on the photo of our very own Solar Roller below for more information!

Electrifying Africa Beyond the Grid

Feb
14

Following on from the Myth of Electrification post….

Last week I spent time in western Tanzania in the regions of Mwanza and Shinyanga, visiting our teams there who are selling a phenomenal amount of solar lights at the moment.

As with many of Tanzania’s main roads, the road between Mwanza and Shinyanga is, for the most part, lined with electricity pylons. But if you take a closer look, the number of households connected to electricity is minimal. It is far more common to see electricity lines passing over houses, rather than connecting to houses…and that’s houses on the main road. Why? Because it costs alot to connect, once connected there are expensive bills to pay and…power cuts are frequent. Not surprising then that some of the houses in these picture have opted for solar.

IMG_4278

We passed  thousands of houses just like this between Mwanza & Shinyanga, located right below power lines

As for houses not on the main road in rural areas…well, it’s not rocket science. The likelihood of being connected to the electricity grid is close to zero. Actually, it’s less 2%.

I won’t win any awards for these pictures (lots more on Flickr), but hopefully they serve a purpose to further highlight what a problem this is. You can bet your life that all the homes shown use candles and kerosene on a regular basis. Not surprising then that our teams are seeing such a demand for solar lights. It is, after all, the 21st century. We shouldn’t be forced to use kerosene or candles for some evening light.

IMG_4303

Imagine how dark it gets inside these houses even during the day without proper windows

IMG_4300

Many more pictures on Flickr

Jan
24

Great article from Evan Mills - The Myth of Electrification – LuminaNET.

This is so true. It is all too common for households across Africa to be located right next to power lines, but have no access to electricity. It’s often too expensive for households to pay the connection fee – let alone the monthly power bills.

Combine this with the fact that power supplies are unreliable and you start to see how big a problem much of the world is facing and why people are forced to rely on flame based lighting solutions…AKA Candles and Kerosene.

Pictrure taken form Evan Mills' blog

Dec
27

Here’s a short video about why Ian McEwan supports  SolarAid. Please share and then listen to the whole BBC Radio 4 interview here on 30th December at 7.55am & 9.25pm (UK times).

Ian McEwan on SolarAid

Click here to help Crowdfund a Project!

Dec
13

In 2008, Nick Sireau (former director of SolarAid) and I got in touch with a design company in London called Therefore as, at the time, SolarAid was thinking about manufacturing a low cost solar light for the rural African market. Why is there such a need for light in rural Africa? This short video,  which shows what life is like in rural Tanzania after dark, should tell you all you need to know:

Life without Electricity Video

Not long after getting in touch with Therefore, the team of designers called us in for a meeting, told us they had given the problem some thought and then showed us a presentation in which they took us through the key components for a solar light… identifying the batteries and the solar panel as the two most expensive parts…

So they decided to take batteries and solar panels out of the equation to reduce the cost….then scratch their heads about what they could use to generate and store energy instead…..

And they came up with….Gravity.  Pure genius!

Fast forward to today and… Click on the photo and take a look:

Gravity Light

Good luck guys. The more quality lighting and energy solutions which can be developed for sale in the growing off grid energy market the better.

Nov
13

I’ve just come back from two weeks of paternity leave to the news that our SunnyMoney teams have just surpassed 200,000 sales of solar lights across Tanzania, Kenya, Malawi and Zambia. Well done guys – that’s a great achievement in 2.5 years.

What’s incredible about this however, as you can see from the chart below, is that two thirds of these sales, some 135,000 lights, have been sold in the last 7 months. 

Still a long way to go, but with continued hard work, our annual target of over 300,000 lights is in sight. Maybe I should go away on another two weeks of paternity leave to make sure we get there!

Oct
19

I’ve just seen this great photo taken by Steve Woodward from our SunnyMoney team in Zambia.

Headteacher of Chankhanda school, Zambia.

There are 58 solar lights on the back of this headteacher’s motorbike which he’s delivering to his local community. That’s alot of solar lights and alot people who are now using solar lighting as a result of this one, simple, bike ride.

Amazing when you think about it!

Motorbikes are becoming an increasingly common form of transport across much of rural Africa with more affordable bikes coming into the market from China. Perfect for transporting picosolar lights.

You can see more of Steve’s photos and updates from Zambia here!

Jun
07

Yesterday I joined the SunnyMoney Kenya team in Bomet District to see how they were getting on with their Student Lights Campaign, which is hoping to sell 1500 lights this week. It was great to see such enthusiasm for solar lights, with people stopping each other in the streets to show off and chat about their new products. I definitely had a moment yesterday when I saw that – it looked like a dream starting to come true.

Solar Roller rolls into Longisa

This visit coincided with me discovering a cartoon app on my new phone… So here are some snaps from the green hills of Longisa in Bomet, about 14 Kms and three river crossings off the main road, where we saw the team in action with the ever present Solar Roller (It still makes me smile that we made the Solar Roller a reality!)

Linda, Victor, Paul & Felix

And a shout out to the team in Tanzania (which has just recorded its highest number of sales in a month) and our teams in Zambia and Malawi, which have just launched their own student lights campaigns with ambitious targets (Beware my next visit with the cartoon app!)

Victor shows teachers how picosolar works

May
17

I’m sat on a plane right now typing this enroute to see the SunnyMoney teams in Malawi, Zambia, Tanzania and Kenya. Plane rides tend to give me time to reflect a little and I just feel the need to put this out there…

In 2006 SolarAid was born out of enthusiastic, like minded, volunteers in the UK and we installed our first solar system on a community centre in Malawi in 2007. You can imagine the momentum, the feel good factor, which circled around this installation! An idea was becoming a reality. It was simply – great.

Between 2007 and 2011, we then went on to grow from a team of two staff to having a team of around 50 people, running programmes across 5 countries and setting up SunnyMoney as SolarAid’s social enterprise to implement this work. (Alot of work, but a great deal of fun too!)

Here’s a couple of the reflections…the pause on this plane ride….

By April 2012, we’d:

  • Completed our 415th solar installation (which today light up rural schools, clinics and community centres across Malawi, Tanzania, Kenya and Zambia). That’s  tens of thousands of people now benefiting from access to electricity, improved education and health facilities…a better life.  We were so excited by just one installation … so I think you get the picture of how proud everyone who has made this possible over the years should feel. (You know who you are!)
  • Sold over 51,000 picosolar lights, which are now lighting up rural homes, each and every night making life better for hundreds of thousands  of people who no longer have to buy kerosene for light.   And here’s the thing … In March 2012, in one month, we sold over 12,000 solar lights … more than we sold in the whole of 2010/11. 

So yes….we’re scaling up. I am pausing again here. One light was exciting. 51,000 is…. Wow –  it’s been quite a journey!

But it does not stop here.  I’m relishing what comes next….

We’ve just put together plans to sell over 300,000 solar lights this year.  It will be truly amazing if we achieve this.  In fact, it’s my job, as the Managing Director of SunnyMoney, to make sure we do…so we’d better!  If we do achieve that, the sky really is the limit.

I hope whoever reads this is as excited as I am by all of this. This is not the usual hype you might get from any old company – I don’t think hype is actually my forte.

This is passion – because what we do really makes a difference and the more people who join this small, but growing sector, the better!

More posts from Malawi and Zambia soon…

Jan
15

Yes, I’ve discovered video editing software!

So here’s the first solar video I have  uploaded onto youtube, which I hope you’ll like. It’s shot in rural Tanzania, at my old neighbour’s house. Dancing in the dark

2012 here we come!

If it gets to 500 views by the end of Jan 2012, I’ll grow a mustache and post it on this blog :)

Apr
24

Hot off the press!

SunnyMoney is creating a new position ‘Expansion Coordinator’ to help us expand into new countries across Africa. This is a great position and an important one which will help us on our way to achieving our Big Hairy Audacious Goal – to eradicate the kerosene light from Africa by the end of this decade.

You can download the Job Description HERE and also via the SolarAid website.

Deadline is 16th May 2014.

 

Mar
21

SunnyMoney is expanding into new countries! Next stops: Senegal and Uganda.

We’re looking for two people who can do the outstanding jobs for us which our mission to eradicate the kerosene lamp from Africa by the end of this decade demands.

You can find the Job Descriptions for both positions at the links below.  The deadline for applications is 14th April.

Uganda Operations Director Opportunity

Senegal Operations Director Opportunity

Thanks John

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