Two weeks ago I found myself sitting in a meeting that I think signalled the end of the kerosene lamp in Africa – a meeting and result we would have only dreamed of just five years ago.

Back then SolarAid was in the middle of making a break-through which would position us as one of the trail-blazers in bringing cheap, clean energy to ordinary families across rural Africa – and we were doing it with an unusual model of an international NGO, both owning and giving life to a deeply ambitious social enterprise, SunnyMoney.

Our goal was to bring an end to the kerosene lamp in Africa – an expensive, dangerous and dirty source of wholly inadequate light used in over 100 million homes in rural Africa – and because we were established by the unique backing of one of the leading commercial solar companies in Europe, Solarcentury, we knew the solution simply had to exist. 

Image from SolarAid

Since then we have sold over 1.7 million portable solar lights, reaching over 10 million people with operations, in just five countries in Africa. Having found out that 90 per cent of our customers are living below the poverty line on a subsistence income of less than $1.25 a day, we are committed to ‘last-mile distribution’ supporting us in becoming the fastest growing and largest seller of solar lights on the continent. In parallel, we built policy and research functions designed to influence and support the whole last mile renewable energy sector as it developed.

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Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, we are widely credited with catalysing country-wide markets in Tanzania and Kenya, paving the way for dozens of new entrants to launch solar-related energy initiatives and in the process, increasing our impact many times over.

The ‘off-grid’ energy sector is well and truly on the march. As well it should be. Grid power will simply not reach many millions of people in Africa – and for those it can reach, it will only do so in the next 30 to 50 years with the yet to be seen massive investment it requires. To stand-by and wait for this to happen would be to miss whole generations – men, women and children whose lives could be transformed by access to energy.

Image from SolarAid

Alongside this launch, on the very next day, a raft of off-grid initiatives from the White House were announced – all very much in tune with Energy Africa – and both of them very much in support of the global Sustainable Energy For All initiative and the new energy Global Goal.

Much to applaud then. But as I had my own internal celebration, I also had two apprehensions.

The first is that there is great risk in forgetting that it is the first watt of power brought to a family living well below the poverty line that is the most transformative – this encompasses the majority of the 600 million people currently living in Africa without access to electricity. There is understandable excitement of the evident possibilities of pay-as-you-go small home systems and mini-grid technology development and many other future developments besides – but it is crucial that pico-solar remains part of the mix – that is to say small portable solar lights which not only offer a better, cheaper light source but very often now also charge mobile phones. Buying an ‘entry-level’ light starts a family on the ‘energy ladder’.

They can take the very first affordable step, begin to save money, build trust in the technology, use their savings for other important household expenditure – like food, seeds for planting, school books – and then consider the next step on the energy ladder; buying larger lights or small home systems and ultimately buying higher levels of energy provision to power TVs and fridges.

Image from SolarAid

In exactly this way, we know we have helped change the lives of over 1.5 million families already. And on a more macro level this has also meant that whole markets have been created. We were very deliberately creating a slip-stream in which other solar companies and NGOs could and have followed.

It is the consequence of this that led to my second apprehension. I found myself rueing the practical repercussions of being a trail-blazer. What happens when you are the victim of your own success but the job is far from done?

Along with catalysation of the markets in Tanzania and Kenya came increased competition – and most damaging of all a flood of cheap low quality rip-off products many of which last barely a few weeks. As a result sales in our two biggest markets fell off dramatically causing us all kinds of problems. Due to this, we are going through some very painful re-structuring and having to make some very hard decisions in response to a fast-moving market and severe cash restrictions. 

Image from Steve Woodward

The two things we have learned at SolarAid is that in such a fast-moving environment, you must always stand prepared to rip up your business plan and start again.

We did that once before – five years ago – which then saw us become incredibly successful and with that in mind, are in the middle of taking a very hard look once again. The second is that every organisation must constantly check alignment of its goals, the models and approaches they use and the money and resources they can mobilise. 

We have seen that what has served us well for a number of years is no longer quite working. So much of our re-thinking is ensuring we get this right in the face of new realities and continue to serve our customers (not beneficiaries) as best we can.

As I prepare to leave SolarAid to start my next big adventure I know there are some very exciting years ahead. SolarAid and SunnyMoney remain utterly relevant to what is needed – reaching into that ‘last-mile’ and opening markets for the good of all. Much of the recent activity in Africa has been concentrated in five to six countries – there are another 45 to 50 countries in sub-Saharan Africa which must now also see the benefits of everything that we and many others have learned and are capable of doing.

For all the recognition along the way, by far the biggest reward has been working with a committed and passionate team – and knowing, absolutely knowing, that each and every single light we have sold has brought enormous benefit to each one of the families who made the decision to invest with their own money. In many ways they are leading the way – and we must follow.

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