Set an impossible goal to discover what you can really achieve. That’s the critical lesson SolarAid have learnt in the last 10 years.
SolarAid’s Chief Fundraiser Advisor, Richard Turner, reflects on the thin line between failure and success.
I remember the moment we set the goal to eradicate the kerosene lamp from Africa. As we walked out of the meeting, there was a photo of a man walking on the moon – a reminder of another ‘impossible’ goal. Coincidentally aligning with the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, SolarAid recently distributed its two millionth solar light in Africa. That’s two million solar powered lights shining in sub-Saharan Africa – impacting over 10 million lives.
Thanks to these lights, children can study after sunset, their parents can work into the night, families can simply socialise at night. They are no longer subject to the dangers that come with kerosene lamps, candles, or living in the darkness. What’s more, these lights have been sold at a fair market price, not given away. Selling lights is more sustainable than hand-outs of aid – and doing so creates a market, whilst putting the power in the hands of the customer.
A key moment on the SolarAid journey took place in 2010, on a tiny, peculiarly named island off the coast of Tanzania, Mafia Island. This is where something extraordinary happened and we had the first of many significant breakthroughs on the way to reaching two million solar lights. Back in those days, SolarAid were selling and distributing about three thousand lights per year in Tanzania, but on Mafia Island, three thousand lights were sold, in three days.
It turned out that the team had taken the initiative to promote the lights via schools. Teachers told the children, children told their parents, and solar lights sold like hot cakes. We were excited and then took the idea to the mainland of Tanzania – enthusiastically touring schools and promoting solar lights.
Unfortunately, despite our best efforts – we failed. I can still recall sitting on the slopes of Mount Meru dwelling on our disappointing results. What we quickly discovered is the thin line between failure and success and we made one small, but critical change. Instead of going out to the schools, we actually made the schools come to us. We asked the local district education authority to call all head teachers together. The head teachers then made a commitment to return to their respective schools and promote solar lights. Now the message didn’t come from a stranger – it came from trusted members of the community.
Solar light sales from that point went up exponentially and a core distribution strategy for our organisation was born. The ambitious goal we set at the start of the decade to eradicate the kerosene lamp from Africa was what pushed us through.
Since then, it has been a bumpy road, much like many of the roads in rural Zambia and Malawi, where we are now committed to getting lights out to what is often referred to as the ‘last mile’. However, on this bumpy road, some important supporters have stuck with us.
I remember the day in 2011 when we got an email from Richard Branson. Within hours of hearing about our ambition to eradicate the kerosene lamp from Africa he replied with three words, ‘Love the goal’. From that point on, Richard became a great advocate for spreading our story and helping reach so many others. His words continually encouraged us to stand by ambitious goal setting and gave us the entrepreneurial spirit to try, fail, and try again.
Having the courage to behave like entrepreneurs has enabled the SolarAid team to pursue ideas that at first struggled to take off. Failure is embraced, even studied, and we have been fortunate to find forward-thinking people and organisations willing to back us. It’s often through trying and failing that breakthroughs are made
We are proud to have helped produced the SM100 – one of the world’s most affordable quality solar lights. We have pioneered ‘light libraries’ – places where children can borrow a solar light to take home, the same way they would borrow a book. We have successfully trialled ‘pay as you go’ technology in communities – allowing families to buy their first solar light with small, affordable incremental payments of a few dollars. And recently, we have wired an entire village in Malawi by setting up a rental scheme to solar power homes. Each initiative has had failure along the journey to success.
Now we’ve got to two million want to finish the job. 600 million people in Africa are still living in the dark. Surely if we can take people to the moon, we can provide everyone on this planet safe clean light by the end of the next decade. We think that would be a sight from space worth celebrating. Are you with us?