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SolarAid Is a Winner in Google's Global Impact Challenge

Yesterday Google unveiled the winners of its Global Impact Challenge, in which four UK-based non-profits each received £500,000 (US$766,000) for their work in "using tech to tackle the world's toughest problems". Charity SolarAid was one of the four winners with its African pico-solar sales and distribution programme, SunnyMoney.

The Google award is “a massive, massive step change for us,” Pippa Palmer, SolarAid’s interim managing director, told Renewable Energy World.  With the award, SolarAid plans to trial, refine and disseminate a pilot model for a solar lighting distribution network, starting with a competition in Tanzania which will select 400 school leavers and set them up with “a business in a box” that includes training, support, a call centre and lead-generating campaigns, and aims to create “a whole new entrepreneurial generation”, says Palmer. SolarAid will also receive support from Google to help get its message out. The charity plans to expand into two more African regions this year, and has been invited by the World Bank to do a pilot project in Senegal where it will trial its “light libraries,” which allow students to borrow a solar light.

The Problem

Kerosene lamps are the most common form of lighting for the 598 million African people with no access to electricity – but they cost up to 20 percent of average household income. (Annual incomes in Solar Aid's working regions are $1070 in Zambia, $820 in Kenya, $530 in Tanzania and $340 in Malawi, according to UNICEF's 2011 data.) By contrast, SolarAid says, its solar lamps cost as little as $10, pay for themselves after 12 weeks and last for five years. The charity says its most basic solar lamp, made by solar lantern company d.light, costs approximately £5 ($7.67) for a customer to purchase, with a distribution cost of around £5 to get to the point of sale, depending on the country.

Kerosene lamps also emit toxic smoke. According to SolarAid, new research has shown that this particulate soot, or "black carbon", is a more serious environmental problem than previously realised. SolarAid says a single kerosene lamp emits up to one tonne of carbon over five years, and a four-year research project found that kerosene lamps are responsible for 3 percent of global black carbon emissions. The soot hangs in the air, reflecting sunlight and causing atmospheric temperature increases. And, of course, people breathe it – the World Health Organisation says the fumes inhaled from living in a house with a single kerosene lamp are equivalent to smoking 40 cigarettes per day.

The Solution

Working in Kenya, Malawi, Tanzania and Zambia, SolarAid has established SunnyMoney to catalyse the pico-solar market by setting up distribution channels and training people to sell and support solar lighting, rather than the traditional aid organisation model that simply subsidises or gives lights to people through a one-time grant, with no follow-on support. SunnyMoney has sold over 450,000 solar lights, according to SolarAid, and it is growing – the charity says it sold more lights in April 2013 than in the whole of 2011.

SunnyMoney is product-neutral, Palmer says, and works with a number of solar light suppliers. “We have a fair and progressive procurement process and a tech team of people who are constantly keeping up with solar technology developments,” she says. SunnyMoney’s suppliers are either registered with the IFC/World Bank programme Lighting Africa or in the process of being endorsed. Once a supplier has submitted a tender with product samples and specifications, SolarAid does its own testing and reports on the results. “We know what our customers want, and what works in the field and what doesn’t,” Palmer says. This drives innovation and improvement, she says, and helps to drive the industry and sustainable procurement practices.

SunnyMoney is already having an impact. In Kenya, SolarAid says, families with a solar light are reducing kerosene use by an average of 77 percent and saving £74 per year. In Malawi, 92 percent of solar lamp customers interviewed said their children are studying for two extra hours in the evening. The Google award will help take these results to the next level, Palmer says.

Looking to the Future

“When we first went to Africa we were thinking we’d build solar capability alongside [the pico-solar programme],” said Palmer. “But in rural Africa the grid will only ever reach 50-60 percent of the population – there’s no way you can connect or create mini-grids for such disparate rural communities. So we’re focusing on the 60 percent who don’t have or never will have the grid.” The next challenge for SolarAid is “to get these products that change the quality of life into the production lines and fit for purpose,” says Palmer.  “Pico-solar technology is moving so fast; our job is to drive it forward.” Lighting is a gateway technology, she says; once consumers believe in the consumer proposition of investing up front in technology, they’ll invest further in laptops, radios, tvs and solar refrigerators, which she said are currently being developed.

SolarAid already has “a fantastic amount” of support from the solar industry, Palmer said, including some major solar companies such as Yingli Solar, which set up an auction in support of the charity, and SolarCentury, a founding partner, and the charity is in talks with several other solar companies. “We need the support of the industry,” Palmer said. “We need people to spread the word, get involved, join us in this effort.”

Is the goal of eradicating the use of kerosene lighting by 2020 achievable? “It’s a little bit like when [U.S. President John F.] Kennedy said they’d land somebody on the moon,” Palmer laughs. “It was slightly absurd – but it got people thinking about ‘How do we scale this?’” This kind of goal “really focuses thought,” she said.

SolarAid’s seven-year business plan for SunnyMoney includes growth in each region, further rollouts and channel creation across territories. “If we grow and do this as we are laying it out, and others join the market – this is critical,” said Palmer. “We want to create frameworks and make it easy for others to be there – we want to create a level playing field rather than subsidising the market to the point where nobody else can play. When the world joins in – that’s when we’ll reach a tipping point and it will happen."

Lead image courtesy SolarAid

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Tildy Bayar is a journalist focusing on the energy sector. She is a former Associate Editor on RenewableEnergyWorld.com and Renewable Energy World magazine.

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