SolarAid’s retail brand SunnyMoney nears 900,000 solar lanterns sales, should pass a million c. May. What I saw:
JL e-mail to 3,000+ contacts: “Winning on climate change, as we all know, mainly means winning many small victories in a sustainable retreat from fossil-fuel use. Eradicating poverty similarly means winning many small victories in building resilience and prosperity. It’s a fortunate thing when projects combine the two, the way SolarAid’s retail operation SunnyMoney does. It’s even better when they hit tipping points early in their history: the picking of low-hanging fruit that can encourage us to dream of success in the bigger battles.
I have just toured the SolarAid / SunnyMoney field operations in three of our four African countries. Over the last nine days I believe I have witnessed a microcosm story that can offer us all hope of success in turning around the dire problems arising from fossil-fuel overdependency and inequity in our world.
I hope you enjoy my short account of what I saw. Many of you on this bcc list are helping, directly or indirectly, to breathe life into SolarAid’s dream of an Africa lit up by solar and free of kerosene, with all the snowballing social good that can do. You are too numerous to list, but you know who you are, and I hope you know that I am deeply grateful.”
Bumula district, Kenya, 3 February 2014
A crack-of-dawn flight from Nairobi, west to Eldoret. A SunnyMoney field team of three meets me at the airport, and we drive in a van nearly two hours further west, to Bungoma, a market town near the border with Uganda. Along the way, greenery; fields of maize, cropped; sugarcane, uncropped. This is the breadbasket of Kenya.
A street in that teeming town. The Wells Fargo depot: one of the booths in one of the concrete multi-shop facades with hand-painted signs, next to a wood yard. Every second shop seems to bear a green M-pesa logo. This pay-by-mobile brand has gone from nowhere to everywhere in the last ten years. A little of this kind of market penetration is what SunnyMoney will need, I reflect, if we are to hit our target of 50 million solar lanterns sold across Africa by 2020: the 20% market share that we figure will allow us to achieve our mission of ridding the continent of kerosene lanterns by the end of the decade.
We fill the van with freshly-delivered boxes of solar lights. Thirty boxes, ten lights apiece. I do a rough calculation. We have sold 500,000 in the last six months, across our four countries of operation. That’s 1,600 loads like this.
In the centre of town sits a huge Total filling station. We have seen several such along the way. Total is the second biggest seller of solar lanterns in Africa, after SunnyMoney, retailing from forecourts such as these. They also sell kerosene, so you could say they are hedging their bets. En route we passed the oil refinery that serves this region, dozens of tankers in a queue stretching away from it, sprawling along the roadsides, waiting to be filled with the derivatives of crude oil delivered by pipeline from Mombasa.
Further along the road to Uganda we turn right, and drive five bouncing miles down a red earth road, spewing dust behind us. We pass a school, seemingly miles from the nearest village, yet with several hundred shoolkids running around in identical green uniforms in a spacious dirt schoolyard.
How do they get to school, I ask Victor, team leader.
They mostly walk, he says, most of them many kilometres, starting off in the dark.
There are more than 120 schools like this just in the district we are in, Bumula.
We come to a the small town that gives the region its name. We park in a yard outside the Education Commissioner’s office. Eighty headmasters and headmistresses are gathered there in a meeting room.
This is our main route to market: via the education authorities, through the schools. We call it the SunnyMoney Way.
The Commissioner introduces us.
Our guests have a very useful story to tell, he says. I myself have already heard it from Victor. But before you hear it, let us all pray.
A headmaster chosen at random delivers a simple prayer, a set of thoughts about God and wisdom that both Christians and Muslims could easily sign on to.
Victor follows. He has clearly done this many times before. He walks the headteachers through three types of solar light: their benefits , their prices, how they can be ordered. He is a born salesman, working his audience a bit like a revivalist preacher. The head-teachers respond good naturedly. He jokes that once they taught him, and now look, he is teaching them. I hear a lot of laughter this morning.
And what is it called, he asks.
A Sun King Eco, they chant.
And what does it cost?
A thousand shillings.
And what does kerosene cost on average each year?
Five thousand shillings.
Are we together on this?
Yes, they shout.
I am asked to say a few words. I talk of my own experience of the benefits of solar lanterns. How the statistics on cost savings of solar versus kerosene fire-up rich donors to SolarAid, the charity that wholy owns SunnyMoney, the retail brand whose profits we are pledged endlessly to recycle, for social good. How the health impacts of kerosene – the fire deaths, the poisonings, the air quality illnesses – shocked me when I first learned of them. How proud and encouraged I felt when the first stories of rising grades in solar schools started coming through.
Finally, I say, there is a fourth and very important impact of solar lanterns. It is a connection to a bigger picture: the 25-year-long struggle of governments to deliver a treaty that can stop dangerous climate change by phasing out the burning of fossil fuels, like oil.
Burning kerosene for lighting is fully 3% of global oil use, I say. By working together in our different countries to phase out the kerosene lantern, people like us can create a microcosm to inspire others to phase out all fossil fuels. Please tell your students that together we can light a great big candle for hope in the world.
I stop short of Vincent’s tactic of grilling his audience like a headteacher grilling pupils. But I see a satisfying number of heads nodding.
The Commissioner sums up and thanks us. I will never forget his last sentence as long as I live.
He who brings light, he intones, brings…..
He holds out his arms in silent invitation.
Life!, they explode.
As the sun sets, a headmaster invites us to his home, a smallholding with a few cows and chickens, near his school. There is no electricity. His rooms are all adorned with solar lights of different types. He doesn’t use kerosene any more, he tells us.
His wife, also a teacher, brews tea. The water has come from the nearby river, the milk from the cows in the grass yard outside.
His neighbours live in group of three huts with mud-brick walls, rusted corrugated iron roofs, and packed mud floors, freshly swept.
In one of the huts we meet Prisca, a single mother with five children. One kerosene lantern offers a dim light that it would be impossible to read by, even right next to the filthy thing. All it does is pick out the shapes of the people in the hut.
Still, you can see why that would be so much preferable to the awful alternative: twelve hours of perfect backness every single night.
We ask how much she pays for kerosene. 180 shillings a week, she responds, sometimes more than 200.
She could pay off an entry-level solar lantern in six weeks with that, and then have free light, warrantied for two years, very likely to work for a good deal more.
She speaks of other problems with the lantern. She has developed asthma, and the doctor has told her it is from breathing the fumes.
We give her a solar lantern, saying it is a small reward for invading her privacy, and her kind hospitality. We give one for the each of the other two huts while we are at it.
Prisca claps her hands in delight.
Victor hangs the lamp from a rafter, and turns it on. She gasps in astonishment.
It is impressive. It is the first time I have actually seen the comparison in the field. The light from the solar-powered LEDS penetrates much further in the gloom than the light from the kerosene. And in the few metres closest to the lantern it is easily bright enough to read by.
Prisca gives a little speech of thanks. By the end of it she is wiping away a tear.
I have much enjoyed my day’s work today.
Cheptongwe, Kenya, 4 February 2014.
We drive two hours northeast of Eldoret, most of it crawling 30 km down a rutted red dirt road into low hills. The windows are up, but it is impossible to keep the dust out. My nose begins to clog. The dust smears make the land cruiser look as though it is rusting away.
We come to a village called Cheptongwe, two ranks of ramshackle concrete, mud brick, wood and corrugated iron buildings along the red road. Picturesque slopes of woodland and maize field rise on either side. At the far end of the village, we pull into a grass yard in front of a no less ramshackle building. This is the headquarters of the Chebiemit Division of the Kenyan Ministry of Education. Here we will deliver solar lanterns to headmasters and headmistresses who have placed earlier orders via the SunnyMoney call centre.
The Division chief is waiting for us, and takes us into his office. On the wall is a handwritten notice offering the Vision of the ministry that employs him. It makes an admirable read. “To have a globally competitive quality education, training and research for Kenya’s sustainable development.”
On his desk is a copy of Education News. “Top 1,000 schools in 2013,” the headline reads. Inside are articles with photos of star teenage pupils held shoulder high by proud parents.
All around me, amid the poverty, I see evidence of how seriously education is taken: how hard people are trying, amid the poverty.
Headteachers begin to arrive. Hudson of SunnyMoney distributes boxes and bags of solar lanterns from the open back doors of the land cruiser. A third of the heads have already paid, via M-pesa. Others bring cash.
Jamie, a funder travelling with us, disappears for a while, and reappears with a crate of Coca-Cola bottles, purchased from a concrete shack across the road. He disperses bottles to pleased headteachers as they queue. The logo-emblazened red plastic box is soon empty.
I look at it reflectively. Coca-Cola was the first company to crack distribution channels to a mass market in Africa. I have been trying to entice the giant corporation into some kind of partnership with SolarAid and SunnyMoney for a while now. The deal, as I pitch it, would be that they give us access to their channels, and we give them brand value-added because of the social good we can do with solar lighting.
No luck yet, but I continue to live in hope, and send occasional missives to Coca-Cola headquarters in Atlanta telling them as modestly as I can all about our progress.
Anyway, I tell myself, who knows, if we keep growing as we have these last six months, maybe it won’t be too long before they are wanting access to our channels.
Now the headteachers are being joined by ordinary citizens, wondering what all the fuss is about. Among them is the storekeeper from the Coca-Cola shack, dragged across the road by Jamie. The team are giving quick basic seminars in how the lights work. After only a minute of sales talk, the shopkeeper buys the most powerful model, a Sun King Pro able to charge a mobile as a well as light a room.
Jamie is thrilled. So that’s what you mean by upselling, he says.
The Kenyans laugh. But he is making a serious point. These deliveries do involve bigger and bigger models of solar lantern over time. As money is saved, and confidence in the product grows.
And crucially, our follow-up field research is showing that 83% of customers are recommending solar lanterns to friends. This is how it works. This is the SunnyMoney way.
Mumbwa, Zambia, 5 February 2014
Three hours out of Lusaka, along arrow-straight tarmac roads, Zambian Ops Director Sarah and I join a team of three SunnyMoney staff doing market research prior to a sales campaign.
We have lunch with them: stodgy white balls of ground-and-boiled maize and rubber-tough chicken. Washed down with Coca-Cola, of course.
I get to know them a little. They are all in their early twenties, not long out of university. Elizabeth, team leader, is from the Copper Belt. Blessings and Muyembe are from Lusaka. Each was picked from hundreds of applications for their jobs. They are softly spoken and full of smiles, yet ooze enthusiasm for their work.
They explain their mission. Each day they each interview twenty ordinary citizens on the streets and in the markets, and five traders dealing in electrical goods. The questionaire they use runs to 39 questions, covering every aspect of the interviewee’s consumption and spending, circumstances and preferences. They will do this for ten days.
I ask if anyone refuses to be interviewed. Rather the reverse, they say. People come up to them asking if they will be interviewed too.
Once the campaign starts, it will be nothing if not rooted in data, I observe. The sales targets will have some meaning.
Already patterns are becoming clear to them they say. For example, kerosene is not the competition here. It is cheap lanterns driven by non-rechargeable batteries. Many market stalls sell these. And the economics are horrific. People spend a small fortune on batteries. The payback on a solar lantern can be measured in weeks. Yet we see very few solar lanterns.
On a long walk through the bustling market after lunch, I see none.
I imagine this scene in countless towns all over Africa, all over the developing world.
We are going to change this.
For versions with photos in Kenya see here and here, and from Zambia here.
SolarAid’s retail brand SunnyMoney nears 900,000 solar lanterns sales, should pass a million c. May. What I saw: