SolarAid’s CEO, John Keane, shares his thoughts after a month in the role.

It’s good to be back. I’ve been getting all the usual ‘déjà vu’ experiences that you might expect someone to have when returning somewhere after a year or two away. I expect that feeling to continue for a little while yet. It’s also fair to say that SolarAid has changed quite a bit over the years – but there are a few things which haven’t changed, the most important one being… the reason we were set up in the first place.

So what’s happening at SolarAid?

Well, I took the helm last month, taking over from our founding chairman, Jeremy, who stepped in for almost a year when Nick had to step down for personal reasons. A big thank you from team UK to both and also to our teams working hard across Malawi, Uganda and Zambia, often in typically challenging conditions.

The good news…

The good news is that more and more people are using the low cost SM100 light and all our teams have been expanding their solar product offerings to increase energy access. We have also seen some promising progress with our Pay As You Go work in Malawi, enabling people to purchase solar lights and chargers in more affordable instalments.

We have also been continuing our engagement with trusts, foundations and companies who we partner with and support our work. There are some very promising developments in that space which we’ll share when we can. We’ve also just returned from good strategic discussions with Yingli Namene Solar with whom we co-developed the SM100 light.

In the meantime, I’ve been particularly humbled by our individual supporters who continue to contribute and take time to share the importance of our mission with others. Thank you. I am looking forward to meeting as many of you as I can as we move forward.

The less good news…

The less good news comes when I think about the challenges we are facing, both as an organisation and also in the broader sense of the mission.

At an organisation level, there are numerous challenges our teams face as they carry out our work: For example:

  • There have been two road accidents in Uganda recently and another in Malawi and numerous break downs in Zambia.
  • We have also seen various import duties and tariffs introduced in Uganda which increase the cost of solar lights
  • We have seen significant delays in bringing lights into Zambia due to industrial action in Tanzania.

There have also been two fatal fires caused by candles that I know of in Zambia and Malawi since I started back just a few weeks ago which are reminder of the everyday reality we are trying to change.

This brings me to the broader challenges in the ‘global community’ and has made me take a step back to look at the scale of the problem we are trying to solve.

As our teams work across Uganda, Malawi and Zambia, and as we look to the wider continent where there remain 600 million people without access to electricity, I actually find it embarrassing that lack of electricity access is still a thing. It shouldn’t be.

I actually find it embarrassing that lack of electricity access is still a thing…

In 2011, we felt that people should not have to burn kerosene or candles as their main source of light and we challenged ourselves to ‘Eradicate the kerosene light from Africa by 2020.’ We set a deliberately ambitious goal, as frankly, it’s simply unacceptable for more generations of children to grow up without access to basic levels of clean, safe lighting and electricity.

frankly, it’s simply unacceptable for more generations of children to grow up without access to basic levels of clean, safe lighting and electricity

As we reach the end of 2017, it’s fairly safe to say that the likelihood of achieving the goal by 2020 really is impossible. That saddens me. But, it is this very same goal which brought me back to SolarAid. I genuinely believe that we can still achieve this, albeit in a longer timeframe and through working on new innovative models.

While there are a growing number of companies now offering off grid energy solutions, I am yet to meet anyone who believes that access to electricity will be universal across Africa in our life times. It is also fair to say that it will be the world’s poorest people, living in the hardest to reach places, who will be left behind. This brings me to Sustainable Development Goal 7. The UN has set a goal to:

Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all – by 2030.

I like this goal. We’ve got 13 years… plenty of time… right? Well… no. I do not believe that business as usual will achieve this goal. Indeed, we have to assume that SDG7 will not be achieved. That is an unacceptable situation.

I have two daughters, aged 3 and 5. In 2030, they’ll turn 16 and 18. Everyone tells me that ‘Time will fly.” “They’ll grow up before you know it.” I know that’s true. It’s also true that without more of the world’s focus, resource and money, millions of children will still be reading by kerosene and candle light in 2030. I wouldn’t let my children do that. It’s far too dangerous, not to mention the strain it’d put on their eyes.

It shouldn’t be this way. No child should have to turn to fire, simply to be able to see at night.

No child should have to turn to fire, simply to be able to see at night.

It will happen again tonight, however, and every night for decades to come – and the results can be tragic. Try googling ‘fire candle Malawi’ or any country in sub-saharan Africa and you’ll see what I mean.

My first priority at SolarAid is to build a war chest to fight this reality. The mission to eradicate kerosene lighting from Africa does not deserve to be fought on a shoe string. Teams Malawi, Uganda and Zambia – we’ll get you those vehicles you need. Together, we’ll continue to innovate and reach more people.

Solar lights, and finding innovative ways to create access to safe power and lighting, are the solution. In an instant, the risk of fire is gone. I let my children play with solar lights. All parents should have that opportunity. We need to ensure that no one gets left behind.

John Keane
Chief Executive Officer
SolarAid and SunnyMoney