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A tale of 2 million

Richard Turner


When you’ve done something once you’d think it would be easier the second time around. SolarAid has just reached its second million for solar lights distributed in Africa

The first solar light was sold in Kenya in 2008, the first million reached in April 2014, six years later. We celebrated with our supporters that achievement too and to this day I love watching the film we created. The second million took a further five years. But my reflection is the second million has been much harder.

So what enabled SolarAid to reach this latest milestone despite the difficulties? The answer is simple. It was those who continue to support us. Hence our new film celebrating our second million pays homage to just that.

But why was reaching this second million such a hard slog?

In 2015 something extraordinary happened, the solar light market in Tanzania, where SolarAid’s social enterprise had distributed nearly a million solar lights, took off. It exploded into life.  Now every local entrepreneur in every village got the value of solar lights. SolarAid had created the tipping point. In effect, it also put us out of business (but, hey isn’t that the goal of every charity – to put itself out of business!?).

It was a bold decision to close our operations down in Tanzania. We were no longer needed there. The same situation has followed in Kenya and Uganda, each becoming the fastest growing market for solar lights. SolarAid had played a part in creating and catalysing those markets.

Withdrawing from Tanzania, Kenya and then Uganda hit us hard. At the time the market took off in Tanzania our revenues from the sales of solar lights in these fast-growing markets via the social enterprise had outstripped our income from fundraising.

However, donations of all sizes and fundraising feats enabled SolarAid to adapt and continue to get lights to places that are harder to reach. This meant SolarAid could continue to invest more in ways to reach people that the market is failing to reach.

Now SolarAid focused on countries like Malawi, one of the poorest countries in Africa, and landlocked Zambia. Each with their own unique challenges. Reaching communities in such locations and levels of poverty wasn’t going to easy.

So, for reaching this second million we really do have supporters to thank – for helping SolarAid redouble its efforts, and continue to be bold and brave.

Since that first solar light sale over 10 years ago, we have seen the solar light industry grow across Africa, with some enterprises helped by the creation of the market by pioneers such as SolarAid. Yet millions remain beyond the reach of the market.

And that’s where SolarAid will continue to focus its energy.

You see SolarAid can do what other businesses can’t – because of its supporters it doesn’t have to deliver a profit. And we can think in a way other charities generally don’t – like a business. The result is like solar energy at the source of all we do, a sustainable solution. Instead of beneficiaries, we have customers who have rights – the power is with them. As a customer, they can get their light replaced if it stops working. And, of course, this approach spreads quicker than handouts of aid.

I’ve no doubt the next million will be even harder. It will take even more effort to reach people currently left behind. But then it will be appreciated even more by those who are able to light their home for the first time, with a new generation born into safe clean light. And now, after two million lights, we have so much learning to share. A further million shining lights will come not just from SolarAid but other, larger, and smaller charities, social enterprises, businesses applying our tested approach and benefitting from our insights. We are already seeing the first signs of this with Oxfam piloting SolarAid’s SunnyMoney way approach in Sierra Leone, and working with a local partner, Elle Solaire in Senegal.

The next million solar lights reaching families and communities from SolarAid will lead to many millions from others. And it needs to if we are to reach all of those left behind in the dark.

If you have supported SolarAid in some way, thank you. Thanks a million. Again. 

– Richard Turner, Chief Fundraiser