Solar evangelist, Guardian writer and SolarAid chairman, Jeremy Leggett, is currently in Africa visiting the SunnyMoney teams. In 2006 Jeremy founded SolarAid in order to help establish clean energy alternatives in Africa. Over the next few days, Jeremy will be taking a closer look at our distribution and sales techniques that form the basis of the SunnyMoney Way. We will be publishing his insights and reflections direct from the field.
February 3rd 2014
A crack-of-dawn flight from Nairobi, west to Eldoret. ASunnyMoney 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 lanternssold across Africa by 2020: the 20% market share that we figure will allow us to achieve our mission of ridding the continent ofkerosene 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 sold500,000 in the last six months, across our four countries of operation. That¹s 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 ofcrude 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 shool kids 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 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 lights. How the statistics on cost savings of solar versus kerosene fire-up rich donors to SolarAid, the charity that wholly 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 lights. 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 Vincent¹s 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 a 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 blackness 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 light, 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 light, 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.