Episode 6: Eureka moments and new directions

In this last episode of Permission to fail – where the importance of the mission is more urgent than ever – we ask ourselves – what now? Over the past five episodes we’ve been on a journey together, exploring the topic of failure and learning. We’ve listened to anecdotes from the people who have been there from the start, explored stories of both difficult times, and success. This episode is about new directions, and the future of SolarAid. In which ways has the sector changed over the past decade, and how have learnings from the past shaped the current direction of the organisation?

In this episode we will hear again from John Keane, SolarAid CEO, together with Jamie McCloskey, SolarAid Programmes and Partnerships Director. We will also hear from Dalitso Judith Kudala, Programme Coordinator at SolarAid in Malawi.

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Episode Guests

John Keane, SolarAid CEO

John Keane pioneered solar projects in Africa, focusing on developing energy solutions for low income households after living in rural Tanzania as a volunteer in 2000. Since helping SolarAid set up in 2006 he has held many positions in the organisations and has been SolarAid CEO since 2017. John wrote the sector defining book about the growing Pico-Solar sector in 2012 and has played an instrumental role in helping develop the solar sector across Africa. He is currently based in Zambia.

Dalitso Judith Kudala, Programme Coordinator at SolarAid in Malawi

Dalitso Judith Kudala joined SolarAid in 2019 when the organisation launched its innovation called “Project Switch” in Mandebvu Village, a small community in Kasungu, Malawi. She is currently working as Light a Village Programme Coordinator and has also played a big role in setting up and managing other Energy-as-a-service programmes across Malawi. She works closely with the rural communities in bringing affordable solar energy to low income households.

Jamie McCloskey, SolarAid Programmes and Partnerships Director

Since Jamie joined SolarAid in 2014 as a Proposal Writer and Researcher, he has held a number of positions. Being directly involved in pushing forward SolarAid’s Programmes and Partnerships strategy he currently holds the position of Director of this area. 


Jamie leads SolarAid’s programme design, measurement and management strategy – supporting the teams in Malawi and Zambia, while simultaneously leading the organisation’s strategic partnerships, which involve large grants, research, delivery and adoption in other geographies.


Prior to SolarAid, Jamie worked for an HIV policy organisation while also building his skills and knowledge for a career in African-based development.


Kirsty Adams: Hello and welcome to the final episode of the Permission to Fail podcast, powered by SolarAid. I’m your host, Kirsty Adams. By now, you should know SolarAid pretty well. It’s a charity which develops programmes for solar energy distribution in rural communities in sub-Saharan Africa. Let’s wind the clock back 20 years to the early days of SolarAid. Picture this they’re taking large solar panels, the kind you might imagine on rooftops. And they’re carefully cutting them into smaller pieces and experiments. Yes. And why would they do that? They did it to make small solar panels. And by doing this, they worked out that these small panels were able to power radios and to light homes and they were affordable. It was a eureka moment. The first thing that SolarAid really achieved was recognising the huge potential for small solar solutions, and it made them change their direction away from large panels to small ones, which could be kept in the home. This episode is about new directions and the future of SolarAid, and what better day to do it than today, the 16th of May, which is the International Day of Light. And it’s the exact same day that we first launched the podcast one year ago. Over the past five episodes, we’ve been on a journey together, haven’t we? We’ve explored the topic of failure and learning. We’ve listened to anecdotes from the people who’ve been there from the start. We’ve explored stories of both difficult times and of success. So how have the learnings from the past five episodes shaped the current direction of the organisation? In this episode, we’re going to hear from John Keane again, SolarAid CEO alongside Jamie McCloskey. Jamie is SolarAid’s Programmes and Partnerships Director. We will also talk to Dalitso Kudala, Programmes Coordinator in Malawi.

Dalitso Kudala: I’ve witnessed a remarkable shift in terms of their approach towards providing energy access.

Kirsty Adams: Over the past five years, Dalitso has been working to implement SolarAid projects on the ground in Malawi, experiencing the shift as it’s happening.

John Keane: Solar panels were typically large and expensive and too expensive for the poorest households to afford. And so what we started to do, we pioneered small pico solar, which when we started, we were actually using a glass cutter to cut up large solar panels and turn them into small solar panels. Just that very concept was new. And those small solar panels could provide small amounts of power to power radios or light homes. And they were more affordable because they were small. And so the first thing that SolarAid really achieved was actually recognizing that there was a huge potential for small solar solutions in rural Africa.

Kirsty Adams: So what has changed from that time, John, from when the team was working on the ground, cutting large solar panels to now, what were the pivotal moments?

John Keane: Well, a lot has changed since those early days when we were cutting large solar panels into small ones. And today there are mass produced products designed specifically to meet the needs of people living in sub-Saharan Africa in small, off grid households, from solar lights, solar chargers to small plug and play solar home systems. We can safely say there are more people now turning on solar electric lights across sub-Saharan Africa than ever before, and that represents huge success, and we’re really proud of the role we have played in helping us get to this point. So we’re now no longer lone actors, but we’re part of a growing and maturing sector, which has been continually adapting and innovating over the last 10 to 15 years and striving to find ways to increase access to solar lights and solar home systems. Another big change that’s taken place over the last ten years has been the advent of pay as you go technology, which enables customers to pay to purchase solar home systems, um, over a period of time. So today, the landscape across many countries, across sub-Saharan Africa is quite different. There are solar products available for sale for customers to purchase and benefit from. And that’s very different to the picture 15 years ago. So again, while there are more people using solar lights and products across sub-Saharan Africa than ever before, there’s still a very real challenge. You’ve still got tens of millions of households who struggle to afford the solar products on offer in the sector.

John Keane: And so the challenge really is that the poorest households, the most climate vulnerable households, are still living in the dark without access to solar powered light or electricity. And that’s really in a nutshell, what SolarAid is 100% focused on now. How can we ensure that no one is left behind? How can we ensure that the projects and models which we implement, ensure that everybody in a community is benefiting from access to solar powered light and solar powered electricity, whether that’s in the home or in the local school, local health facility. You know, that’s how we’re measuring success, and we really believe that other actors in the sector have to do the same. They have to start measuring and mapping areas so they understand who is benefiting from access to solar powered electricity and frankly, who is not. And then the job really is to understand why why the poorest households are struggling to access these solutions and then use that knowledge to design interventions which help overcome the barriers. So I suppose over the next six years, as we lead up to 2030, SolarAid is really focused on new disruptive, innovative models which really strive to bridge that gap. Can we reach 100% of a population? Can we learn how to do that? Can we share that knowledge with others and develop strategic partnerships that enable us to scale up our work?

Kirsty Adams: Okay, so what are the new ways of doing things and how do they differ to what you did before?

John Keane: Well, sure, when we were first set up and we really measured success in terms of the scale that we were able to reach ourselves, we were trying to lead by example and demonstrate that market action, um, was possible. It was possible to catalyse solar markets, and there was possible to build demand for solar lights and then build a distribution network to, to service the demand. But as I mentioned, there are limits to who the market can reach. Put simply, the poorest households really struggle to afford even the the lowest cost solar lights that may sell for around $5. And households certainly struggle to afford the the slightly larger systems that can charge, uh, mobile phones and light multiple rooms. And this is really where one of our game changing models, Light a Village, came about. We worked together with the communities. We asked who would like to have access to a solar home system, and everybody puts their hands up, but who actually has one in their home? It was very, very limited numbers. And some of the key reasons for this are affordability and risk. Number one is innovating and demonstrating and learning with innovative models, game changing models. The second thing we need to do is then work in partnership. Partnership with communities, partnerships with governments, solar companies, other NGOs, entrepreneurs because we can’t do this alone.

John Keane: And if we can develop game changing models that can be scaled and then develop partnerships with all of those key stakeholders, we’ve actually got a chance of essentially creating a domino effect where models which are reaching high percentage of a population can be replicated across the continent. And certainly that’s how we see we see that as the only way that, uh SDG7, Sustainable Development Goal number seven, will be achieved. And I think the wider sector and global community is, is recognizing that SDG seven will not be achieved by any single one actor. It will only be achieved through collaboration. So that’s why alongside our, um, our Light a Village project, which we’re implementing in Malawi, we’re also working with partners in Senegal, in Madagascar and in Sierra Leone to implement, uh, similar models and ways of measuring which really measure success in terms of the percentage of a rural population accessing these solar products. And so, I believe partnerships and measuring success in terms of the percentage of a population you’re actually reaching, those are two ingredients that are absolutely essential if we’re going to achieve universal access to energy across sub-Saharan Africa and know that we’ve actually achieved it.

Kirsty Adams: These past decades have been a learning curve for SolarAid, and over the past few years, they’ve come to value the importance of not working in isolation for their initiatives to truly make a difference. Across the continent, collaborating with other organizations is essential. Jamie McCloskey, who’s at the helm of programs and partnerships at SolarAid, shares his insights.

Jamie McCloskey: The benefits of partnerships, simply put, is that we’re here trying to solve one of the world’s most challenging problems. Energy access for hundreds of millions of people who don’t have it right now. And the innovation, the models, the piloting, the research that is required goes well beyond the means of SolarAid. And also scaling up ourselves across 50 odd countries and sub-Saharan Africa is just not realistic. The resources that would take is well beyond anything we could imagine, and it’s not necessarily the best way for us to scale either. When you have already set up distribution networks, expert organizations in the their own countries. So the benefits of partnerships is to leverage expertise we don’t have. It’s to be able to scale. Through others. And it’s to be able to keep a leaner, more agile organization for SolarAid itself so we can really focus in on what we’re best at while joining forces with the brightest and the best people and organizations across the off grid energy sector, and any other interrelated sectors that can benefit what we are trying to achieve collectively.

Kirsty Adams: And how is that working practically.

Jamie McCloskey: When looking at partners in practice? It’s all about really breaking it down into first principles. Breaking up the parts of a program and the needs of each of those parts to then find the most suitable partners for that. And we really see it in our repair programme. For example, at first we were largely testing can these products be repaired? Then we saw the potential of localized repair models for impact beyond SolarAid. And we think, okay, well how do we test this? We need researchers. We find the University of New South Wales great partners of ours for years, but have the expertise that we don’t have. To be able to launch this research project, then we’re thinking, okay, well, we want to talk to the end user because repair will only be successful if it’s a good, desired and effective service. Well, the most obvious people for us there to go to 60dB aligning with their purpose, to speak to customers, to have impact. We partner with them to deliver that part of the program. And then we look at the policy parts of our program. Okay, well, we know that just delivering these local models is not enough. We need to have a conducive enabling environment. Okay. Well, we partner with the local industry associations, the national renewable industry associations like SIAZ in Zambia and REIAMA in Malawi.

Jamie McCloskey: And then we think, okay, well, to deliver this as best as possible, we need the best partners to deliver this. So we’ve also partnered with Gogla at the sector level and to help support us with the industry associations, because that is the expertise, again, that we don’t have at the same levels that they do. And then we’re looking at things like developing our repair app further, also looking at a repair index to guarantee that the products are operable or at least be able to score them on their operability, so we go to CLASP, leading partners, leading organization in this area. And this is how we’ve looked at our programs, with repair being the example in practice, breaking down the different elements, starting first with the design, is this something that will have an impact beyond ourselves, and what is the end game where it can have that impact beyond ourselves? Because this is a big challenge. Universal energy access is a big challenge. These innovations are difficult, so we need to ensure that we have the suitable partners from the outset who buy into the vision that we’re creating with this program, and they can see the role for themselves in the work that they already do. It’s finding that shared purpose between us.

Kirsty Adams: As we’ve discussed in previous episodes, what’s decided at the top doesn’t always align with the realities on the ground. To get a clearer picture, I wanted to connect with someone who’s right there where the action is happening.

Dalitso Kudala: My name is Dalitso Judith Kudala. I’ve worked with, uh, SolarAid for should be five years now. I’m the program coordinator for Light A Village Programme, a programme that aims at accelerating energy access in the rural communities. Over the past five years that I’ve worked with SolarAid, I’ve witnessed a remarkable shift in terms of their approach towards providing energy access. I remember in the past, uh, when I was just joining, the main focus was on raising awareness on the use of a solar energy products and the basic distribution of solar energy products. But the focus now has shifted from that to community engagement. Uh, making sure we are working closely with the community and the local leaderships to ensure a smooth implementation of the programmes that we are doing right now. Uh, so it does now focused much on building structures to enable a sustainability of the programmes that we’re doing. SolarAid has also focused, uh, who’s now focusing much on partnerships with, uh, interested, interested stakeholders to ensure there’s continuity in, uh, programmes that we are doing.

Kirsty Adams: Are you seeing the impact that this shift is having?

Dalitso Kudala: Oh, yes. Most definitely. The change is noticeable. Uh, we’ve seen the impacts. We’ve seen the fruits of working directly with the local communities. By working closely, uh, with the local leaders, involving them in, uh, decision making processes, planning of the implementation of the project, ensuring that they have a say in how the project should be implemented. We have seen how it has given them a sense of belonging. Uh, we’ve seen how it has given them a sense of ownership of the program. That has also built trust towards us as an organization. And to us, that’s again because, uh, by buying trust from the communities, it means our brand is getting stronger. Our brand is growing stronger.

Kirsty Adams: So can you tell me about the Light Village program? And would you say that it’s a good example of a community centric approach?

Dalitso Kudala: Oh, yes. Uh, I can confirm to see Light a Village programme is ground breaking. I can say it represents an approach, uh, to community development that goes beyond just providing solar energy solutions to the communities, but also, uh, it transforms the entire communities. It transforms the lives of the people. Uh, we have seen this, uh, we have seen, uh, I’ve gotten feedback from, uh, the actual consumers to say, uh, how much they have saved, uh, once they started using the, the, uh, the solar energy products, which means that we are reducing the poverty level, uh, in the communities. I have had feedback on the education sector to say students are now able to study in their homes. We have also, uh, had, um, a feedback from other consumers to say they’re using the products, uh, in their businesses. Uh, let’s say they have a small shop around their house. They’re still using the products and they can, uh, actually sell their commodities up until late, which is also promoting their economic, uh, status. But I can say also, Light A Village programs, uh, has helped in building, uh, the communities remarkable resilience and also, uh, self-reliance within the communities.

Kirsty Adams: It’s clear from this episode that the direction of SolarAid is community centric. That, as John said, no one is left behind. And that SolarAid projects benefit the whole community. And how can that happen? Through partnerships. As we have learned across this series, SolarAid is not afraid to try new things. It’s not afraid to learn from failure, and it will pivot when it must. As we close this series and reflect on the early stages, the highs and the lows, it’s clear that as the organization scales, its community engagement develops. The future is working with the community holistically and to take their lead. This was the last episode of SolarAid’s podcast series Permission to Fail, but they would love it to be an episode that encourages some firsts. Perhaps you could contact SolarAid for the first time. Perhaps you could talk to its team for the first time, because I know they would love to hear your thoughts on this podcast. You can email solar aid on [email protected]. You can also learn more about their projects on the same website. While you’re there, take a look at SolarAid’s shop. Every purchase from its store supports SolarAid’s work. You can buy virtual gift cards, merchandise, visit shop.solar-aid.org. You can also sign up to their LinkedIn newsletter and we ask please keep the light shining either by giving a gift or sharing this podcast. Thanks for listening.