Episode 2: What does it mean to truly listen?

Why is Monitoring and Evaluation vital for change driven organisations and what does it mean to really listen to the people we work with on the ground? What can we learn from involving rural communities when we innovate to drive change, and what are some preconceptions development organisations often bring with them into the field?

In this episode of Permission to Fail we hear from Kat Harrison, Director at 60 Decibels and Tokozile Ngwenya, Monitoring and Evaluation specialist working with SolarAid in Zambia.

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Episode Guests

Tokozile Ngwenya

Tokozile N. Ngwenya is a Monitoring and Evaluation consultant in Zambia who has over a decade of demonstrated experience in research, surveys, logical framework, interviews and focus groups in various sectors, such as Public Health, WASH, Private Sector Development, Agriculture and Renewable Energy. Tokozile has co-authored several publications in the leading journals such as Malaria Journal and Next Billion, and has been featured on PBS NEWSHOUR.

Kat Harrison

Kat Harrison is a Director at 60 Decibels and leads the company’s energy work. She has been working on understanding, measuring, and sharing insights on the impact of energy access for end-users for 10 years, having specialised in impact measurement, M&E, and insights for international development for 15+ years. Kat developed the sector’s first impact benchmark and was previously Associate Director of Impact at Acumen and Director of Research & Impact at SolarAid where she developed and managed the award-winning research and impact work there. Kat chaired the GOGLA Impact Working Group from 2013-17, leading the development of the standardised Impact Metrics for energy access.


Kirsty Adams: Are you a good listener? Are you really listening right now? Are you present for episode two of SolarAid’s Permission to Fail Podcast? I would love your full attention because this episode is all about listening. I’m your host, Kirsty Adams. For the next 30 minutes or so, you, me and our two guests will explore the importance of listening to the people who are working on the ground. How they’re involving rural communities in development work, what we can learn from it, and why this is crucial for change driven organizations. This episode you’ll hear from monitoring and evaluation specialist Tokozile Ngwenya.

Tokozile Ngwenya: Usually what will happen is the top bottom approach, and so decisions are made at the top without consulting at the bottom. There’s a misunderstanding of what the need is, the needs of the community. People at the top will assume, without getting the facts and engaging people at the grassroots level.

Kirsty Adams: And from Kat Harrison, director of 60 Decibels.

Kat Harrison: And we ask questions to get data on these indicators. But we were just missing, like we were saying, the whole experience of allowing people to tell us what mattered to them. And so, when we changed it all up and said, let’s just go and ask some broader questions, more open questions, let’s find out what people want to tell us, what they want to share, what they care about. We learned so much more.

Kirsty Adams: Let me remind you what SolarAid does. They’re a pioneering charity developing innovative enterprise programs for solar energy distribution in rural communities in sub-Saharan Africa. The people on the ground in this story are the entrepreneurs who sell the solar lights, the families that buy the lights, the head teachers that help to distribute the lights, and of course, the medical practitioners and other professionals who use the lights to improve lives. So we’re going to dive right in to why listening is so crucial for organizations like SolarAid. Monitoring and evaluation consultant Tokozile Ngwenya, who is based out in Zambia, joined Solar Aid in January 2021 to provide support for a project called Solar Health. The mandate of this project was to provide solar systems and solar powered medical equipment to ten rural health clinics across Zambia, especially the ones which were off grid. Okay, so now it’s my time to listen. Here’s Tokozile.

Tokozile Ngwenya: I have been working with SolarAid called SunnyMoney in Zambia as a monitoring and evaluation consultant.

Kirsty Adams: And could you tell us about the project that you’ve been working on with SolarAid?

Tokozile Ngwenya: I can’t hear you. It’s happened again.

Kirsty Adams: Okay. That was a rocky start. Sorry, the Wi-Fi wasn’t actually strong enough where Tokozile is today, but that’s the reality of this story. So let’s try again.

Tokozile Ngwenya: My name is Tokozile Ngwenya. I work for SunnyMoney, which is part of SolarAid here in Lusaka, Zambia. I am the monitoring and evaluation consultant. Firstly, I want to state that listening is very important for the success of any project or any activity. It is important to truly listen and understand the needs of the people you are working with. You know, listening builds trust. It reduces misunderstandings and to a greater extent, it eliminates conflict, I could say. Another instance where listening to the beneficiaries of this project helped was during the baseline survey we asked the health facility staff in all ten clinics where they would want the solar lights to be placed because we needed to plan, we needed to have the installers measure the distance and the cables and the like. It was really interesting to note that although there were some common rooms and wards across the health facilities that were similar, others were different, and we would not have been able to predict this answer based on our experience, because each health facility is different. And some of the things that caught me by surprise was that they would want a pharmacy lit, and in my mind I would not be able to understand that. But when they explained the health facility staff to say, we have patients that come and need medication and if we have no lighting, how do we treat that patient? How do we dispense that medication? And in my mind, I just thought, okay, maybe it will just be the wards.

Tokozile Ngwenya: But other facilities said they needed the maternity ward because statistics show that a lot of deliveries are conducted at night. I would not have known that information and it was really helpful because when we collaborated together with the beneficiaries, we yielded greater results than had we not engaged them prior to installing those lights. We engaged them. We asked them questions. We wanted to understand what they wanted because we also recognized that each health facility is different from the other, and these provinces are so far apart from each other. And so because of that, their needs are also different. So understanding that even though we understand that there’s a need, it’s very specific and it may vary from rural health facility to a rural health facility and so installing those solar lights where they had the greatest need knew that the best results for the health facility staff and brought about greater satisfaction even as they were conducting their work.

Kirsty Adams: Thank you, Tokozile. I really love the examples that we just heard, those little bits of intel that could so easily be missed. Finding out it was the pharmacies which the beneficiaries wanted lit so they could dispense medicine. Or the maternity ward because deliveries take place at night.

Tokozile Ngwenya: There are several reasons why working alongside communities is crucial for change. The first thing for me will always be sustainability. If you do not work with beneficiaries partners together to be on the same page, the minute that you pull out from that activity or the project comes to an end, there is no sustainability. And so for the livelihood of an activity, a project to continue and for it to be sustainable, it’s very important that we work alongside with communities. The other thing is out of respect. A lot of projects I’ve seen, a lot of activities I’ve seen is that usually what will happen is happen is the top bottom approach. And so decisions are made at the top without consulting at the bottom. There’s a misunderstanding of what the need is, the needs of the community and people at the top will assume, without getting the facts and engaging people at the grassroots level. And so when you engage people at the grassroots level, the project design is specific to that community, that delivery is specific to that community. It meets the exact need of that community. And so I believe that for sustainability, for respect, for a greater impact of what it is that you want to achieve, it is crucial. It is so important that the community is engaged before we penetrate in these communities to make sure that what is being designed and what is being implemented meets them and meets their needs.

Kirsty Adams: Making assumptions at the top instead of engaging with people at grass roots level shouldn’t really be a thing in 2023, should it? Today’s guests work really hard to get away from that old school model. Back to Tokozile again, she’s going to tell you about how she tells a story with numbers.

Tokozile Ngwenya: I think that there are several ways that we can make the best use of monitoring and evaluation results. So whenever I’m asked why I’m into monitoring and evaluation and why I’ve been doing it for over ten years, I always say monitoring and evaluation is basically a story, but with numbers. Numbers don’t lie. They always tell a story. And I feel that creating stories with the numbers is very important to inform two groups of people, the beneficiaries of the project or the activity, because I feel that we are constantly in monitoring and evaluation. We’re constantly asking questions, constantly researching, probing, trying to understand why this is happening, what we can do better. But we usually do a very poor job at giving those results back to the people that helped us get that information because there’s something called a research fatigue or survey fatigue, because these communities are exposed to various donors, partners, penetrating the communities, trying to understand and write papers, thesis, articles, all these sorts of things. But we need to give the information back to the people that we are working with. They also need to understand the results that we find because it helps them to better appreciate, first of all, the work that we’re trying to do.

Tokozile Ngwenya: But in the future there will be other people that will come into the into the community to work with them, and they’ll be more receptive to receiving them because they’ll say, look, last time we heard about this project and we worked with them and they gave us the information, we understand better. And so when people understand better what it is that you’re doing and what results you have found, they’re in a better position to help you and to be more cooperative. That’s the first group of people. Most important for me is the communities we’re working with. Second most important group of people is the project implementers, and that is what I would call ourselves. Having that information within the organization for partners, for Donors, How can we use that information to, first of all, inform the current project? Are there any changes we need to make? Future projects, if we want to replicate a similar project, maybe in another country, in another region, within the same country, in another continent, it won’t always be the same, but it’s a starting point. We do not need to reinvent the wheel.

Kirsty Adams: I asked Tokozile if there were any particular learnings that stand out for her.

Tokozile Ngwenya: You know, it’s funny that you ask this question because I’ve been working with rural communities for over 15 years and sometimes you get a bit I don’t want to use this word, but you get a bit cocky, full of yourself thinking that you know everything and thinking you’ve experienced everything. And that’s what I love about rural communities. You will always be surprised. I’m actually getting emotional and teary talking about this because, um, as a mother myself, I have taken for granted the facilities and the services that I’m provided with and have been provided with in the past. Living in an in an urban town which is the capital city of Zambia, Lusaka, and having had both pregnancies in the capital city, the project we did with the project purchased fetal dopplers. So fetal dopplers are they are solar powered and they were part of the package that we gave to the ten rural health clinics. And the fetal doppler basically is a device, a medical device that can detect the heartbeat of a fetus. And so these rural clinics, most of them don’t have electricity. So, you know, they don’t have an ultrasound machine. And we delivered them and we decided to to to watch to wait. And we witnessed the medical personnel using the fetal Doppler on mothers that were carrying their unborn children as they came for antenatal.

Tokozile Ngwenya: And I’m telling you, these women were on their second were on their third pregnancy and they had never heard their child’s heartbeat. They had never, ever, ever heard their unborn baby’s child heartbeat. Because that equipment wasn’t there. And what the Solar Health project was able to do for these ten rural health facilities in Zambia was give them solar powered fetal dopplers. And, you know, like their faces, their mothers, you know, as a mother myself, it’s normal to worry because you can’t see what you’re carrying, but you can feel it and you can see it growing. But to have that reassurance that my baby is okay and I’ve heard my my child’s heartbeat. Oh, my God, their faces. Oh, it was amazing. You could see, you know, some mothers didn’t talk, but their face lit up and the smile that their baby was okay and they could hear their baby. It’s the best thing we ever did. I know solar lights are important, but the fetal dopplers that was we never expected that. And being based in Lusaka, you disconnect sometimes, you don’t realize how important that is. And, um, that gave me a lot of joy, a lot of job satisfaction. Aside of everything else. It’s something that I’ll remember for the rest of my life.

Kirsty Adams: I think I’ll remember that joyful tale for the rest of my life, too. What about the people that really matter? What about the families, The teachers? The people who really benefit? Cat Harrison is the director at 60dB. She is in Barbados. When I spoke to her, somebody was building something big in the background, which you might be able to hear. 60db is an impact measurement and customer insights company. It’s their job to listen to end users, customers and beneficiaries about the experience they have had when receiving services from charities, nonprofits, social enterprises. They gather feedback, which is then used to make a positive difference. They have a team of over 1000 local researchers across 80 countries, and they’re mostly doing remote based surveying over the phone. They speak to people who have bought solar lights or a solar home system from SolarAid, for example. I really want to know. And I’m sure you do, too. What are solar customers saying about the products they have bought? What has been the impact?

Kat Harrison: Well, it’s lovely. Hearing all these voices is hearing just what an impact these solar home systems or solar lanterns have. Some of the things that families tell us is they feel safer at night. They can see snakes under the bed and they can shoo them out before their children go to bed. They can save some money rather than spending lots of money on, you know, candles or polluting kerosene or paraffin lanterns. Their children have a chance to study after dark and do their homework. One of my favorite quotations is from a family in Zambia who say, “we live a happier life now because after dark, we all sit together and share about our experiences of the day.” And there’s all these lovely kind of social impacts or changes that occur from having access to energy. And those are the types of things we’re able to to listen out for and to really hear them talk about.

Kirsty Adams: It’s so essential, isn’t it, to find out what is happening on the ground. And I’m just wondering, I imagine there’s lots of organizations out there that are trying to sort of find similar info. What advice would you give them about the benefits to listening to people on the ground and how they could incorporate that into their own organization?

Kat Harrison: I mean, to be honest, any business, any company probably should be doing this, but it’s around accountability and transparency. There are certain rules and regulations across the world around financial auditing, and you can’t get away with not doing them. So in a way, it’s kind of crazy. We live in a world you can operate as a business and there’s no social auditing, there’s no measure of are you actually creating positive impact in the world? And we can probably all think of some big companies that ought to do that more. So it’s absolutely critical to any organisation, but particularly one that’s focused on creating change or contributing to change to make sure they’re listening to people on the ground that we’re allowing the people we are seeking to serve to tell us what matters to them and whether we’re doing a good job of it, whether we keep doing or even enhancing some of that positive impact, but, you know, reducing or avoiding some of that negative impact. And I think there’s also the opportunity, particularly across the developing world in Africa, quite often there’s this can be this feeling of this sort of paternal, you know, these charities are coming in to save the world and have all this impact. And I think there needs to be and there is an increasing kind of prevalence of this where those that we are seeking to serve, to improve, to contribute to their quality of life, their their way of living, they need to be absolute determinants of their own fate and their own destiny and their own opportunity to feed into what they really need or what they want. And I think empowering those voices and making sure that is part of our decision making and how we think about contributing to change. It’s not even just a nice to have, it’s an absolute must have. Otherwise, we’re never going to achieve some of these broad, you know, worldwide objectives of people living comfortable, fair, protected lives.

Kirsty Adams: So, Kat, can you share some important anecdotes from failure that has led to success in general from talking to end users families in relation to SolarAid?

Kat Harrison: You know, one of the early failures at SolarAid when I joined as well, was starting with this more traditional monitoring and evaluation approach, you know, with a set of indicators that we expected to see impact on, which had been developed mostly by a team sitting in an office far away from where things were really happening. And we ask questions to get data on these indicators. But we were just missing, like we were saying, the whole experience of allowing people to tell us what mattered to them. And so when we changed it all up and said, let’s just go and ask some broader questions, more open questions, let’s find out what people want to tell us, what they want to share, what they care about. We learned so much more and we reframed our whole approach to to measurement and to interacting with customers and and learn so much more in the process as well as I’m sure, created a space for that empowerment of people and respecting their voice and their autonomy in how we deliver what we deliver on the ground. So, you know, wiping out assumptions and opening up that space for learning is is so critical for for making a difference and for directing sort of strategy and efforts in in the right way.

Kirsty Adams: I know we’ve talked about understanding from the families the impact it’s had on them. For example, does the research also involve the head teachers who helped distribute the lights and does it include the social entrepreneurs as well?

Kat Harrison: So at SolarAid, we had done that in the past talking to the head teachers. There’s so much learning from from their insights, from their perspectives, from how they’re seeing the programs that have happened manifest in their classrooms, in their communities. And a lot of their head teachers actually often sort of are the sales agents. There’s this really nice connection where they represent a respected member of the community and so they have an opportunity to influence and support and enable a lot of the community members to feel that trust for these new technologies that can make a real difference for the sales agents as well. We we’ve talked to them about their experiences, what could support them to do a better job in reaching out to communities in sometimes even the design of the product. So they sometimes agents will come back and say, people really like this solar light, but they want to be able to charge their phone. And some of this solar lanterns come with a little USB charging point. And so it’s really listening to that feedback and what those real needs are and making sure those needs are being met rather than us thinking, well, this is a great product, let’s go and sell it. Let’s start from what you know, the need is people want to be able to light their homes and charge their phones, what product meets that need. And so I think that’s where those broader stakeholders you’re talking about, the head teachers, the agents have a real voice and a real opportunity to shape the direction and delivery.

Kirsty Adams: That’s fantastic. I think that when I first sort of heard the story, it was really clear that it sort of empowered by the community being at the center of what we do, hearing that example of what the sales agents have said or the feedback they’re getting, I think that’s, you know, that’s a really nice example of how that’s working. Mentioned the work, the teachers, the solar agents. Is there anyone else on the ground that you’ve sort of can share? Any examples of what they’ve said or the feedback that they’ve given?

Kat Harrison: So at SolarAid a few years ago, they developed a program called Light Libraries. There was a recognition. So Solaraid uses a market based approach to energy access as well. It tends to be more sustainable and it provides that choice. People are, you know, willing customers to purchase a product with support in financing, but rather than, you know, recipients of handouts. But there’s a recognition that people are being left behind and there are many lower income families that can’t afford a solar light, even if they would love one. So we designed a program in Senegal called Light Libraries, and we worked with the Ministry of Education, selected a group of schools in some regions and essentially set up a library of solar lights. And so people could borrow them for a day or two, a night or two at a time. And one of the core strategies was to see if there would be increased uptake that more people then would choose to buy because you’d essentially de-risked the purchase. People then were like, Oh, we’ve used it, we understand its value. I am more willing to put some of my very precious money towards this because I can already see the benefit. So it feels less of a risk to make that choice. But what I think one of my favorite benefits from the program is, yes, that absolutely happened, that, you know, that theory was proved true. But what it also meant is that people who could afford to buy the lights did, which meant they weren’t using lights from the library. So those lights in the library became more available for the lower income families who couldn’t afford to buy. And so it had this really lovely effect of increasing sales and uptake and de-risking purchase, but actually providing more equity benefits because some other members of the community could access as well.

Kirsty Adams: Do you remember when Tokozile said earlier that it’s a mistake to make assumptions at the top instead of engaging with people at grass roots? Kat makes some really nice points about this too.

Kat Harrison: Yeah, humans are not objective and rational. We are emotional beings. So you know, all research with human subjects is prone to some research bias, but I think that’s Western and otherwise, you know, it comes from everyone in whoever’s designing, analyzing, reporting, the research, whoever’s delivering it in terms of, you know, the data collection, who’s recording it, translating the responses. So I think it’s our our job, our obligation really to reduce and mitigate for any of those biases. And and we have lots of ways of doing that. And I’ll share 1 or 2 because they’re quite fun. So one of the things we do with our research is the first thing they do when they get on a call with someone, they say who they are and what the purpose of why they’re phoning them is. And they also say, you know your name and your information will be kept anonymous. We want this to be a safe space for you to share openly what your experience is. And we found we get such open, honest answers by creating that safe space. And so I think there’s so many ways that we can build little tips or tricks or parts of the process. That enable us to try to reduce. We can never get rid of all of them, but reduce some of those biases so we can really get down to the foundation of what’s happening on the ground.

Kirsty Adams: It’s been so interesting to talk to Kat and to Tokozile. It must be really rewarding for them and their teams to hear or read these stories, this feedback directly from the customers or the people they work with on the ground. Those surprise answers on a survey or in a phone call which tell a story. Then they turn these stories, this data, into positive action with as little assumption and bias as possible. As you know, the theme of this series is about embracing failure for success. So I wanted to end with Tokozile talking about lessons she has learned from failure in the work that she does. I’ll leave you in Tokozile safe hands. But before I do, can I suggest something? Take a look at SolarAid’s Shop. Every purchase from its store supports SolarAid’s work. I just had a look myself. You can buy solar lights. I actually already have one and I’ll be taking it to camping with me in the summer. You could too. Or, buy a virtual gift, e-cards, merchandise. Visit shop.solar-aid.org. And look, I know you’re busy, but if you could follow the podcast in your app and maybe even leave a review, that would be amazing. Why not tell me what you’re doing to ensure you’re making decisions with a positive impact in your business or charity? Or maybe tell me what you think was being built in Barbados. Go on, tell me. Right over to Tokozile for the final fail. See you for episode three, where we’ll be talking to entrepreneur and founder of one of SolarAid’s key programs, Dr. Ewan Kirk, about funding with permission to fail.

Tokozile Ngwenya: When the initial pilot started, three facilities in Zambia were selected to run a pilot for I think it was three months before scaling it up to the full initial number of clinics. Ten. And one of the facilities that was chosen was in a peri rural area. So it wasn’t 100% rural. This facility was selected based on a list. We went to the facility with our partner, Chaz and what was on the documentation and what was on the ground was a little bit different. This facility had 100% electricity. And the fact that like the deciding factor for how we moved forward going after this facility, the learning lesson was this facility was not even 24 hours. They only operated from 8 to 17 hours. And so if you think about it, you install solar lights in a in a facility that closes at 17 hours. Your solar lights generally do work after hours after dark. Right. But what was on paper was that it was a rural facility. And the issue of them operating from 8 to 17 was unclear. Had we not piloted this specific facility, our criteria for the selection of rural clinics going forward would not have been as concise. This rural facility was literally the game changer because even for maternity cases they referred.

Tokozile Ngwenya: And so going forward, it was so important, At the time, I think we felt that we had made a mistake and we were a bit hard on ourselves. But in the long run, and even having this discussion and thinking about it like this and assessing, had we not known, we would have not been as as clear. As to the criteria for the facilities that we wanted to work with going forward. And this shaped our criteria. And so going forward in the project, we only picked rural health facilities that had limited access to electricity because we needed to monitor the effectiveness of the solar lights that we were providing and the medical solar powered appliances. And secondly, we needed to make sure that labour was 24 hours. So the clinic and the health facility operated 24 hours and they had a labour ward. This specific facility I’m telling you about referred labour cases because they didn’t work 24 hours. It seemed very minute at the time, the detail, but it actually ended up being the game changer for us and operating 24 hours. During long periods of darkness when powers are unavailable. And so very grateful for that experience that we learned during the initial first phase of the pilot.

Kirsty Adams: If you want to learn more about SolarAid, please visit www.solar-aid.org. You’ll find the link in the show notes. Good bye for now.