Solar Aid – a NGO not like the others

Interview with John Keane, Head of Programmes, SolarAid

Q: Could you tell us about your organization, how it started and the philosophy behind it.
Yes. SolarAid is a charity which was established in 2006 in order to help poor communities in developing countries use solar power to fight climate change and poverty. We want everyone in the world to have access to clean, renewable energy and we feel that solar power is well placed to help us achieve this goal – particularly in the sun rich areas of sub Saharan Africa where we are currently focusing our efforts.
Q: The world is facing an energy crisis and we know that the oil reserves will only cover consumption until 2050 according to some researchers. Do you think solar energy is really an alternative?
Yes. But it is not the only alternative. We also have to stop relying on old technologies and start using more efficient products. We need to cut down on energy waste which will reduce our thirst for fossil fuels. We also have to utilize alternative resources where it makes sense to do so. In the UK it’s wind. In much of Africa, it’s solar.
Q: What kind of projects do you have and where?
We are currently working in four countries, namely: Malawi, Tanzania, Kenya and Zambia. We run what we call ’microsolar’ projects and macrosolar projects.
Microsolar projects essentially provides opportunities for enterprising people to personally design, assemble and market low-cost solar systems – typically around 1 watt of power that are tailor-made to satisfy local demands for affordable levels of electricity in rural Africa. Microsolar lights are intended to be viable alternatives to kerosene. Microsolar panels can also be used in place of disposable batteries to play radios and power mobile phones. Note – we do not give products away for free. We do not see this as a sustainable way of operating. We provide people with opportunities to develop their own enterprises to meet a growing need.
Our macrosolar projects involve the installation of larger systems (around 300 watts) onto schools, clinics and community centres. We want these system to be used to improve the quality of services on offer to communities living in areas not served by the electricity gird. We also want these systems to be used to generate an income which can be used to ensure that funds are available to maintain and repair the system in future years. We expect the end users to show an initial commitment towards a system before it is installed. This can come in the form of a financial contribution towards the system and also ’man hours’ where a community agrees to assist with the installation and train others about solar power.
Q: Who are financing your activities?
We bring together the values of the charity sector with the professionalism of the business sector and benefit from the assistance of a number of companies such as Solarcentury, Scottish and Southern Energy, White & Case and Vodafone. We also receive funds from grant giving agencies such as TRAID.
Q: You ask for solar charger for mobile phones, Solar powered battery chargers, and Solar panels to power a radio on your website. Why and do they really make a difference?
Eight years ago, I lived in rural Tanzania and spent a lot of money buying batteries to power my radio and kerosene for some evening light. It was this experience that taught me how much money I could have saved if I’d had access to small, affordable solar chargers. Ever since this time, I have been involved in looking for solar solutions.
Households across rural Africa still burn increasingly expensive kerosene every evening and the still radio is the most prevalent source of news and entertainment on the continent. As for mobile phones – well they are now absolutely everywhere. It’s therefore quite simple. Once someone has a solar charger, they can save a great deal of money by reducing their reliance on non renewable fuel sources.
Q: Has these products been developed by your organization? Do you sell them to people or are they only reserved for your projects?
We want everyone to have access to solar power. We don’t make products ourselves. We teach people how to assemble products. We educate people about other solar products that may be of use to them. We want the microsolar market to explode in Africa – just as the mobile phone market has. We want people to not have to think twice about how they light their homes at night – and I don’t mean kerosene!
Q: If you had a message for the international community what would that be?
That’s a tricky one. I don’t think I’m qualified to answer that! The easy answer is – Reduce your reliance on fossil fuels. Look towards fuel efficiency, use solar and other renewables. If you’re going to subsidise nuclear, subsidise renewable energy solutions as well.
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