Last week I reported on the launch of SolarAid, an innovative charity working to bring solar power to small African communities with no access to electricity. I visited the SolarAid offices to find out more, and spoke to the charity's director.
Jeremy Williams: Can you start by telling us who you are, and what you do?
Nick Sireau: Sure, my name is Nick Sireau, and I'm director of Solaraid, which is a new charity set up to help communities in developing countries to use solar power to fight poverty and climate change.
JW: Can you tell me a little bit about the history of SolarAid?|
NS: The history of SolarAid goes back about ten years to the founding of a company called Solar Century, by Jeremy Leggett, who was originally a consultant in the oil industry before being chief scientific advisor at Greenpeace, and then he founded Solar Century in the late 90s. When they set it up they decided that when they made a profit they would use 5% of it to set up an independent charity to bring solar power to developing countries. Solar Century is now the UK's largest solar company, and made profits last year, hence it set up SolarAid. What we also did at the time was look at the whole charity sector and realized that there was no charity that was leading the way on poverty and climate change at the same time. So when we went to speak to various charities we got a lot of encouragement for setting up SolarAid. Particularly when we spoke to WaterAid and they explained their model of how they were wanting to be the place that brought together best practice on water. We saw there's a strong argument for doing the same thing with solar energy.
JW: It's interesting that you're tackling poverty and climate change at the same time, because development and environmental movements could sometimes be seen as clashing a little.
NS: Yes, well the difficulty that you get on a global scale is that people see massive industrial development, particularly from power from fossil fuels, as contributing to climate change, which it definitely does. People get very concerned when they see countries like India and China who are developing fast, and also consuming vast amounts of fossil fuels. However what we're looking at, at least at the beginning, is development at a much more grass roots scale. We're talking about developing communities, helping them have access to energy, particularly communities that have very little access to technology.
The other reason is that climate change is going to hit the poorest the hardest, and they're already starting to feel the effects of changes in the weather patterns. We work in Malawi, and one of the groups we work with said that two years ago was the worst drought in living memory, possibly linked to the effects of global warming and climate change. This is leading to famine, and serious problems there. So I think there is a real duty to work with communities in developing countries and help them mitigate the impact.
JW: So what has your answer been?
NS: One of the things we do is a simple micro-solar program where we train local communities to build their own little solar products. That does have a carbon displacement effect, because we did research that showed the average household in Malawi spends about a fifth of their income on kerosene for lighting and batteries for the radio. The kerosene they use in their lamps, on average they use about half a liter to a liter a week, and that produces around a ton of carbon dioxide over 7 to 10 years, which is quite a lot for a little kerosene lamp. What we do is train the communities to convert these into solar lanterns, using LED lights, and also teaching them how to make solar chargers. So every kerosene lamp you convert into a solar lantern effectively reduces carbon emissions. If you think of that on the scale of hundreds of millions of people, which is the scale for the whole of Africa, you're starting to think of hundreds of millions of tons of carbon dioxide, which is not negligible. Obviously when you compare it to the vast amounts of emissions that are coming out of India and China at the moment, it is still smaller, but it is still a certain amount you can reduce.
JW: And at the same time you're literally empowering communities - can you tell us a bit about the effects that electricity, and particularly electric light, has on the lives of the people you're working with?
NS: When you bring a solar light to a family, or you teach a community to convert the lamps, a variety of things happen. The reason for that is that energy and lighting is one of the fundamentals of development, alongside water, sanitation, health and so on. What we do is we train local solar entrepreneurs. We teach them business skills, and basic market research skills so they can find out what the average income is in their local area, and how much people spend on kerosene, so they can work out how to price their products. We teach them basic solar skills, how to convert these kerosene lamps into solar lanterns, and they set up their micro-business and sell their products. They can then generate a profit, grow their business and it becomes self sustaining. The customers already spend a lot of money on kerosene, but with one of these little solar chargers and solar lanterns they basically make an energy saving of a fifth of their income, so their income goes up. So the first effect you're getting is a rise in income for the sellers and the buyers, which means they can then spend more on education, on health, on food and their general livelihoods, so that's already a tremendous impact.
The second thing is when you're replacing a kerosene lamp with a solar lantern there are direct health benefits. The kerosene lamp is bad for the eyes, it's bad for the lungs as kerosene causes respiratory illnesses, and you also get fires from when they get knocked over. The light you get from your LED lantern is much better - much cleaner, and much brighter. That means children can then read in the evenings, so that has an effect on literacy rates and on general education levels, as well as the health benefits. So there are lots of consequences. Of course you can also use your solar charger to power your radio, so that also has an effect on education levels, as the radio is used a lot for education in Africa. And also for communication, because the same charger can be used to charge a mobile phone battery. That can impact commerce, because increasingly farmers in Zambia and Malawi are using mobile phones to exchange crop prices.
JW: Tell us a bit about the actual technology. I know that LED's are particularly efficient for example.
NS: Each individual component is extremely robust - your LED bulbs will last on average a hundred thousand hours. Using that for a few hours a day, it'll last for years and years, maybe ten or twenty years. The solar glass, which is basically thin-film amorphous silicon in little 1Watt panels, they cost about a pound a panel ($2), and will last twenty to twenty-five years if everything goes well and they're not dropped or broken. The batteries will last around a thousand charges and discharges, so altogether it should last fifteen to twenty years, although with wear and tear we expect it to last five to seven years, and then we can recycle the components for new products.
JW: How will this be implemented on the ground, is it staff, volunteers, or local agents?
NS: It's all three. We've just recruited two members of staff in Malawi, and they're going to be based in Mzuzu in the north of Malawi, where we're setting up an office as we speak. We're going to have a coordinator and a senior coordinator there who'll be helping with all the logistics of implementing the programmes. We also have volunteers. We just recruited two volunteers last week who will also be based in Malawi, and they're people with engineering and development experience. Then we work with local NGOs, and the one we're working with in Malawi is called the Centre for Appropriate Technology. The volunteers will be based there, with the staff in our office, and we all work together to develop the schemes.
JW: And over here, how can people find out more information and get involved?
NS: People can get involved in a number of ways. The first is fundraising. We need funds to develop these programs, so if people want to do sponsored runs, sponsored walks, or give a monthly or a one-off donation, either through the website or through their bank, that will have a huge impact. Ten pounds is one solar lantern, 100 pounds is ten solar lanterns, and it quickly scales up. Another thing people can do is volunteer assistance here, so anybody with solar engineering skills, marketing or accountancy skills, are all people who could help us here in the UK. And then there's spreading the word about SolarAid. If people want to receive materials to pass on to their friends, their families, their churches, local groups or whatever, that's something we can do. Finally, if they want to do a long term volunteering commitment of two years, and have specific skills that they think would help our programs, then we'd be interested in getting their CVs!
For more information see www.solar-aid.org