Since 1990, the Solar Electric Light Fund (SELF) has completed projects in more than 20 countries and pioneered unique applications of solar power such as for drip irrigation in Benin, health care in Haiti, telemedicine in the Amazon rainforest, online learning in South Africa and microenterprise development in Nigeria. SELF’s mission is to design and implement solar energy solutions to assist the 1.5 billion people living in energy poverty with their economic, educational, health care and agricultural development. We caught up with Bob Freling, director of SELF since 1997, to discuss the marketing challenges faced by Non-Profits.
Bob, you’ve been doing this for some time now. For those who haven’t heard about SELF, what is it that your organization does?
We fight the darkness with light, by which I mean SELF alleviates energy poverty through effective solar applications. For us, Energy is a human right. 1.2 billion people—almost a fifth of humanity—still live without access to electricity. Located mostly in rural villages in the developing world, these people are forced to retreat each evening into homes that are illuminated, if at all, by the dim light of candles or smoky, polluting kerosene lanterns.
Even modest amounts of electricity, generated by the sun, can significantly improve the lives of previously unelectrified households and communities.
From Benin to Zimbabwe, we’ve been in over 20 countries – trying to make a difference in the lives of our brothers and sisters who don’t have access to electricity.
How does SELF make a difference? What does energy poverty entail?
Think about your life. How would it change if you no longer had access to electricity?
Seriously. In a few days, most cities and communities in the west would be reduced to chaos and anarchy.
One of the things we’re excited about is our SELF’s Whole Village Development Model – our integrated approach to community empowerment using a mix of solar energy solutions to improve the lives of people who don’t have access to electricity.
So for example, we stand with the communities we serve, with the women in particular, to make a significant impact in Education, Health, Water & Agriculture, Enterprise, and Community.
Can you give us an example?
Sure. In Benin, as in many other parts of Africa, solar energy has an enormous, yet largely untapped, potential to increase food security in regions that experience a long dry season. Solar power provides a cost-effective and environmentally friendly way to pump water for irrigation from nearby rivers and underground aquifers.
During the prolonged dry season in the district of Kalalé, located in the northern part of Benin, there is precious little rainfall and the land of is parched. Little can be grown, and often its people go hungry. Malnutrition becomes widespread, and can be seen in the many children walking around with distended bellies, a telltale sign of kwashiorkor, a condition caused largely by a lack of protein and micronutrients in a person’s diet.
SELF’s work in Benin began in 2006 when it put together a plan to use solar power in the district of Kalalé for a variety of uses in schools and health clinics, and for water pumping systems, street lighting, and providing wireless internet access to the community.
A needs assessment revealed that the primary concern among the local communities was food security, and finding a way to overcome the endemic lack of water for growing food, which is a large contributor to the cycle of poverty and poor health in the district.
To solve that problem, SELF developed an innovative way to use solar energy to power a well pump to draw water from an underground acquirer and gravity feed it through a low-pressure drip irrigation system into gardens. The system became known as a Solar Market Garden™ (SMG).
In 2007, SELF installed three SMGs for women farming collectives in the villages of Dunkassa and Bessassi located in Kalalé. Residents saw the transformative power that this simple and effective technology had on their lives. A significant increase in food security in the villages was seen; each garden supplied nearly two tons of high-value fruits and vegetables per month. And because the communities had access to year-round food, their nutrition improved and the income of the women farmers also increased by an extra $7.50 per week from the sale of fresh produce at a local market. The extra income has gone towards helping to pay for school fees, medical treatment, and new small business development.
In addition to the SMGs, SELF also installed three solar-powered community water wells to help provide the families in Dunkassa and Bessassi with safe, clean drinking water year-round.
SELF extended its commitment to the people of Kalalé in 2012 and 2013 by installing four new SMGs, solar systems at three schools and a health center in each village of Dunkassa and Bessassi to help power lights in classrooms, examination rooms, computers, vaccine refrigerators and diagnostic equipment.
The local community also collaborated with SELF to develop and build a solar powered micro-enterprise center. Three buildings, constructed in the shape of a horseshoe, houses ten shops, forming a center of economic activity in the villages. The center courtyard, shaded by a solar array that powers the buildings, has also created an inviting space for additional, smaller vendors.
The folks at Stanford verified the impact of our work.
So why isn’t this taking off around the world?
That’s precisely what we are working on. We know that the Whole Village Development Model can be replicated around the world to scale-up the use of solar energy to help communities lift themselves out of poverty and secure their future.
In 2015, SELF was honored in New York City by the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA) as one of ten finalists in a field of 221 that participated in its “Powering The Future We Want” competition. Its purpose was to “advance the implementation of sustainable development by identifying innovative practices in energy.” SELF’s Solar Market Garden (SMG) program—combining solar-powered pumps with drip irrigation—was recognized as an innovative solar energy application.
In December that same year, the United Nations Climate Change Secretariat brought SELF to the Paris Climate Summit to showcase the SMG project. Selected as a winner of the UN’s prestigious “Momentum for Change Lighthouse Activities” competition in the category of “Women For Results,” the project provided an example of how women are empowered through the SMGs to grow food year-round and support their families in spite of a limited growing season.
So it’s a matter of funding?
There two answers.
We’re a Non-Profit. But we also have spun-off for profit companies in the past. In 1995, we established SELCO Solar Pvt. Ltd, a social enterprise in India, to provide sustainable energy solutions and services to under-served households and businesses. SELCO currently employs about 375 employees in in Karnataka, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Bihar and Tamil Nadu spread across 45 energy service centers.
As a Non-Profit, we’re making strides piloting the Whole Village Development Model. In 2015, we completed installation of a 12.5 kW solar micro-grid in Sabana Crespo, a traditional village in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of northern Colombia with a population of 12,000. It is one of seven villages assessed by SELF with the active support of the Colombian government. This micro-grid serves as a unique, sustainable model to power shared facilities in similar indigenous villages throughout Colombia. The Kogi and Arhuaco tribes previously resisted exposure to the wider world, but they have come to believe that solar power complements their spiritual connection with nature and need to protect it. As such, the villagers actively participated in the system’s design phase by carefully defining their priorities for power.
SELF and APROTEC, a Colombian renewable energy organization, installed the solar micro-grid to connect to the village’s coffee warehouse, health clinic, medical staff housing and three children’s recuperation buildings.
In addition, SELF also installed seven solar refrigeration systems in the indigenous villages of Nabusimake, Gunchukwa, Juerwa and Sabana Crespo. This was done through a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Grand Challenges Exploration award, coupled with donations through SELF. SELF installed six solar direct drive (SDD) battery-free vaccine refrigerators and one SDD water-pack freezer—the first to be installed anywhere in the world.
The ability to expand SELF’s work into South America is a positive step towards implementing our Whole Village Development Model across the globe.
SELF is pioneering new approaches to reduce battery replacement cost burdens as well as other ways to sustain long-term solar power system operation.
So yes, funding is the main challenge. How do we create a business model that starts out as a non-profit for installation, but then is converted to a profitable enterprise for the community?
Which brings me to the question – how do you view marketing? Who is the customer?
We start with the communities. They are our primary customers. Then we have our employees and volunteers. And then we have our donors and sponsors.
So we focus on our work. As more of our projects prove themselves in the field, we see more foundations and government and multilateral institutions stepping up to help us with funding.
We don’t have a marketing manager. We have been fortunate with word-of-mouth, but we would love to improve our strategic partnerships with foundations that want to make a difference.
What percentage of your funding comes from individuals versus foundations?
It’s surprising, but foundations are about 13%, individuals at 15%, and the rest from government and multilateral institutions.
Recent public agency partners include the Inter-American Development Bank, Nordic Environment Finance Corporation, United Nations Environment Programme, the Inter-American Development Bank, the U.S. Department of Energy, and the World Bank Global Development Marketplace.
In the past we created a few marketing campaigns to raise awareness and funding.
Can you tell us about the one that was the most fun? And rewarding?
We had been working with Paul Farmer and Partners In Health in Haiti, long before the devastating earthquake. But after the earthquake, we solar-electrified all their clinics in Haiti.
Our work expanded. We worked with some amazing people.
The late Larry “J.R.” Hagman served on SELF’s board. With his catalytic involvement in a SolarWorld advertising campaign, he leveraged his passion for solar energy to help us. Through its Solar2World donation program to aid communities in developing regions, SolarWorld donated solar panels to SELF for a Partners In Health (PIH) clinic in Haiti in 2009. After the earthquake, SELF was among nonprofit aid groups that SolarWorld agreed to supply with even bigger panel donations to ease the Haiti crisis. Thanks to Larry’s efforts, SolarWorld’s generous donation of 100KW of solar panels powered five more clinics in Haiti.
We also worked with Grammy winners Steel Pulse, Bob Marley’s favorite reggae band. They wrote and donated a song called “Hold On (4 Haiti)” that helped galvanize our marketing efforts and visibility – in the Caribbean and North America.
In 2015, our work in Haiti continued with the completion of two community power systems: A 13kW micro-grid for Fe-Yo-Bien in the Central Highlands serves a micro-enterprise center and small business stalls along the community’s central street. A140kW micro-grid was also built on Haiti’s south coast to power homes, businesses, and street lights in the town of Roche-à-Bateaux, les Côteaux and Port-à-Piment. Sadly, this micro-grid on Haiti’s south coast was destroyed out by Hurricane Matthew, but funds have been committed and the reconstruction process has already begun.
In addition, SELF technicians ensured that more than 170 solar refrigerators will provide effective, safe vaccines throughout the country. And finally, to help build Haiti’s own solar capacity, SELF—with support from the Government of Norway—is launching a National Solar Training Program that will be implemented in partnership with a vocational training school in Port-au-Prince. The first classes will begin in October of this year.
So we want to continue to make a difference in Haiti – especially when so many have forgotten the suffering there.
What does the future hold?
Life in Africa is incredibly hard for women. Because water is so often far away from villages, mothers often keep their daughters home from school to help collect water or to care for their younger siblings while they go off to collect it themselves. Giving women access to clean water in the village frees young girls to go to school more often and for longer periods of time.
Rape is a concern across the developing world.
By providing women with access to clean water through the use of solar energy, we help them improve safety, their health, educate their children, and develop new enterprises to lift their families out of poverty.
Access to clean water means better lives for women and girls and their families. Girls no longer have to help their mothers fetch water, women have more time to work without having to walk to distant water sources or to care for children who are sick from various water-borne illnesses. Women are also able to complete chores faster and have more time to develop marketable skills of their own, or to find work or develop new businesses that will bring in additional income to their households.
We have to fight inequality. And we need clean energy to do it.
It’s time to declare energy to be a human right.
Without energy, there is no way to light our homes, pump water, store vaccines, run computers, operate machinery, or communicate with the rest of the world.
Energy is a cornerstone of modern civilization, yet, as I mentioned earlier, 1.2 billion people still have no access to electricity. This is unacceptable.
For far too long, the role of energy in meeting basic human needs had been overlooked by the international development community. Energy access was not included as a Millennium Development Goal when the MDGs were first announced by the U.N. in the year 2000. Ever since then, however, there has been a growing consensus that none of the MDGs can be achieved without access to modern energy services. And then, in 2012, with the declaration of the Year of Sustainable Energy for All, the United Nations elevated the importance of energy access to the highest level of political discourse. The U.N. Secretary General called upon governments of the world, along with the private sector and civil society, to join forces in a global campaign to end energy poverty by the year 2030.
The UN Sustainable Energy for All Initiative is focused on three mutually reinforcing goals: 1) ensuring universal access to modern energy services; 2) doubling the rate of improvement in energy efficiency; and 3) doubling the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix.
I was happy to see this campaign get underway. We can do more. We can assign legal status to the notion of energy as a human right. We can make it official.
Thanks for your time, Bob, and thanks for what you do.
INTERVIEW by Christian Sarkar