April 21, 2024 Friends & Family Letter


"Go Big or Go Home!": Going from 20 to 250 women's solar shops between now and 2025

Dear Friends, Family & Compatriots:

  Well, we have come really, really far with the Malawi solar work. For those who have been following, you will have noticed that past year we distributed about 1000 solar pumping systems, 200 solar electric cookers and about 1000 solar lighting systems through about 10 rural villages solar shops run by local women's collectives.

  As mentioned before, this year, we are going to be really busy too. Our task this summer is to distribute about 500 solar pumping systems, 1500 solar cooking systems, 100 forever batteries and 1000 solar lighting systems in 2024!

  But I guess the really big development in the last couple of months is that our cooking system funders have made it clear to us that they really want us to "Go Big!"  They don't want us to help just a few thousand households per year, but they want us to go for more than 10,000 cooker systems in 2025. Of course, we will have to throw in at least a few thousand pumping systems too, because the pumping systems help generate the income that allows villagers to buy more cooker systems.

  To do that, we have to grow our impact by a factor of 5 to 10!

  It also looks like our supporters at the MECS program (https://mecs.org.uk) at Loughborough University in the UK are going to put their money where their mouth is.  It seems pretty clear that they serious about helping us find the $2 million or more in funding that will be needed for such a project in 2025. There is lots and lots of international donor interest now in clean cooking in Africa, so this may actually be easier than it sounds.

  This expansion program is not in the bag yet, but there us a very good chance that it could happen. 

  In fact, we have already gotten an official endorsement of our 2025 expansion plans from the Malawi Ministry of Energy.  The endorsement letter reads:

"The Yorghas Foundation, Affordable Solar for Villagers, and Kachione LLC propose a pilot project to distribute 15,000 off-grid solar electric cooking systems and 5,000 small solar pumping systems through a network of 250 women-run solar shops in villages throughout rural Malawi in 2025. They propose distributing the systems at a project cost of less than $200 for each cooker or pumping system that is distributed to rural customers."

and ...

"The Ministry of Energy endorses the proposed project and stands ready to work with project implementers and donors to facilitate project implementation as needed throughout the pilot project and beyond." 

  So in the rest of this letter, I will tell the story of how all of this came about ... and then describe what we will be trying to do in the next six months to lay the groundwork for the big project in 2025.

  So, here we go, first stories, then preparation plans.

Story #1: Robert thinks the 2025 expansion effort is partly "John's Fault"

  I think that a big part of our extremely ambitious 2025 expansion plans is "John's Fault."  You see, a year or two ago, the Malawi solar work was too much dependent on just me. The Malawi work was going down a fairly clear path: we would improve the lives of thousands of Malawians, but after 10 years or so, I would finish up, pack-up, go home and our good deeds would have been done. 

  Thus helping tens of thousands of people would be the "End of Story." We tried to make the Malawi solar project really big, but it just never quite worked out. So we have to be satisfied with a significant, but sort of small-ish impact. This would have been perfectly fine.

  But the problem is that over the past couple of years a good friend, John W, has been volunteering and helping organizational aspects: accounting, inventory, safety, health and welfare ... really crucial operational stuff. And as he does this work, the possibility of a larger organization and program becomes more real.

  In addition, last summer John came to Malawi, and basically fell in love with the projects we are doing, especially the pumps where he could see an almost doubling of the income and standard of living of some of the people that use the new solar pumps.  

  I have been working in Malawi for nine years: I feel a bit old, cynical and jaded. John's enthusiasm injected a dose of new energy into project activities.

  I remember at the end of his visit, John said to me: "Do you think you can distribute 4000 pumps next summer?  I said yes, it was possible, and he indicated that 4000 pumps was going to be his fundraising goal for 2023!

  Well we did a lot of work organizing and fundraising since John's visit last August, but we were able to raise enough for only about 500 pumping systems, not 4000.  With some recent donations, we can get this number up to about 700 pumping systems. 

  But John is not going to give up ...

  As a result, John and I changed our focus to looking for large grants for 2025 to give ourselves more time. We realized that it takes more than a year to get grant fundraising organized.  

  But as we started organizing for such grant proposals, it became clear, that it was going to be easier expanding the work that we already have that is supported by development grants (i.e. the solar electric cooker work) than it was going to be getting grants from new funding sources for solar pumps.  

  The problem is that there are already lots and lots of organizations working on solar pumps, and it is just really hard for a couple of old part-time volunteers like me and John to develop long-term professional relationships with solar pump funders. This is especially true given the fact that there are already a bunch of organizations who already have those funding relationships. As newbies, we just can't compete.

  On the other hand, we have already been getting grants for solar cooking work in Malawi for almost 5 years now, AND we seem to have the highest performing, affordable off-grid solar electric cooking system of anybody working in Africa.

  So in the last few months we have pivoted our fundraising approach and it seems to be working out ....

  Before the pivot, John was really stressing about how hard and uncertain it might be to get grants for 2025. 

  After the pivot, John isn't stressing any more, which makes me happy.

  Instead, I now get to stress out over how the hell we are supposed to organize and operate 250 village solar shops around the country in 2025! .... But that is a pretty good thing to be stressing about!

Story #2: Lower solar panel prices is enabling us to double cooker system performance.

  Another reason it is so tempting to try to "Go Big" is that solar panels are now so damn cheap!

  In fact, a few months ago, I got a quote for solar panels that was less than 10 cents per watt! This is 100 times cheaper than solar panel prices in 1990, this is 20 times cheaper than during the Obama administration! and FOUR TIMES cheaper than the price of solar panels when I started working in Malawi in 2015.

  Now in reality, the bulk price that we are actually getting in practice is $0.12/watt, but this is still pretty amazing.

  Now a watt of solar panel capacity can produce about a kWh per year of energy, so the factory door price of solar panel electricity can be as low as $0.012/kWh when the price of the solar panel is amortized over 10 years.

  There are additional costs incurred to bring the solar panel from the factory in China to the village in Malawi, but we can keep these costs below $0.08/W. This means that the solar panel cost of electricity off-grid in rural Malawi can be below $0.02/kWh when amortized over 10 years.

  This is amazing, and it would be a shame to not take advantage of this development to provide electricity access to rural Malawians.

  In fact, we can now provide 700 watts of solar panels for a cooking system for about $100.  This increases the cooking power of the cooker system from a range of 150 to 300 watts for a system powered by a 350-watt panel up to 300 to 500 watts of cooking power for a system with 700 watts of solar panels. This makes is much easier to cook more food faster on the upgraded cooking system. 

  So now, our off-grid solar electric cooking solution is twice as good as it was just a few months ago!

Story #3: Moses Busher and the Yorghas Foundation are new partners that are helping instigate Malawi government support ...

  In February, the Malawi coordinator (Moses Busher) of a small Polish non-profit called the Yorghas Foundation (https://yorghas.org/) contacted us with an interest in our solar pumps.  After a bit of back and forth it became clear that they have projects in several villages, and they could potentially be a partner in opening women's solar shops in the villages that they operate.  

  Because of El Nino, parts of Malawi are experiencing drought this growing season.  This will decrease food harvests in many parts of the country.  (See: https://joint-research-centre.ec.europa.eu/jrc-news-and-updates/drought-worsens-crisis-southern-africa-2024-04-19_en). As a result, when I arrived in Malawi in late February we met with the Malawi Minister of Local Government.  In this meeting, we explained how solar pumps could be used to increase food production in Malawi and mitigate the impact of climate-change-enhanced droughts, like the drought that Malawi is currently experiencing. 

  The positive reception that we received at this meeting gave me the confidence to pursue stronger Malawi government support for what we are trying to organize. Ultimately, this has lead to the Malawi Government providing an endorsement for our 10X expansion dreams for 2025 with the letter described above. 

Story #4: The UK MECS program really wants "scale-able" solutions

  Another factor driving our ambition to increase by 10X between now and 2025 is the very strong desire of our solar cooking grant funders (https://mecs.org.uk/) to create a "scale-able" solution. The UK MECS program, had a really good reception at the latest global climate change mitigation conference, COP 28, and now the International Energy Agency and many other international development stakeholders are fully on board with pushing clean cooking, especially for Africa (see: https://www.iea.org/reports/a-vision-for-clean-cooking-access-for-all/executive-summary).

  Now, because we have been working on off-grid solar electric cooking since 2018, we actually are the only ones who have a viable off-grid solar electric cooking system in Malawi (and perhaps the only one in Africa) because of the cost efficiency of our system design and distribution system. 

  But a key reason why our solution is so good, is that we have a network of very cost-effective village solar shops run by local women's collectives, and we combine the distribution of solar cookers with the distribution of solar pumping systems which help produce lots of food (and money) for relatively little investment cost. But the question is: Can this grassroots demonstration and distribution system for off-grid solar electric cooking really distribute enough cooking systems to solve the clean cooking problem in Malawi at a national scale?

  Selling $100 solar systems to low-income households that earn only $100/month on average is difficult because only a few households can make such a big investment at any particular time. This means that each village shop, may sell only about 100 solar cooker systems per year. And that means, that in order to create a national scale program, thousands of village shops will probably be needed. How to manage, low-cost distribution via thousands of small village shops is perhaps THE scaling problem that we have to solve in order to convert our current activities to a national scale program. 

Next Steps: Preparing for a 10X expansion in 2025

So now with all of the moral and fundraising support that seems to exist, there are only four remaining challenges for us to solve to be ready for 2025:

1) Creating an NGO implementation network to help us expand fast

2) Getting organizational and operational systems in place to operate and manage hundreds of shops.

3) Navigating details of the fundraising process

4) Government relations and approvals

I will do a quick run-down of how we might meet each of these challenges below:

Remaining Challenge #1: Creating a coalition of partner NGOs for implementing the 2025 project

  This challenge should actually be pretty easy to meet. This is primarily because there are lots of NGOs in Malawi, and a project like we are planning for 2025 should be very exciting for many of them.

  Distributing solar pumps and cookers is something that can make many communities very happy, and NGO work is really based on building a good relationship with the communities that you operate in.  

  The key task here is matching the different NGO's with the right tasks, making sure that responsibilities are clearly defined, and having good management and contingency plans when things don't go as expected.  After working in Malawi for almost 10 years, I am pretty sure we know how to do this. 

Remaining Challenge #2: Creating the operational system for supporting and operating 200 village shops!

  The key reason we will meet this challenge without too many problems is that we have a great team that will be working on this over the summer.  Our partners in Malawi are now very experienced at managing and operating village solar shops. And we have spent the past year tuning up and refining the operations of our central organization and workshop.

  Now we have additional volunteers and resources who will be specifically focused on creating the procedures and processes for operating our shop network in an efficient, cost-optimized way.  I am confident that we will have a great set of processes and procedures in place by September.  

Remaining Challenge #3: Navigating details of the fundraising process

  The key reason this challenge should not be a problem, is that we have a wonderful working partnership with the folks administering the Modern Energy Cooking Services (MECS) program in the UK.  In the coming year, they are helping mobilize many millions of dollars of funding for clean cooking programs throughout Africa and the developing world, and they know that we have THE BEST clean cooking solution for rural Malawians. In addition, one of their staff will be coming to Malawi in August to see first hand the progress that we have made, which should cement their ability to find and help negotiate and administer the financing for our 2025 scale-up plans. 

Remaining Challenge #4: Government relations and approvals ...

  For this challenge, we are off to a great start with the endorsement letter that we have gotten from the Malawi Ministry of Energy for our 2025 program. But I am sure that there are always other government approvals to be had, and we may not even know or understand all of the issues that we may have to address in the future. But our experience is pretty good so far, and I am confident that we can work through any other issues that we may have given the relationships that we are building with other Malawian NGOs and government officials/staff. 


That's it for now

  Well, that is it for now.  I plan to update all of you again in September/October after we have done our 3-4 months of preparatory work for the 2025 project. 

Until then!

In love and struggle, 

Robert VB