Happy New Year! And 2023 Plans for Malawi Solar Work!


Happy New Year Friends, Family and Compatriots!

I am a little behind in the friends and family letters but wanted to get a quick "Happy New Year" letter out that laid out expectations for 2023!

But first! For anyone that wants to get a small solar car as one of their resolutions for 2023, please drop me a line!

My friend and collaborator Tim Bell is willing to bring some more three-wheeled solar tuk-tuks to the US for those who want one. To get one, you pay an initial $500 deposit, and then pick it up at a delivery point either in California or Massachusetts nine months later after paying a total price of $7,500.

These solar tuk-tuks are basically a 25 mile-per-hour city vehicle, that can go 20 miles per charge, and which can get a full charge from the panels on the roof on a sunny day. In California it is registered as a moped. If you need it to go more than 20 miles per day, you can also charge it from a regular wall outlet or electrical extension cord if you need to increase the range somewhat.

Ok. That is the solar car sales pitch!


2023 plans for Malawi Work

We've got five basic activities planned for Malawi in the coming year in the following priority order:

(1)   Distribute solar pumps to between 500 and 1000 women's groups in order to generate millions of dollars of additional income per year (in total) for thousands of Malawian women!

(2)   Assemble, sell and install more than 2000 "forever light" solar systems in order to save more than $100,000/year (in total disposable battery and phone charging expenses) for thousands of rural Malawians.

(3)   Distribute up to 1500 solar electric cookers (to many to the women's groups with solar pumps) so that more than a thousand women can collectively save tens of thousands of kilograms of wood and charcoal each month (helping save both their lungs and the environment).

(4)   Assemble and field test more than 100 "forever batteries" that can allow rural households to affordably use substantial amounts of solar electricity at night with a battery that can last 10 years or more; and

(5)   Field test and evaluate the 9 solar vehicles that we now have in Malawi to evaluate their practicality in actual operation, and discover what business models might feasibly allow their distribution at larger scale.

And then to allow the continuation and expansion of these activities through the end of 2024 in a financially sustainable way, we will be working on a sixth activity, which is:

(6)   Create and establish new financing mechanism using "impact credits" which could make our work financially feasible at large scale. For a detailed description of the impact credit market concept, you can read the following proposal which I have posted on my research site: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/366498278_Pilot_testing_a_commodity_market_for_project_impact

Now, don’t forget that I am not doing all of this work myself.  I am organizing it, but there is a great team of 5-10 US volunteers and there are a dozen staff in Malawi doing all of this work. These are all very exciting projects and many people are taking a piece of each project and running it well on their own.  I just provide guidance, strategy and fundraising resources here and there. If you want to take a piece of our projects and volunteer to run it on your own, I have formulated several pieces as “student projects” which you can see at: https://www.solar4africa.org/technical-details/2023-student-projects

Let me now run through the plans for each of these six activities one-by-one, below.



Distributing Solar Pumps

This is the activity that will create the greatest benefits and excitement over the next year.  We distributed solar pumps to more than 100 women’s groups last summer getting a rather late start. So we should be able to distribute solar pumps to 500 to 1000 women’s groups next summer.

This video shows how the pumps can generate up to $100 of benefit (over ten years) for every $1 donated:


And this video gives a demonstration of how the pump system works:


So we now have a small international women’s collective that is meeting every week to prepare and organize for next summer’s distribution. The website for the women’s collective is here:


This is a testimony to what can be accomplished when we all support women working collectively to promote their own economic empowerment and development.


Assembling and Selling “Forever Lights”

We now have a great little $20 solar lighting and phone charging system that should last 10 years or so. It uses one 10 amp-hour 2V-3V lithium titanate battery cell and supplies both a 5V phone charging circuit and a 3V LED lighting circuit. The system is very simple.  A 5V solar panel charges the battery cell with the voltage being stepped-down through a couple of diodes, and then the 5V and 3V circuit is supplied by stepping the voltage back up through robust, adjustable DC voltage converters that cost $0.50 each.

Last year we signed up 1500 customers but only about half that got the lights because the battery cells were late arriving and we were busy with the pumps and were late getting the lights to the customers.  People have free cash only for a few months after harvest, and we were late delivering the lights to many of the customers so they did not have the cash when we showed up.  Now that we have all of the parts in stock, we should be able to get more than 2000 lighting systems to customers next summer.

The customers pay a little over $10 for a $20 lighting system. The $10 covers local distribution, assembly and miscellaneous parts costs for the system. Imported parts cost another $10, which is covered by donations.


Distributing Solar Electric Cookers

We have a grant approved for distributing thousands of solar electric cookers over the next two years. We have a scheme for doing this and then turning this into a large-scale rural electrification scheme which is described in the following document:


Our current grant allows us to effectively pilot-test this scheme with the next few thousand cookers that we distribute.

Because for each kilowatt hour of electric cooker use, people save somewhere between 2 and 5 kilograms of wood, we can essentially create a type of “carbon credit scheme” to help pay for the cookers because they are helping the world mitigate climate change.

We are now in the process of putting the meters on the cookers and seeing which women’s groups and households want to participate in the scheme. We will then see which users and applications seem to be the most cost-effective and see if we can grow our distribution system based on that.

Currently, because the solar pumping system provides the biggest benefits, we are starting with the women’s groups that are doing the solar pumping. The plan is for them to use the same panels that they use for the pumps with the cookers when they do not need the panels for watering their gardens. By distributing the pumps and the cookers together, we help lower the distribution costs of both systems.


Assembly and Field Test of “Forever Batteries”

Thanks to the great work of an EE graduate student volunteer, we now have prototype electronic control boards for assembling 12V “forever batteries” from lithium titanate battery cells which have 10 times the cycle life of regular lithium ion battery cells.

But because we have been so busy with the solar pumps, solar lights and solar cars, we are a bit behind schedule on assembling and field testing our ‘forever batteries.’ In my next trip to Malawi, we are going to focus on this development. Over the long term, these forever batteries are likely to be the most revolutionary piece of our solar work in Malawi. A robust, affordable 12V battery that can work hooked up to any solar panel and last 10 to 20 years would make off-grid solar electricity accessible to all rural Africans, with the potential of doubling the standard of living of hundreds of millions of the lowest income households on the planet.

So we have to fit this little bit of research and development work in. But electronics always has a few bugs.  Wish us luck at getting through the bugs, having good assembly quality controls and getting some good prototypes to customer this year!!!  We should be able to do it.


Field Test and Evaluation of Solar Vehicles

Thanks to the wonderful, wonderful, wonderful work of an old college friend, Tim Bell, we now have nine solar vehicles assembled in Malawi (six in working condition and three in need of repair), one up and running with a collaborator in Tanzania, and two vehicles in the US.  Hopefully the three in need of repair will be repaired soon. One of them had a motor burn out because someone drove it with the parking brake on. The other two had controller problems and we have gotten new and improved motor controllers to fix those problems. So hopefully they will be repaired soon.

We are still in the process of setting up our data collection processes for the cars and formalizing the agreements and business models for each of the vehicles. It is the rainy season now, so the vehicles are not being driven that much. But when summer comes, we will use the vehicles rather intensely to help distribute solar pumps and cookers out in the villages.


Create and Establish “Impact Credit” Financing

Because our solar pump project holds the potential of generating $100 of income for rural Malawian women for every $1 donated, it might hold the world’s record on impact cost-effectiveness.  If that is so, then if we can get paid based on the actual measured impact of generating income for rural Africans, we should be able to out-compete any other non-profit, NGO or aid agency for poverty-reducing donations and aid funds.

So to this end, I have created a concept for “impact credits” that we can inexpensively field test during our solar pump distribution next summer. The “proposal” is here:


There is a geeky philanthropy movement that prides itself in quantitatively maximizing impact per dollar for philanthropy called Effective Altruism (See: https://www.effectivealtruism.org/). The video presentation of the concept that best fits my approach to “effective altruism” is here:


I went to one of their conferences in Oakland/Berkeley last month, and they seem to be very receptive to the work that I am doing. So I am interacting with the Effective Altruism movement in three ways: (1) I am submitting a funding proposal to their “EA Infrastructure fund” to see if they will help create the impact market pilot test, (2) we are incorporating a couple of volunteers that I met at the conference into our work, and (3) I have formulated a set of student projects in case there are Effective Altruism students want to do some additional work in support of our efforts.

You can see the list of potential student projects designed for Effective Altruism enthusiasts here:



Happy 2023!

Well, that is it for now.  The coming year should be really, really interesting for the Malawi work. Don’t forget to drop me a line if you want a small solar car, if you want to work on one of the “student projects,” or if you want to come to Malawi next summer and join in the fun of distributing solar pumps to hundreds of women’s groups.

There are more stories to tell, but only so much time in the day. Feel free to call me anytime if you want to hear more stories about our work.

In love and struggle,

Robert VB