Breaking out is hard to do!
Dear Friends, Family and Compatriots:
I write this returning from my most recent, two-month trip to Malawi. This year is supposed to be our "break-out" year where all the pieces come together and we can start growing at a rapid pace. In spite of the pandemic, this year activities are growing rather fast, so there is a lot to report in this letter.
Looks like this is perhaps our "breaking out" year. While this is pretty exciting: from my perspective it is also a bit too much work. With lack of infrastructure and with organizational conditions of unpredictability. it gets pretty hard to keep a sense of order on the chaos. But we do what we can ...
To help control the chaos we will sometimes slow down growth to help keep things more predictable and organized. That is what is necessary when one implements projects under conditions where there is very little money and resources. Slower growth and better organization is often good for the longer-term sustainability of the organizations that we help create. Theoretically, we should be going faster: i.e. 200 light installations per month instead of 100 per month, 50 cooker systems installed this year instead of just 20, solar vehicles up and running by now instead of two months from now. But we aim high, and then adjust down based on conditions.
Note that all of the work reported here is possible due to the generous support of people who get this letter. Thank you, thank you, and thank you again. I am honored to be entrusted with donations you give to try to do some good in rural Africa.
With persistence and a steady, long term commitment, we have accomplished a lot together.
Now back to work ...
Four products: Lights, Cookers, Pumps & Vehicles
We have three pretty good products and one product that is in prototype form that will soon be tested. As a quick reminder, the four key products are as follows:
(1) Forever Lights (and phone chargers): We are now designing our solar lights to last 10 years or more. We have installed 600 so far this year with parts for another 2000 scheduled to arrive in September. These are good, popular, and create huge benefits for poor households. There are still some improvements to be made (i.e. switching to Lithium Titanate batteries), but we have this one in the bag. We will be installing tens of thousands of such lights over the coming years.
(2) Solar Electric Cookers: We have a $60k grant from UKAid to finish working out the details of how to do solar electric cooker systems right in rural Malawi, and to measure how they can impact women's empowerment. We have a few kinks to work out, but we are selling the systems and plan to install at least 100 households this year. We have also written up the cooker economics and published the results in a peer-reviewed academic journal article that you can read at:
"How to Make Off-Grid Solar Electric Cooking Cheaper Than Wood-Based Cooking"
(3) Solar pumps: These are the big money makers for rural Malawians. One $300 solar pumping system can generate many thousands of dollars of income per year by helping grow vegetables in the dry season. We are using this our anchoring activity in our effort to establish village-based solar shops (preferably run by women's cooperatives) in different parts of the country.
(4) Solar Electric Vehicles: When our next container arrives, we should have enough materials for a total of six prototype solar electric vehicles which cost about $3000 each when all is said and done. We also have a manufacturer in China who will make a slightly better version at a price of about $2000 at the factory door in China. We plan to start distributing these to our various planned village solar shops and then see how much money people can make by renting them and charging fees for carrying.people and goods without consuming a drop of petroleum fuel.
And now here is the progress made over the last two months ...
Establishing the Lundu village women's solar cooperative:
One of the key things that we did on this trip is establish a women's solar cooperatives shop in Lundu village in partnership with an established local cooperative called the Rise and Shine Foundation (RSF). RSF has historically been one of our solar lights distributors, so it was natural to start distributing forever lights to some of the old customers who purchased lighting systems years ago. We started the forever light distribution during my last trip to Malawi in January.
Of course customers like the new, longer-lasting lights, and this laid the foundation for setting up a shop.
In our initial meeting to discuss the solar shop, I asked the women in the group what their idea of empowerment is? What would make their life better? They said emphatically their idea of empowerment is doing more business so they can make more money to support their families. They mentioned raising goats and vegetable farming in particular. I told them that I wasn't sure if I could help them raise goats, but we had solar pumps that definitely would help them with the vegetables.
And with that general money-making mission, we decided to go forward with the solar shop idea.
So we rented a shop building for about $30/month, and a technicians' quarters for $30/month, and came with lights, cooking systems, pumps and lots of large, 280W solar panels and the shop was up and running.
The delivery of the 30 large solar panels made a big first impression on the village.
The day after the delivery was market day. With the buzz from the solar panel delivery and with the shop located in the main market area, the women's group was able to sell the first 10 solar cooking systems within two days for about $80 each (which is about half of what they systems cost ... i.e. the price is 50% subsidized). A few days later, they started renting solar irrigation services to local farmers.
About a week later, we delivered additional materials to the cooperative so that our technicians from the Blantyre workshop along with newly trained local women technicians could begin installing the cooking systems that were purchased. The technicians also installed dozens of discounted lighting systems and conducted more than four dozen detailed women's empowerment surveys.
A good start. Over the next several months we will see if we can turn this into a sustained business operation that can consistently earn money for the women's group.
Starting a solar shop in Mgubo village:
In the meantime, a Chief from a small village near MChinji, Malawi (near the Zambia border) who we have been working with since 2017 had been calling me once every couple of months during the pandemic asking when I would get around to providing him with a solar-compatible TV. You see, he has an old, small tube TV that he had been trying to use with his solar, but it is very inefficient, so he couldn't use it very long without his system running out of power. The market in Malawi actually has 16-inch flat screen TVs that use only about 10 watts of power that are good for solar systems. These TVs even cost less than $100. So I picked up one of those TVs and paid the Chief a visit. The efficient TV solved his problem.
During the visit, I asked the Chief about setting up a solar shop in his village. I explained that if we have a solar shop, we can deliver solar systems in big batches and store them in the shop. When we can deliver 20 to 50 large solar panels in a batch, and when it takes about $200 to do a delivery by truck, then transportation costs for our $100 solar panels can drop to below $10/panel.
Both the Chief and a local entrepreneur were very enthusiastic about the solar shop idea.
To facilitate the shop, the entrepreneur agreed to build and lease a shop building to the project for two years in exchange for a $300 solar pump.
This may seem generous, but the entrepreneur knows a good investment when he sees one. Currently he waters his tomatoes by carrying water by hand from a nearby water hole. With the solar pump he will be able to dramatically expand production, increasing total farm income by thousands of dollars. There is a shortage of vegetable supply near the end of the dry season in November/December when prices increase. By planting now, he will have a great payback in just 4 to 5 months when he sells his harvest right at the time when market prices will be highest.
The Chief also knows a good development when he sees one. He knows the solar shop will be a great boost to the village economy, so he has allocated a plot of land on which we can soon build a permanent home for the shop and a technicians quarters and guest house. Total construction costs for the permanent facility will probably be around $1000 to $2000. But we will see over the coming year. Establishment of the permanent shop is contingent on the successful operation of the temporary facility.
The temporary shop is located right next to the village soccer field. It is small, it's roof will be solar panels (that way we save money because we don't have to buy corrugated sheeting), and the panels will power a solar restaurant that will serve chips (i.e French-fried potatoes) vegetables, eggs, fried chicken, and whatever else folks want to sell.
Meanwhile the permanent shop is located closer to the vegetable gardens and water hole, so it will be easy to rent and transport the solar pumps that will increase vegetable production, which increases total village income. We are crossing our fingers and hoping that all of this works out OK.
AND on top of all of this, the main dirt road that passes through the village just got paved and appears to be PERFECT for solar vehicles. It is flat, smooth, completely sunny, has very little vehicle traffic, and connects a busy main road with small population centers that are located several kilometers away from the main road. It is a prime location for testing out business models for rural solar electric transportation services.
The COVID Delta variant interferes with our Ghana collaboration:
Of course not all news about this latest trip to Malawi is good. One key challenge is that the latest surge of the delta variant of COVID stifled some of our international collaboration plans.
The way we wanted to launch the Lundu village cooperative was with the visit of Lesia W. and Evelyn A. Lesia trained our current women technicians a few years ago, and has also collaborated with me on Ghana projects for more than a decade. Evelyn has also collaborated on Ghana projects for almost a decade. But as the latest COVID surge was starting in late June, so Malawi shut down all visa issuance. So while Lesia had gotten her visa before the shutdown, Evelyn could not get a visa to come. But there will be plenty of training to do at village solar shops next year, so we delayed that part of the project for a year when hopefully the pandemic is not creating as many problems.
Ok: this letter is long enough. Note that I plan another two-month trip from Mid-September to mid-November. One big development for that trip will be getting the solar vehicles up and running (with LTO batteries). Meanwhile, the big adventure on that trip will be organizing a big exchange visit between our Malawi operations and the Tanzania operations of Bob Lange who works with the Monduli Maasai. See:
When we travel up to Tanzania, we will be delivering 100 solar pumps that we ordered for them from China. We will also be teaching the Tanzania folks about our solar cookers, while they teach us about their women's empowerment activities. It should all be a very cool and interesting exchange.
So now you know what to expect from the next friends and family letter in November: which will likely be quite a bit longer than this one, I am sure.
In love and struggle,