Six areas of progress, including pumps for women's groups

Dear Friends, Family and Compatriots:

I got back from my latest trip to Malawi the first week of June and now I am heading back to Malawi. I caught a flight back on July 4. I am finishing up this latest letter on the flight back.

In case you haven't seen it yet, we have two websites that we are expanding step-by-step. If you find people interested in this work, please send them to the websites or have them email me. These two websites are:

Solar4Africa.org &


This friends and family letter is going to be very long because quite a bit has happened since the last friends and family letter. So you may want to read only part of it. I have organized the letter into six sections corresponding to six activity areas where we have made some progress over the past two months.

Feel free to skip to those sections that interest you the most in order to save time.

So where have we made progress? In May and June we have been making progress in the following areas:

(1) Solar Irrigation: We have been organizing rural women's groups to get solar water pumps for their vegetable gardens. We have signed up about 300 groups?

(2) Malawi Rural Solar Electrification Plan: I have written and posted a policy and plan for attaining the solar electrification of rural Malawi by the year 2040, through the distribution of off-grid solar home systems that have solar electric cookers.

(3) Supply and logistics: We have gotten solar panels to a partner in Togo, have a large container of supplies coming to Malawi, and have cookers and solar panels on their way to Bob Lange's Maasai Stoves and Solar project in Tanzania.

(4) Small solar cars: The parts for two small solar cars have arrived to the US. One has been assembled and the other will soon be on its way to a partner in Massachusetts. And you should tell me if you want to want to be the owner of a small solar car in the next year or two!

(5) Solar Foreverlight Sign-up: About 1000 households have been signed up and are ready and waiting for the first thousand solar lighting systems that will be enabled by the container that will arrive in August.

(6) 12V Forever Battery Development: We have been testing and improving our 12V Lithium titanate battery system.

Here are the details of the progress that we have made in each area:

(1) Solar irrigation for rural women's groups

Throughout rural Malawi, hundreds of thousands of women who are desperate for a little extra food and cash during the dry season CARRY WATER BY HAND to grow irrigated vegetable gardens during the dry season.

Why does this occur? Well, a majority of Malawians live in what we might call the "subsistence economy." The subsistence economy is primarily agricultural, you have access to land and labor, but you don't have access to much else. You can sell your labor to your neighbors, but there is not much opportunity in terms of jobs. Primarily you grow food, some of which you eat, and some of which you sell for cash to buy the other things you need.

There is a rainy season and a dry season in Malawi. During the rainy season, virtually all available land is cultivated. During the dry season, smaller areas of land are cultivated near rivers and watering holes. Naturally, crops that are grown in the dry season earn more money than crops grown in the rainy season because there is a smaller supply that is sold to markets.

Last fall we tried distributing small solar pumping systems (that cost about $300 each) to rural women's groups, and found that in some areas the women used the pumps very well. Because a garden needed to be watered only about once per week, one pump might irrigate as many as five different garden plots, and women expanded their gardens.

This year, a couple of my solar development colleagues (one from Emeryville and one from Ghana) came to Malawi to explore expanding our women's empowerment activities. Because an inexpensive solar pump can have such a large impact reducing labor and increasing income, they were assigned to visiting the villages to expand solar pumping outreach.

It seems that they have been pretty wildly successful. As they wrap up their trip in the beginning of July, it looks like they have demonstrated solar pumping to hundreds of women's groups representing more than a thousand women.

And now we will be setting up the process to systematically distribute and monitor the solar pumping systems to these women's groups so that hundreds of households can have more food and money for their families during the dry season.

Now, the same solar panels that power the pumps can power solar electric cookers, so when the cookers come in the container in July and August, we will set up cooker distribution with many of the same groups.

(2) Malawi Rural Solar Electrification Policy and Plan

One of they key things that I have been doing during my time in the US has been formulating what might be called a "Policy Discussion" regarding the solar cooking work that we have been doing in Malawi.

The policy discussion that I have been writing is meant to create a vision of how it can be possible to develop a policy and program that could lead to the solar electrification of most of rural Malawi by 2040.

Because 90% of rural household energy needs in Malawi is for cooking, the vast majority of rural electrification needs to address cooking. So the policy discussion is focused on the distribution of off-grid solar electric cooking (OGSEC) systems. This policy paper argues that such OGSEC systems can be enabled for low-income households in rural Malawi with the efficient application of international aid using what is called "results-based financing."

Why do I have to write such a policy paper? Well, for most of us, what is good or bad policy is almost intuitive, but for people who create laws and decide international aid priorities, designing "good policies" is a profession. International aid is administered by "policy professionals" who distribute billions of dollars of international aid funds each year.

This means that as we grow our non-partisan humanitarian solar access work in Malawi and other countries, it eventually becomes necessary to interact with some of these policy professionals, one way or another. I don't know if large amounts of aid money will eventually support our efforts. But just in case it is possible, I have to explain what a large-scale aid program might look like if it is consistent with what we are doing in the villages.

The issue is that these policy professionals have one set of ideas about what is good electrification policy for rural Africa. Meanwhile, I have a somewhat different set of ideas about what the best policy is. If I am going to interact with these professionals, I need to explain my ideas, and then see if they are open to supporting them.

A policy that might solar-electrify rural Malawi by 2040

The solar access work that me and my colleagues are doing has a particular "style." Perhaps the four words that can best describe our style are: (1) de-centralized, (2) grassroots, (3) humanitarian, and (4) non-profit.

There are other 'styles' for doing solar access work. Perhaps the opposite style can be described as a) center-focused, b) policy-driven, c) private-sector-lead, and d) for-profit. This opposite style is currently the most popular approach for international aid work because much of international aid is used as a government subsidy for for-profit businesses.

This means that for better or for worse, people with a distinctly pro-business economic philosophy now control a lot of the aid that goes to Africa, especially aid for the energy sector. In many cases, this is fine: it takes all types of philosophies and styles to make the world, and very often "money makes the world go round" so a for-profit business approach can often get things done.

The problem is that in Malawi, 80% of households live in rural areas and depend to a large extent on subsistence farming. This means that a center-focused, purely for-profit approach usually has difficulty reaching and serving the majority of Malawians.

The Obama administration attempted to support electricity access for Malawi back in 2012 with a foreign aid project that had a cost of $325 million. This cost was equivalent to about $100 for every household in Malawi. At the time, $100 was enough to give every househd in Malawi, a pretty nice solar system. But they didn't use the money for that. Instead they used the money to support the grid and the national electric company. As a result--in my opinion--we have a situation today, ten years later, where about 80% of Malawians are still without electricity: inspite of spending more than $300M in aid on "electricity access."

In my opinion, that is exactly what happens when you use a center-focused, private-sector-lead, for-profit philosophy for providing electricity access in Malawi: a for-profit approach means that only 20% of Malawians get access, because only 20% of Malawians have enough money to make a purely for-profit business approach viable.

A purely for-profit approach simply does not work for most Malawians, IMHO.

I argue that if you want to get electricity to people with very little money, you have to make it super-cost-effective and super-affordable. I think it might be possible to do that for most Malawians at an aid cost that is about half the cost of what the US government previously spent on supporting the electricity sector with a "private-sector-lead" approach.

The details of that approach are described in a policy paper that I recently posted on my research web site:


This paper describes a vision of getting about $1.5 billion worth of off-grid electricity to more than 15 million rural Malawians by 2040 with about $150M in aid financing. The paper describes nine activities for us to implement in the next two years to enable this vision to become a reality. Wish me luck in organizing the people and resources necessary for getting this vision started! Maybe it will work, and maybe it won't. But given the stakes involved, I have to try to get this implemented. We will see.

(3) Supply and Logistics Progress

Another really big thing that we have arranged so far this year is the purchasing and shipping of over $80k worth of solar equipment to Malawi, $40k worth of equipment to Tanzania and $6k of equipment to Togo.

Now that the equipment is on its way, there is a lot to do in order to prepare for the distribution of hundreds of solar pumps, many hundreds of solar cookers, 10 solar vehicles and thousands of forever lights.

And yes, the global distribution system is "Having Issues." For me shipping prices have increased about 30% to 50%. In addition the Shanghai shutdown delayed some orders by more than a month.

In spite of all of this, a batch of 100 solar panels have arrived at a partner in Togo, the large container should be able to get to Malawi at the beginning of August and three hundred DC solar electric cookers should make it to the Maasai Stoves and Solar project in Tanzania.

But I have a problem procurement: 400 solar panels slated for the Maasai Stoves and Solar project in Tanzania. First the manufacture was delayed by a month due to the Shanghai COVID shutdown, and now the supplier is being way too slow in getting the solar panels shipped. Not sure exactly how this will get resolved. Will update you-all in the next friends and family letter.

(4) Small Solar Cars

Well, given that it is relatively easy to make small solar cars that cost only $5k to $15k that essentially have no operating cost and can drive around at about 30mph, I think it is a crime that such cheap zero-operating-cost cars are not widely available for sale both in the US and in Africa.

So our last big solar parts order included a dozen small solar cars. But the problem with solar cars in Malawi is that only very few people can afford them. But in the US, people really could afford them. In addition, people in the US generally can get pretty excited by solar cars: they are a bit less interested in aid to Africa. I actually have measured the response on the internet: people respond to solar car postings with about five times as many clicks on average compared to the solar in Africa postings that I have made.

The high interest in solar cars in the US, means that maybe I can use that interest to help raise funds for Africa. So I have set that up at the following website:


But people in the US also want to be able to buy a solar car. So since the last friends and family letter, I have started working with three colleagues to get that started: Tim in Massachusetts, Willie in St. Louis and my solar installer nephew Craig (and his friend Kevin) who live Northeast of Sacramento in the Sierra foothills.

We shipped two solar vehicles disassembled to the US via a warehouse in LA, and Craig, Kevin and I went down and picked up the parts for two vehicles and assembled one of them at Kevin's place. That vehicle is now up and running while the parts for the other vehicle will soon be packed up and shipped to Tim in Massachussetts.

Our plan now is to test the two vehicles, work on some of the logistical and licensing issues for the next two to three months. We will then take a group order for bringing in 10 to 20 more vehicles next year. We plan to have about four different models that range in price between $6k and $15k. Small vehicles with three wheels and a smaller battery get the lowest price, while larger golf carts with larger batteries get the highest price.

I would love it if 5 years from now, such solar vehicles were just standard offerings at Walmart, Costco, Sam's Club, Home Depot and Lowes. We will see if we can make something like that happen between now and 5 years from now. We can always dream.

In the mean time, if you want a small solar car and can afford one, please drop me a line. Perhaps you can join in on our next vehicle order at the end of this year!

(5) Solar Forever Light Marketing and Sign-ups

The thing that we do that has the greatest humanitarian impact is distributing forever lights. This is because they can reach the poorest households, give them much more light and electricity than they are using now and save them $2 to $5 per month in battery and phone charging expenses. The systems cost only about $20 and should last 10 years or so. This means that every dollar in system cost should deliver something like $10 to $50 of household economic benefits.

The battery shipment that is coming in July/August should have enough battery cells for more than 3000 forever light systems. The task now is to ramp up the assembly, sales and distribution to actually get the systems to customers shortly after the shipment arrives.

To prepare for this, we have been contracting our rural distributors to pre-register forever light customers at about $1/household. We have more than 700 customers signed up, ready and waiting for the shipment now. August, September, and October should be very very busy months.

(6) 12V Forever Battery Testing & Improvement

Creating a battery that can last 10 to 20 years is--in my opinion--THE most critical factor in enabling the solar electrification of rural Malawi over the next 20 years.

As explained in the last friends and family letter, we are in the process of finalizing the design and production process for 12V solar batteries. This involves assembling 5 Lithium titanate (LTO) battery cells in series and the building a circuit for a battery management system that monitors each cell and make sure each cell operates in a way that assures that it can have a long lifetime.

In May, we assembled about five prototypes of the "version #3" board which works "good enough."

From the version 3 prototypes, we realized that some of the overcharge management needs to be tweaked a bit, and the circuit needs to be more "temperature stable." There is a risk that the board won't work right at high temperatures, so the circuit has to be adjusted a bit to correct that.

Now we have a "version 4" board that we will prototype and test. But until version 4 is fully tested, we will stay with version 3 for the first batch of battery production.

But hopefully in September/October, we will be in the throes of producing dozens of version 4, 12V Batteries for dozens of very very eager customers.

We will see.

That's Enough for Now:

Well that was a very long friends and family letter. That's enough for now.

I am sure the next friends and family letter will be just as long. There is just so much going on, which is good!

In love and struggle,

Robert VB