Getting the 2022 Expansion Underway
Dear Friends, Family and Compatriots:
In this letter I give you-all an update on the progress with the 2022 expansion of the Africa work that I volunteer for full time. Remember, my only pay for this work is your words of encouragement, so keep sending me your notes and comments.
I have just arrived back in Malawi to start the process of laying the groundwork for our expanding activities and impact. I have been in the US for two months working mostly on the logistics of ordering parts for our big summer expansion.
While it is good to do charitable works at a small, personal scale, when it is possible we should try to increase the scale of our activities and impact so that we can have a bigger and bigger influence on making the world a better place. The fact is that the wonderful support from friends and family over the years has helped me get to the point of creating some unique technological solutions to the problem of solar electricity access in Africa. This has helped several thousand people so far. So it is now my responsibility to see if I can grow the positive impact of these technologies as large as possible. Maybe in three to five years or so, we will be able to make life better for hundreds of thousands, or even millions.of people
Remember from the last Friends and Family letter that we have four key solar technologies that are now working pretty well:
"Forever" Lights provide lighting and cell phone charging for rural households
Solar Electric Cooking Systems provide hot water, some cooking and access to 300 watts of solar panel power
Solar Pumping for Rural Women's Groups allows women to pump water for their dry-season vegetable plots rather than carrying water by hand which is laborious and burdensome, and
Small Solar-electric Cars allow the possibility of motorized transport without gasoline for rural Africans.
This is now summarized at the new website that I have created at:
Please share this website with your friends and colleagues.
Now, in order to be able to expand our impact, we have raised additional resources for investment by soliciting low interest loans that provide the expansion capital needed grow our activities. The loans are paid off by the increasing donations and/or grants that we raise. We raise increasing donations and grants from our growing accomplishments and the growing benefits produced by our more expansive solar product production and distribution activities.
Specifically, we are now borrowing money to install thousands of more forever lights, hundreds of more pumps and cookers and several solar cars. As the lights, pumps, cookers and cars get distributed, we then solicit more donations to pay off the loans which will enable the purchase and delivery of a continually increasing amount of solar goods (hopefully).
I have spent the past couple of months purchasing the goods and making the arrangements for shipping in bulk the parts and products we need in Malawi.
More specifically, this procurement fits into four key areas of work that are enabling the rapid expansion of our impact in 2022:
Malawi Procurement Expansion: Arranging the procurement of parts and materials for an expanding assembly of products in Malawi;
Expanding to other Countries: Building connections in other countries to lay the groundwork for a multi-country expansion and replication of the Malawi work;
Design of Forever-lasting Batteries: Developing and advancing design and production processes for "Forever-lasting" LTO batteries than can be drop-in substitutes for low-quality 12V lead-acid batteries that are currently used throughout Malawi; and
US Fundraising Expansion: Developing an efficient and potentially effective strategy for rapidly expanding our US fundraising
I will now discuss each of these areas of progress in turn.
Malawi Procurement Expansion:
If one puts a strong effort into efficient, large-scale procurement, this effort can pay off with solar part costs that can be 2 to 4 times cheaper than products acquired on wholesale local markets (in Malawi). So this is key part of making solar products more affordable for Malawians.
Over the last two months, I have been putting together three shipments: a large shipment of a large variety of products for Malawi, and two solar panels shipments: one for Tanzania and one for Togo. With the Tanzania and Togo shipments, we are exploring ways to help small businesses and non-profits in other African countries take advantage of the logistical methods that create cost efficiencies in our work here in Malawi.
Large-scale procurement decreases parts supply costs in three ways:
First, with bigger shipments, the fraction of money spent on shipping costs decreases. This is particularly important now that fuel costs have increased and international shipping costs have increased. Large containers are cheaper to ship per unit volume, and if you put some high value items in the shipment, the fraction of.money spent on shipping also decreases. The many solar components have a pretty high value per unit volume, so it is possible to put $100k worth of parts in a container that costs less than $15K to ship. This can help a lot in getting shipping overheads down and lowering solar costs for consumers.
Second, when you make larger goods orders, you can get volume discounts for larger orders. Typically a large volume order can be 20% to 30% cheaper than a small volume order. A very large order can even be 50% cheaper.
And third: when you can try orders from several different suppliers, you can sometimes find a small manufacturer operating in a less popular, lower cost part of China. Sometimes, such suppliers can provide prices that are another 20% to 30% cheaper because they have been making a lot of the same products for many years and they have particularly low production costs in their part of China.
Using these procurement tactics, we should now be able to deliver the essential parts for: 10 solar vehicles, more than 3000 forever lights, 200 solar pumps with almost 3 kilometers of irrigation pipe, about 1000 solar cookers of various types, and 400 forever batteries to Malawi for about $100k.
Expanding to Other African Countries:
With our cost-efficient procurement methods, we can often drop the cost of getting solar parts to Africa by 50% by using these economies of scale. And obviously dropping costs by 1/2 can potentially more than double the amount of solar panels and equipment that Africans can by both allowing them to buy more solar with the money that they have and by allowing many more Africans to be able to afford solar because the price is so low. And if we can double the rate at which people can buy solar, then we theoretically double solar access in Africa over time even with no increase in spending. Doubling access to solar with no increase in spending is a pretty cool trick, and one that is really needed for low-income Africans.
So currently, we are testing out this low-cost solar procurement with two partners: one in Togo, and one in Tanzania.
The Togo partner is a small solar social enterprise called OSMER SARL that won the "D-prize" for distributing solar lighting systems. See:
And which is currently experimenting with insulated solar electric cookers with a little bit of grant assistance from UKAid--similar to some of our solar electric cooking work in Malawi.
The Tanzania partner is the Maasai Stoves and Solar project which I have been collaborating with on different levels for many year. You can read about their work at:
If this test procurement works well, then later in the year I will try to raise more financing to both expand the volume and number or organizations and countries that can benefit from such procurement.
Design of Forever-lasting 12V Batteries:
Imagine if you had a battery that you could buy for $50 that you could just connect to a solar panel and it would work: providing you with 12V electricity. And imagine that that such a battery lasted 10 to 20 years, not just one or two. And imagine that a simple inverter that costs about $10 converts this to about 100W of AC electricity when you need it. And imagine that you can get a low-cost, 200W solar panel for $50.
What would this mean for you as a rural African that currently does not have electricity? This would mean that basically for $110, you would have the basics of what you need for a 100W electricity supply. And by buying another battery and solar panel each year for 10 years, you wind up with a 1kW solar power supply for your home. Eventually you could have almost as much electricity as many small US households use.
What a robust "Forever Battery" does, is that it enables rural Africans to eventually have access to 1kW of offgrid solar electricity or about 3kWh/day by investing and average of about $10/month over ten years. This makes developed-country levels of electricity consumption affordable to even the poorest households in Africa over the long term. This is because even most of the poorest households can manage to earn more than $100/month and can therefore afford to invest about $100/year in improved electricity access.
In February, an electrical engineering Ph.D. student came to Malawi and visited some of our customer households so that he could see first hand some of the most urgent and highest priority needs and requirements of our customers.
What he found was many households were hooking up their solar panels to large lead-acid batteries and using the 12 volt power from the batteries to power lights, radios, sound systems, TVs, etc. We sell our customers charge controllers, but even with charge controllers, people would often bypass the controller, not buy one, or use low-quality batteries. For most people such batteries last less than a year.
What the grad student realized is that we could make a battery with very-long-lasting Lithium Titanate battery chemistry and a built-in controller that would function a lot like a lead-acid battery, not need any charge controller when being connected to a solar panel, and should last 10 years or more.
So he set to work making the controller. Right now I have his beta version of the controller board which we will start assembling here in prototype form here in Malawi. If it works as expected, then we hope to make 200 such "forever batteries" later this year and grow the market over time. If it is as successful as we think it will be, we will use our growing network of collaborators around Africa to try to make such forever batteries available throughout the continent in the coming decade. Fingers crossed!!!
US Fundraising Expansion Strategy: Use Small Solar Cars to get people's attention!
For the past couple of months, I have been racking my brain regarding how I might be able to fund raise for my Africa work here in the US. I personally hate "hard sell" charity fundraising. Plus the whole institution of charity fundraising using commercial methods just provides the wrong incentives. To raise more money, you have to spend more money which means that the money that you are raising is not actually supporting charitable acts, it is supporting more advertising and solicitations which are often irritating and intrusive.
So how do I increase the donations that to go African solar electricity access without being irritating or intrusive? How do I avoid "spending more money to raise more money"?
The idea that I have come up with it to do education and outreach about aspects of my work that people want to hear about and that they are actually rather interested in. But what could that be?
Well, the one thing that I have found people to be universally interested in is solar cars. Why? Because solar cars allow you to drive around for free! There are no fuel and no electricity charging costs because sunshine is still free. Most people don't think or know that small solar cars are actually possible and affordable TODAY! Such small solar cars can actually potentially pay for themselves over the long term by providing electricity to your house. In Africa, one small solar car can potentially power several households with its battery at night!
There are some real drawback to such solar cars. To be affordable, they do have to be pretty small--like a golf cart--and they can travel only about 30 mph. But still, for most people, even with these drawbacks, small solar cars are a very interesting possibility that they would like to know more about.
The majority of people that I might come into contact with would find the information about small solar cars to be interesting and informative, not irritating and intrusive.
So over the next six months, I am going to see if I can use the information that I have on small solar cars to help me find the people who might want to support solar cars and other solar developments in Africa.
How do I make a connection between the general interest in solar cars that people in the US have and solar power in Africa? Well, I simply explain that the technologies and designs that make solar cars accessible and affordable in the US, have been developed first by us for African applications. So by supporting the development of long-lasting, affordable solar systems in Africa, you are supporting access to such long-lasting, highly affordable products and systems in the US.
I don't know if this fundraising strategy will work like I want it to. But at least for me, it is something that I can feel comfortable explaining to absolute strangers on the street. I can imagine saying to passers-by in the street some of the following attention-grabbing lines:
"Learn about Small Solar Cars! Did you know that you could have a car that has zero fuel cost?!?
"No gasoline or electric charging needed if you get a small solar car!"
"Get a solar car that can even give your house electricity, reducing you electricity bill rather than running it up!"
So if you see me on a street corner standing on a soap box shouting and handing out leaflets, this is probably what I will be shouting about.
And of course, once someone goes to the website to get more information, we will tell them about solar in Africa. But I will do it in a way that is much nicer than what most click-bait advertising does. People will only have to spend a click or two, or a couple seconds of their attention before I give them the detailed solar car information they want. Unfortunately, in our self-interest-based economy and society, it is difficult to make anything truly "free." I think a few seconds of attention directed at Africa is a small price to pay for information on fuel free driving!
To enable this "small solar car fundraising pitch", I have even arranged with my solar supplier to provide four different models of small solar cars to the US market. So that eventually for those who really want to drive a small solar car for themselves, they will be able to order one.
But more about that in a later friends and family letter...
Enough for now ... Thanks for reading!
I hope to send another one at the end of this current Malawi Trip, sometime in early June.
In love and struggle,