“Entrepreneurship brings dignity, it brings hope for the future”, says Andrew Tanswell, CEO of ToughStuff, winner of one of this year’s Ashden Awards for Sustainable Energy [see ‘Money box brings clean stoves to the masses‘]. The company has ignited private enterprise across Africa and Madagascar with its unique model for distributing affordable solar electricity. At its core is the ‘Business in a Box’, which sets up village entrepreneurs with solar panels, LED lamps, mobile phone chargers and radio connectors. The result, says Tanswell, is “to bring solar power within reach of the poorest of the poor”.
Over 1.5 billion people in the developing world have no access to mains electricity. This means the only way to work, read or cook after dark is via kerosene lamps or candles. These are not only expensive – they are also hazardous. Fires caused by kerosene kill or disfigure tens of thousands every year; the fuel is also notoriously smoky, leading to breathing disorders for millions of women and children across Africa and Asia. Kerosene is a major source of carbon emissions, too.
People without electricity are highly dependent on disposable batteries, particularly for radios. These batteries are discarded in their millions, and leak, polluting local water supplies.
Now there’s another pressing reason for speeding the spread of power in developing countries: the mobile phone. Invaluable for market intelligence, information-sharing and banking, the humble mobile can play a key role in lifting people out of poverty. Over 500 million people who live off-grid now own one of these modern miracles. But first it has to be charged. “In Malawi, people were travelling for an hour each way on average [to do so]”, Tanswell explains. “They would walk for an hour, then wait 3.5 hours while it charged because they couldn’t trust people not to steal their battery. They’d lose 5.5 hours and pay US $0.25 – and they would do that once a week, maybe twice.” That adds up to a costly investment in terms of both time and money.
Enter the Solar Village Entrepreneur (SVE), a local person equipped with 20 or 30 sets of robust, easy-to-use ToughStuff kits costing less than $30 each, typically bought with a microcredit loan.