A few months ago, I came across the African Solar Cooperative, a social enterprise that attempts to provide solar energy technology to residents of Old Fadama.
Old Fadama is a slum in the middle of Accra which has become one of the best-known in Africa and is a favorite breeding ground of NGOs, researchers, and other development people. Even my own master’s program has conducted research there as part of fieldwork between 2009-2012.
Many “global and local” social and environmental issues come together in Old Fadama the way they do in many slums in the Global South: land tenure (or lack thereof), informality, waste, water provision, sanitation, failures of governance on the part of local government and institutions like the World Bank, etc. Old Fadama is one of the biggest e-waste sites in the world, where wastes from computers, mobile phones, and other electronic products from the UK, Japan, the United States, the Netherlands, and other countries get dumped. Local people make money by taking it apart and processing it (e.g. smashing glass screens, burning plastic wires to extract the copper inside and then sell it at scrap markets). (Photojournalist Natalia Ojewska has some nice photos from 2013.) It became famous a few years ago when there was a controversy when the government attempted to forcibly evict residents without providing an alternative.
I really wanted to meet the people behind the African Solar Cooperative for several reasons:
- I’m interested in renewable energy in sub-Saharan Africa, as has already been documented.
- My mom spent a significant part of her childhood in Accra. My grandpa was hired by Nkrumah’s Public Works Department as a civil engineer to help build bridges in the 1960s.
- The people forming it seemed in some ways like me and my classmates. They were idealistic young people with some part of their education in universities in London. Furthermore, the African Solar Cooperative seemed to be doing what many of my classmates and I are trying to do: do something that is in some ways socially responsible in the Global South that does not involve charity and does not involve the standard development organizations (UN, World Bank, etc). But they were a little further ahead on the timeline than us, in the sense that they already had a project in the works while we are still largely in a state of confusion.
I got in touch with them asking for the chance to learn more and they responded! I had a quick coffee with David Boyd who first had the idea of what would become the African Solar Cooperative and got his friends involved. He is now managing partner of the group. Below follows parts of our discussion. After that we’ll come to some general and limited notions on what I’ve observed regarding social enterprises.
So how did you end up in Ghana?
The first time I went to Ghana, in 2012, I’d just turned 24, started a law degree and had managed to get funding for an internship with an NGO there. I was there for a month.
I got shown around and I found it quite a stark contrast from what I’m used to. I’d never experienced West Africa before but it wasn’t a massive surprise to me, I’d been to slums before in South Africa, but I was a bit older, I had a degree, and I was doing a law degree for the purpose of helping people so I figured it was a bigger place to start.
Why did you decide to focus on renewable energy?
So one of the main problems in Ghana was… Well, there aren’t main problems, there are so many problems everywhere. There’s sanitation–largely, there’s very limited access to any sort of sanitation. In terms of education, the state is doing a good job with children who don’t live in slums, but in the slums almost all education is private. Even though Ghana is well on its way to achieving the Millennium Development Goals for 2015, there’s no education for slum children. It’s kind of… They have 100% for primary education but that’s because they can discount 40% of the population of Accra that lives in slums. Note from me: Accra is promoted by the Millennium City Intitiative (MCI) in 2001 as a model for sustainable development. However, in an attempt to achieve the Millennium Development Goals, projects end up being fast-tracked and ignore issues such as sustainability and environmental justice in favor of economic growth and touristic appeal.
So coming from a legal background I also noticed issues of legal representation right away. The police in Ghana has been getting worse, more corrupt. The last time I was there three weeks ago police tried to bribe me I think four times. It will not get better until the police are better paid, more transparent and more accountable.
In terms of electricity, I was working in the slum and starting to notice how readily available illegal electricity use is. You have the Agbobloshie market area, which is cordoned off by a river and a lagoon and there’s only one side of the slum that hits the street. As you go further and further in you see more and more and one of the more prevalent things is electricity. It’s the center of the capital city, so it’s not like you don’t have a wire for ages, you can just hook it up, pay for it illegally, and that results in electrical fires. If it’s not that, people use kerosene, which start fires. Last time I was there someone left a candle running at night and two buildings burned down.
So I figured I wanted to do something, but I wanted to do something effective, not just, like, let’s get some clothes for these kids and leave it at that, not just token gestures. And one day I met this guy on the public transport rural Ghana; he was a master’s student and he introduced me to another guy, who was an advisor to the government on renewable energy. But he was more focused on wind energy which in Ghana just doesn’t make sense [because] it’s perfect for solar. So I went with him to meet this renewable energy expert and we argued for about 40 minutes about whether it was actually possible to do it and we came to the conclusion that it was, it was just really hard.
So after that I went home and got a few friends involved.
How did you get them involved? Who did you talk to and what did they say?
They were my best friends–they are my best friends–so it wasn’t hard to convince them to get involved. It seems like a lifetime ago because we have done so much in the past few years trying to develop everything but I was just like “I have this idea, I think it can work. I don’t think it’s been tried before.” So we started researching for as long as we could to actually learn what we had to do. I know that solar for slums is a good idea for many reasons but I didn’t know the steps I had to take to make the plan a reality.
Tell me a little bit more about your research process and how logistics followed from that.
In terms of the research, it was just utilizing the resources that everyone has access to. Being in London, anyway, and the internet and reading about not just Old Fadama but Agboglobshie and Africa or developing Africa Accra and Ghana or West Africa or Africa or the developing world. You have so many different ways of finding out whatever information you need to know.
As a student it worked out very well–I was a law student–there’s an engineering department at my university where I could go and ask people for free advice. So utilizing the resources we had around us was probably fundamental to giving the belief that we could actually implement something on the ground.
We researched solar, wind, various different forms of renewable energy. I got in touch with a charity called UnLtd. They support social entrepreneurs in the UK and they put us in touch with other charity-sector workers/social entrepreneurs who were working in energy so I got to ask them whatever I was worried about at that time. Sometimes people don’t respond. I think it was because I didn’t know what I was doing and it didn’t sound like I knew what I was doing. Persistence has kept me here. So I imagine if I went back to the same people and groups and asked them questions it might be a bit more fruitful. [But] if you ask people for help, more often than not they will give you more than what you were expecting, and you will realise how valuable it is to be able to ask.
I remember at the very start we were warned by a friend’s parent who had gone to Kenya and had seen so many development projects fail, “you don’t want to become part of that elephant’s graveyard”. So I still remember that “elephant’s graveyard” phrase and it haunts me. But it’s definitely one of the biggest hurdles — other than getting the capital together — it’s having the belief in yourself. I think one of the things that is pretty consistent throughout my story is that people have been there to support me otherwise it would just fall apart without a doubt but I’ve always been able to find people willing to give me a bit of their time. I think that was easier because I was a student at the time and if I tried to do it now it would be much harder; we were students; and we were given a lot more leeway in terms of not knowing things like how to put together a business plan or other things we had to learn.
In August 2012 we started properly planning what we were going to do and by Christmastime we figured we needed to run a trial. So many people liked the idea but didn’t think it would be possible. This is a pretty consistent theme: naysayers can either destroy your confidence or motivate you to prove them wrong. We did fundraisers again in university, held a night in the local pub, bake sales and all that sort of low-level fundraising. In our first 6 months we raised 1,600 pounds, which was enough to provide free solar power to seven or eight buildings. So we chose a school and a few mosques and a church.
How did you go about choosing where to put solar panels?
We had a contact on the ground who helped us choose, and we spent a lot of time meeting community members and asking for their input. I also went around and analyzed the buildings and where they are in the slum. For example, if they are in the middle, and nobody goes to them, they are not going to give the community an effective benefit. Whereas if you have a mosque that has a lot of people going to it every day you’re more likely to impact people’s lives there and the idea is to sensitize people to solar–why it works, why you use it, the other tangible benefits of it. We ran the trial for 5 months. then we asked for feedback, checking people knew how to maintain the panel because if the panel isn’t clean it won’t be efficient.
Although we started out with the intention of becoming a charity, a few months after starting, we began thinking about the social enterprise concept. I’d never heard of it but all the evidence both in Ghana and the UK told me that a charity would be a mistake.
I hadn’t heard about the concept of a social enterprise until two weeks ago!
It’s so frustrating because I work for an international commercial law firm, and even there the concept is still widely unknown.
I don’t want to give handouts to people. You want to make something that’s sustainable but nobody knows about social enterprises so they’re really suspicious when they hear about them. For instance, last Friday I was asking about a grant from a foundation and they were said ‘But you’re not a charity.’ But that’s not because I can’t be a charity; it’s because I don’t want to be a charity. I don’t want to constantly ask people for money, and then have a very high level of scrutiny and the possibility of criminal prosecution should I ever make a mistake. I have no issue with a high level of scrutiny from the people whose money we spend, but to add several reporting obligations on top of that every year, on top of my full-time job and in direct contradiction from my experience of working in charity in slums, seems a bit pointless.
So aside from learning about renewable energy and solar power, we’ve been learning about business as well. Last December, we registered as a limited liability partnership in the UK so that we can run things as a business, ensuring that everyone in both the UK and Ghana are accountable, but we don’t take any profits. We agreed at the start to ensure our partnership agreement will not allow us to take any profits.
It’s hard to explain to people that you want to do something that a charity does without being a charity. Over here people don’t like charities because they are constantly asking you for money. And in Old Fadama, people don’t care about charity. If it’s a charity giving you solar lights, “Great, we don’t have to pay for them, we don’t have to take care of them.” It’s just free stuff. There’s no incentive to look after it. People may disagree with me on this, preferring to think of recipients of charity as always grateful or something positive, but it isn’t the case, and it is not the case in places where life is tough, and nobody is willing to rely on charity.
So social enterprise, social business, socially responsible solar, whatever you want to call it, is where we’ve been going. It’s been a much harder process doing that, but [of] charity, just not a fan.
So after the first trial, we decided to expand it a bit. More schools, more churches, more mosques in different areas. We wanted to see how people would respond to them, to see if they were actually being used. At the moment we have 32 buildings right now that have free solar, and that’s around 5,000 people benefitting from free solar per day. That was after a Crowdrunding campaign in 2013. We raised 20,000 pounds in 40 days. We got a corporate sponsor out of it which has been fundamental, like it doesn’t matter how good the idea is, if you can’t get people to give you money it won’t go anywhere. So we were really really lucky to find that. It means we at least have the opportunity to give it our best shot with some financial resources behind us.
So where are you guys at now, and where are you going to go?
I’m still learning about what I need to be doing. Even though we started off as a charitable venture, at this point I’m more interested in the business side of things. I know why I am doing what I am doing, and I am trying to do it well, and to do that I need to focus on making our social venture financially sustainable. I don’t mind too much, but it’s not really what I set out to do. You kind of have to accept that your intentions alone won’t make it a success. But I’m happy enough to learn.
For two years I thought giving solar power means giving light, giving light means helping kids read at night. They can study – all this sort of pre-conceived what I now believe to be bullshit.
At this time, we were selling solar lanterns which is just light and phone charging. It costs about 15 pounds, which is what every solar lantern costs, for some reason. If you want people to just buy a light, electrical appliances that they would use, you would have to make it really cheap. Fifteen pounds is not cheap for someone who lives in Ghana it’s like 120 cedi, most people would pay 50 cedi. And when you ask why they’re not willing to pay that, they’re like “Well, it just does light — we can buy Chinese torches for 30 cedi, and then replace the battery every few days”. There are power cuts ten times a day in Ghana. The government is running a policy of turning the power on for 12 hours, and off for 24 hours, and in the 12 hours it is on there’s like 10 power cuts. It is collectively and disdainfully known as “Dumsor”. People don’t want light–they want TV, they want fans, so I’m kind of coming around to that.
At the start it’s like trying to fight energy poverty, now it’s much more about energy parity. So giving people access to whatever we have access to. It’s not enough to just say “Here’s a light”. It’s been a constant learning process. From the crowdfunding, to a corporate sponsor and up until now we’re still learning about how to run an effective business, how to manage people on the ground, how to manage expectations of the people we are selling our products. It becomes a lot more like what a social enterprise is. It is a business; it’s just a business you don’t get any financial benefit from, instead of profit from increased sales we want increased sales to mean more money retained by our customers to spend on the essentials, not jut light. It’s not easy but the people around me are always supportive. It’s a hard process but it is doable for anyone who wants to do it. It’s just about reaching out to the people around you that are there to provide support. Like if you’re at university, reach out to your careers department, or anyone who you think could tell you who you need to ask. And it’s just admitting that you don’t really know anything. That was my first realisation — I don’t need to know everything just yet, I can learn along the way. It was a great motivation for just making decisions and from that the ball started rolling.
So at the moment we are looking into ways of paying. If you sell someone a 120 cedi solar product for 40 cedi that means you still have to reclaim 80 cedi before you can say that this has been a successful sale. This person lives in a slum, they don’t have any ID, they don’t have any address, they are usually from the north of Ghana so they are economic migrants and we have no real way of tracking them. So for the past couple of weeks we tried to get and create a payment system but we aren’t getting everything. So, say we sell something for 120 cedi, we aren’t getting 120 cedi every single time and that’s kind of where the commercial side of it comes in. We need the money to get more products to keep selling to people.
Have you heard of M-KOPA? Their payment system is that you pay 99 cedi up front–5 cedi is roughly a pound. So after you pay that you pay 4 cedi a day. M-KOPA has a really clever payment system but their product is limited at the moment to basic electrification, lights and fans. There’s also Barefoot — their products are really good, well priced, but they don’t have a payment system. We need to have system in place in which we’re not being callous, but we don’t want to be too charitable either. So we found a system where we’re testing at the moment in which people can afford to pay the instalments we have calculated, but whether we get all of the money we expect to get back remains to be seen. So we’re going to place a new order for things cause we have like, Agbobloshie area slum, Choko, Jamestown, there’s a small delineation, it’s not that slum and that slum. It’s not difficult to expand to another city, it’s just finding the right people, which is one of the hardest parts of doing anything from London anywhere. And that’s why we need people out there for a few years to get things running properly. One of the biggest challenges is finding the right people.
The way we operate is we are the parent company in the UK, as our partnership, and our subsidiary is Black Star Solar. This means that we can diversify out of Ghana relatively easily. The current aim is to get money from the customer to us without it running through too many hands because that is how corruption happens. That is where you lose the money you’ve invested. So we’re trying to figure out a way to match the payment system from M-KOPA with the product of Barefoot. And it’s been a little difficult doing that. We found one company who offered to make us a prototype for $100,000, but we have to raise that money before we can spend it. So it’s great if you’re a multinational corporation wanting to do that, but not if you are a small partnership from the UK trying to do something socially responsible.
So going forward we are going to go with Barefoot’s products and sell to businesses in the slum. Businesses pay for the products quicker, so we can allow individuals who want to buy solar lamps for home systems pay them off a little slower. We’re tying to figure out what we need for next year to hit our target to expand in other slums in Accra.
[In doing all of this] we just want to make sure that what we are doing works. You can kind of do whatever you want to do in West Africa and tell the world you are doing something amazing, but in reality you’re never doing as wonderfully as you thought you could when you started. It’s always in the grey. Just trying to make sure you manage expectations here, as well, because they expect you to change the world. There is no shortage of people who doon’t care about what we do or how we do it, but will criticise us for not doing it fast enough. And you just want to make sure that the people you are helping are helped effectively. In trying to find a payment system that works, trying to make sure we are not de-incentivising our target market, which is the urban poor. Solar actually has some interest from rich Ghanaians who want to buy the systems because there are so many power cuts. And that’s fine. People have the right to consistent energy no matter what their income is. But our focus is on the bottom of the market which inevitably is harder so it’s taken a bit longer to find a model that works for us but we’re on our way but it’s a slow process. I believe that if we can incorporate mobile technology into a payment system that matches our customers’ existing spending habits, then the great switchover will happen all the quicker.
How do you collect the money?
It’s been suggested to us that we find someone to just go and around and collect the money, but that is not the point. We have a lot of interest in women’s savings groups or VSLAs (village savings loans associations), which is work I have been involved with through my law firm. The way Ghanaian society works is women are quite passive, especially in the slum as they very frequently don’t have a high school education and therefore don’t have a lot of confidence to talk to strangers. Men will speak on their behalf, and you are never guaranteed that the man will speak for the women and not for himself. For me it’s bullshit, but it’s more about finding a system that works to help those women. If you just say we’re going to help you, you’ll find some guy to say, “Oh, don’t worry, I’ll be their representative… No, no, I want to help them… I’ll pass it on.” But in reality we know they’ll just take the money.So that’s another thing. Women’s empowerment would be a good vehicle for this but it’s so hard to find women who can read, who are interested in what we’re doing. Long-term thinking is a big challenge for us, too, not because they’re women, but because of the educational background they have and men have a negative impact on the process. So we went back to the drawing board now and we’re trying to get in touch with women’s groups to get the right infrastructure set up and reach out to these women. It’s just going to take time finding the person who believes in what we’re trying to do.
It’s so hard to reach the people that we’re trying to help. Often we know the type of organizations we’d want to work with but we just haven’t been able to get in touch. E-mail is the way you get things done, but in Ghana emails are not as commonplace as in London.
So, the group that runs the African Solar Cooperative works in London. How do you keep in contact with the business and how it runs if you don’t live there?
So far, I think 10 of us have been to Ghana at different points. I’ve been five times now. I go back every 5-6 months because I work more than full time here so it’s kind of quite time consuming and I don’t get time off work anyway. So went a few weeks ago. I’ll probably go in July-August time and then it’s a matter of keeping in contact with people on the ground. One of the beauties of the 21st century is everyone in the slum has a phone. It’s one of those weird… They may not have sanitation but they have a mobile phone. So keeping in contact and sending money is pretty easy. It’s cumbersome but it’s still viable. As we grow we will start to be able to take advantage of the savings that larger organisations can, but it’s a matter of being patient. It’s also how we keep contact with our store manager, Fatawu. We email him a couple times a week, he’ll let us know how things are going, what he needs and how sales are going.
How did you find Fatawu?
Initially we worked with Frederick, who helped us out in the beginning and helped us start the enterprise. Then after a while he got busy so we decided to get someone full-time, and one of our team had worked with Fatawu, so we got together to hear some of his ideas about the business. He’s a business graduate from University of Cape Coast and after his National Service couldn’t get a job and ended up living in the slum. He teaches part-time, he works for an NGO, but now he’s our store manager.
At this point, David asked me what I would do if I could walk out of university and do whatever I want. I said I had no idea, but I really liked the idea of social enterprise. I wouldn’t mind moving to manage it either. But my issue is that I’m not settled anywhere and my family isn’t settled anywhere on the globe, and I have no safety net to rely on. So I’m at the stage where I’m running up against the choice to get a safe desk job and settle in London or say screw it and enjoy my life.
I guess that’s one of the pitfalls of the society we live in. Even myself, with the best of intentions, I have to have a full-time job, otherwise I’d have no money to live. I’m very fortunate that I work at a law firm that is passionate about pro bono work, and then encourages its lawyers to get involved for the long-term, which is an incredible support.
On this lovely note, our interview came to an end. (Feel free to check out their Facebook page.) Speaking to David came at a fortuitous point, because, I said in the interview, I had just learned of the concept of a social enterprise. Speaking to David gave me the chance to see what it was like to start one, with the added complexity of starting one on another continent. To be clear, our fluid “definition” of a social enterprise is an organization that combines the socially positive goals of a charity with the sustainable business model of a startup.
I first heard about the notion of a social enterprise from Lucia Caistor from Social Life, which aims to “reconnect placemaking with people’s everyday experience and the way that communities work” here in London, by connecting “communities, built environment professionals, public agencies and governments”. She introduced it as a way that people have been dealing with the general roll-back in the state of providing adequate services to people in a variety of ways. She noted that it was great for young people, fast-paced, and exciting. When working for a social enterprise, one is always working, always on the move, always learning–but always having fun and making a difference.
It seems that the concept is taking the world by storm. They’ve been growing over the past few years in cities all over the world (check out this article–“The Do-Good Startups of Nairobi“, or this ODI report, on social enterprises in Kenya and Vietnam, or this photo thing on social enterprises in urban Kenya).
Lucia introduced social enterprises as something that came out in the wake of the rollback of the state; they aim to provide many services to people where the state has been unable to provide them. Lucia explained that social enterprises were on the rise because many people saw the need for social services that were in decline since the rollback of the state.Lucia stressed that they were a lot of work, and required a great deal flexibility. They were not jobs that required you to sit on a desk every day or even work on a single project at the time.
But ultimately, what I really found striking was the similarities that I found between what David and Lucia said about the nature of working for social enterprises and how they worked and what pitfalls and benefits they had.
- It’s nice not having to ask for money and funding the way a charity does.
- It’s rarely something you do if you want to eat every single day. Lucia said that explicitly. She gave the example of one young man who had been running a social enterprise for two years and had yet to make any money; he rarely had enough to eat and was in a very unstable housing situation. The African Solar Cooperative is not David’s full-time occupation. David here stresses that as a start-up with a conscience, it couldn’t be.