SELF was founded in 1990 by Neville Williams, an award-winning journalist and author (Chasing the Sun: Solar Adventures Around the World ), who had experience actively promoting solar power as a staffer with the U.S. Department of Energy during the Carter administration. By 1997, SELF had established 11 self-sustaining solar energy projects in eleven countries across Asia, Africa, and South America.
In its early projects, SELF used funds donated by private philanthropies to buy home-size photovoltaic systems in bulk on the open market, usually enough for one small village at a time. SELF then sold the systems to villagers in developing areas, in partnership, where possible, with in-country nonprofit agencies. Each participating household made a 20 percent down payment on a solar energy system and paid off the balance – usually between $300 and $400 – over several years. The buyers’ payments were pooled in a local revolving loan fund from which their neighbors could borrow to buy their own solar power gear. SELF used a portion of the proceeds on the equipment to establish a local dealership and train residents as solar installers and technicians.
The arrangement brought power to the people in more ways than one. Residents had acquired electricity for their homes and farms through equipment that they had paid for themselves. Trained technicians had learned a profitable trade, and their training ensured that the power systems’ continued operation did not depend on return visits from outsiders with exotic knowledge. The revolving loan funds made it possible for villagers to finance the continued dissemination of solar systems in their areas.
The program yielded broader benefits as well. In much of the developing world, the primary fuel for night lighting is kerosene, which causes more than 20,000 injuries and house fires annually through spills and other accidents. In addition, every home burning kerosene-fueled lamps emits an average of 6 tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere annually, and exposes family members to fumes as hazardous to the health as smoking two packs of cigarettes per day.
Focusing on the Home & Creating SELCO
For much of the 1990s, SELF’s primary mission was to deliver solar home systems – 50-watt units installed at the household level that could generate enough power to run a few compact florescent lights, a radio, and a small black and white television for four or five hours each evening. The electricity generated by the solar panel is stored in a battery, which then provides power at night and during rainy weather.
In western China, SELF brought solar power to 1,000 households in 14 villages; created the Gansu PV Company to manufacture small-scale photovoltaic systems as a joint venture with SELF; and established the Gansu Solar Electric Light Fund to extend credit to villagers to buy the systems. In Sri Lanka, SELF helped a national development agency start a division to sell photovoltaic systems at prices that villagers can afford, but that will still enable the agency to sustain itself.
In Tanzania, SELF worked with the Masai people – a widely-scattered group of herders – to help the tribe acquire solar-powered telephones and FM radios to share information about land speculators threatening to drive them off their ancestral lands. In a poor area of black South Africa, SELF installed a photovoltaic system in a school, using the energy to power computers and connect the school to the Internet.
Over time, SELF began to evolve more elaborate project structures. In a joint venture with local partners in India, SELF formed a for-profit subsidiary using India’s Renewable Energy Development Agency to tap World Bank funds set aside specifically for photovoltaic installations. In part, the company used the money to finance rural co-ops’ bulk purchase of solar-energy systems for their members, to install the systems, and to train local technicians. The company then repaid the World Bank’s loan from funds collected from the co-ops.
SELF’s goal was not merely to supply solar lighting systems to 50 or 100 homes in a given village and walk away, but rather to establish a mechanism that could be self-sustaining over the long term, and that would eventually pave the way for the commercialization of solar household electrification in the developing world. Through this and a series of other pilot projects around the world, SELF has demonstrated the willingness of rural families to pay for solar electricity at the household level when they are given access to credit.
Given the success of this financing model, in 1997 SELF decided to launch a for-profit affiliate, the Solar Electric Light Company, or SELCO, based in Bangalore, India, whose goal would be to sell solar home systems in the states of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. Over the past decade, SELCO has sold close to 90,000 solar home systems in India– but still just a drop in the bucket when compared to the two billion people worldwide who don’t have electricity.
Since the solar home system model had proven to be commercially viable as a business, SELF began working to find ways to address basic needs at the community level.
Expanding Our Services
Beginning in 2000, SELF embarked on its next generation of projects that would seek to harness solar energy for things such as advancing water pumping and purification, purveying electrification to rural schools and health clinics, providing power to small businesses and micro-enterprises, and facilitating communication access.
The first opportunity to fulfill this expanded vision was found in South Africa, where SELF had been working on a project to install solar home systems in the Valley of a Thousand Hills, a beautiful but impoverished backwater region near Durban, in the province of KwaZulu-Natal. SELF installed a 1.5-kilowatt solar array, which generated enough electricity to power approximately 20 PCs donated by Dell Computers and a small satellite dish that delivered Internet access to Myeka High School. This was the first solar-powered computer lab built in South Africa, affecting a wonderful transformation at Myeka High School, where the pass rate jumped from 30 percent to 70 percent within a year and a half of installation.
As SELF continued to experiment with novel ways of promoting rural electrification, we started to think more and more about how multiple applications of solar energy might be combined into a single, integrated model. In 2003, SELF found the opportunity to implement a “Whole-Village” approach when the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) invited SELF to carry out a solar electrification project in Nigeria. With support from the DOE, SELF equipped three villages in Jigawa State, in northern Nigeria, with solar power systems for a community water-pumping system, a health clinic, a primary school, street lighting, a portable irrigation pump, and a micro-enterprise center.
Over the next few years, SELF continued to push the envelope in terms of using solar energy for a broader range of development objectives.
In 2006, SELF partnered with the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) to install solar water pumping and drip irrigation systems in two pilot villages in the arid Kalalé District of Benin. As a result, Kalalé farmers have been able to grow high-value produce during the six-month dry season for the first time. Improved nutrition, increased food security, and, crucially, new income opportunities are just some of the life saving benefits of this project in a part of Africa where malnutrition is a grave threat during much of the year.
Most recently, SELF worked with the Clinton Foundation and Partners In Health (PIH) to launch solar energy solutions for a series of rural health centers in Rwanda and Tanzania. Initially, Partners In Health planned to generate power using diesel generators donated by the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculois, and Malaria; but after SELF’s assessment of their sites in Rwanda, PIH was persuaded that solar energy is a better choice to meet the power needs of rural health centers. Though the upfront capital costs are higher, solar energy is more reliable, sustainable, and less expensive over the long term. PIH has since requested SELF’s help in providing sustainable energy solutions for all of its health centers in Lesotho and Haiti, as well as for a new hospital in Burundi that is run by its sister NGO, Village Health Works.
Going forward, SELF has a unique opportunity to further leverage its impact on the world by forming strategic alliances with other organizations, both non-profit and for-profit, and then demonstrating practical ways in which solar energy can be harnessed and applied to specific development objectives.
Whether it be through our government’s foreign aid, the charitable giving of foundations, the efforts of corporate social responsibility programs, or simply the goodwill of individuals like you, there is much that all of us can do to help address the problem of energy poverty in Africa and elsewhere in the developing world.