Creating a sales force of solar entrepreneurs

By Susie Braun, On Purpose Associate

Creating a sales force of
solar entrepreneurs

Which continents have the highest number of mobile phone subscribers? The answer isn’t Europe or the Americas, where mobile phones first took off, but Asia and, as of 2011, Africa. By the end of last year there were over 600m mobile phones subscribers from Cairo to Cape Town, according to research by the GSMA.

This is great news for the fight against poverty. For decades, Africa’s governments pledged to connect people through landlines – with few results. Now mobile phones are enabling people not just to connect but to access financial, medical and other services; Kenya’s M-Pesa is the global leader in mobile banking.

But using a handset is one thing; charging it is quite another. How can a Nigerian villager or a small farmer in Madagascar top up their battery when they have no access to the electrical grid? 1.3 billion people, don’t have access to mainline electricity. Connecting them will cost $48bn a year, every year, until 2030, according to the International Energy Agency: several times the UK’s international aid budget.

Personal solar products are a brilliant solution. A solar panel the size of a paperback can charge a phone – and also power a solar lamp or load a radio battery. They pay for themselves within a couple of months, replacing costly kerosene, batteries or paying someone else to charge your phone.

I’m an Associate with On Purpose, the leadership programme that kick-starts careers in social enterprise through training and placements with purpose-driven organizations. My first placement is with ToughStuff, a leading micro-solar social enterprise which is tackling the energy issue head-on through providing affordable and durable solar products.

While ToughStuff reach hundreds of thousands of families through selling their products in hardware stores or stalls, one of the great is getting them to the ‘last mile’ of rural communities.

ToughStuff’s solution is to facilitate micro-business to enable local people to sell products in their communities. Partnering with NGOs – and their local partners – provides a network of salespeople who can make an income as solar entrepreneurs. A partnership with Christian Aid in Kenya, for example, saw 200 entrepreneurs selling to 106 villages, making money that was spent on food, education and clothing. And to make it scalable and easy for government and charity partners to set up their own solar entrepreneurship programmes, ToughStuff have developed Business in a Box, a dot-to-dot system of materials, from marketing to sales logs.

Just as Unilever’s Shakti project opens up sales for the company while helping local people build business, so the Business in a Box system creates a benefit for all involved. ToughStuff sell more solar products, getting closer to their social mission of reaching 6.5 million people with sustainable power. NGO partners can run high-impact livelihood programmes for a low cost. Solar entrepreneurs make a living or supplement their incomes with every sale they make.

And, crucially, more people at the bottom of the pyramid get access to power, so life can continue after dark – and they can charge their mobile phones.

Susie Braun is an Associate with On Purpose, who are currently recruiting for their 2012/2013 intake (applications must be in by 29 April 2012). Apply here.

You can keep up with On Purpose at:,,

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4 Responses

  1. This is a good development. How can the NGO (Business and Professional Women Lagos) that i belong to be part of the distribution network for this solar product. Supply of constant power has been a proplem in Africa and the solution is solar energy in any form for example solar cooker and others will really help people below the pyramid.

  2. Do you envisage yourself initiating this work in Malawi, there is a huge need for solar energy sources in the areas where my organisation, ASAP, NGO  work with rural farming households on savings-led micro-finance.

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