Does Scaling Up Compromise our Social Mission?

Steve Andrews, CEO, SolarAid

Does Scaling Up Compromise our Social Mission?

When charities concentrate on measuring the impact of their work it is easy to justify certain inefficiencies or not reaching scale, but a business wouldn’t have that attitude. That’s why SolarAid have chosen a business based approach; our mission to eradicate the kerosene lamp from Africa requires that we get solar lights to people at scale, and fast. This influences our strategic decisions. One of the easiest examples to demonstrate this is that we have long stopped installing larger macro solar systems on schools and clinics, and now focus on small pico-solar products. It’s not that larger systems don’t have a remarkable impact for schools, teachers, doctors and patients; but that they’re big, expensive, difficult to maintain and a strategic nightmare to supply. Whereas the distribution and sale of portable lights is easier and more cost-effective to scale up; and that’s exactly what we need to do if we are to get safe, clean light to African homes across the continent.

In order to do that we need to understand the customers we want to serve and the markets we’ll be operating in. Dan Corry, chief executive of the NPC, recently highlighted the fact that where businesses are strategic in using information in order to maximize their results, charities tend to miss out on the data revolution that could inform their market research:

“Charities are not yet engaging with data as much as they could be for three main reasons: it can be disruptive, difficult and time-consuming.”

I can confidently say that SolarAid and SunnyMoney aim to challenge that statement. Our research function is crucial to our programme development and our dedicated research team not only speak to solar light customers to learn about the impact, but also to market traders and potential customers that still rely on kerosene, batteries or candles for light.

Often the biggest challenge is not collecting information but allowing it to be disruptive by responding to what it tells you. We know that the affordability of solar lights is still an issue for many and our innovations unit is currently trialing the world’s cheapest Pay-as-you-go solar light to overcome that. This year we ran our first competitive procurement process for study lights, enabling us to communicate customer feedback to manufacturers through the criteria that the products were ranked on (technical, cost, ease of packing and shipping, lifetime, warranty etc). We believe that this was the first of its kind for solar products aimed at the Base of the Pyramid market in Africa, and it helps to drive standards that will improve the whole solar lighting sector whilst resulting in more cost-effective operations for SunnyMoney. Competitive procurement process round two is currently underway.

Moving forward, our business development team are in the process of setting up a database system for monitoring, tracking and recording all of our operational data. It will bring a whole new information source to the table, helping us to better track market patterns and customer behaviour, as well as improve our efficiency tenfold.

The business based language of scale, efficiency, figures, numbers and customers doesn’t sit comfortably with everyone and can lead those tied to more traditional charity to question the market led approach. But the market research we conduct compliments rather than detracts from the impact research and it enables us to reach more people.

Presently, a new solar light bought from SunnyMoney is being turned on every minute of every day. If we just measured the impact we could celebrate that and continue as we are. But we won’t stop there because there are still 600 million people in Africa living without safe, affordable, bright light. Our business mindset and market research will enable us to keep learning so that we can accelerate our sales and reach those people. So, I don’t think our goal to scale up compromises the social mission; in fact, it’s the only way we’ll reach it. It’s our responsibility to deliver on it and the best way to do that is to make us a more effective and efficient organization through using every piece of information we can.

Online Discussion – Thursday 24th October at 3.30pm

I will be joining a group of panellists online to debate the role of market and impact research for charities and social enterprises. I hope you can join us.

Follow SolarAid’s Social Impact & Research Manager Kat Harrison on twitter to stay up-to-date with our impact news: @Sunrise_Kat


The NPC:…

About SolarAid and SunnyMoney

SolarAid is a charity committed to tackling climate change and poverty through building a sustainable market for solar lights in Africa. SunnyMoney is a social enterprise owned by SolarAid that distributes solar lights in Tanzania, Malawi, Kenya and Zambia.

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