Friday, April 25, 2008


After a phone conversation with the Executive Director and head of programs at Solar Aid, Nick and John, they were eager to engage me initially as a volunteer to help them get a program up and going in Tanzania. The timing seems fortuitous as they have a sizable proposal pending for a project here. They forwarded a number of documents for me to review – a strategic plan, a proposal, a consultant’s report on their work in Malawi, a budget, and list of things they thought I could help with immediately, mostly administrative set-up - identifying costs of office space, understanding legal registration in the country, etc…

I spent a few days reviewing all the documents and, rather than dig into what they wanted, I couldn’t overcome my inner-consultant. I drafted a four-page memo challenging some of the key tenants in the their business model and offered some alternative models to consider. I asked them to clarify their aspirations, and laid out a few implications of how that could drive their business model. Needless to say, I couldn’t help myself and included a Venn diagram to show my consulting credentials (I always imagine my 9th grade geometry teacher saying “pay attention, if, and only if, you ever want to be a consultant, you’ll need to understand overlapping circles.”) Previously, with any client at CWV, I was generally delicate, but aspired to be direct. In this case, I was a little less delicate and very direct.

I expected a strong negative reaction, a “you don’t understand what we’re doing at all.” Instead, they wrote and said their model is evolving and that my thinking was very much in line with where they were interested in taking the organization. I even got a “spot on”.

The challenge they face, as does anyone in renewable energy, is not the need, which is clear and present here, but figuring out a business model to sell, service and support what is, initially, an expensive product to a market without money.

I’ll help them get registered and see if I can work with them to refine their model. The opportunity to scale renewable energy here may be most appropriate for an NGO. Most research and investment on solar is focused on a utility-based approach, so designed for large systems that already cover and service a population (i.e. U.S. and Europe). Current technology – photovoltaic - is applicable to people who can pay up front and wait for a 10 year return-on-investment. The subsidy that an NGO can provide may be the only way to make it possible reach to the poor, rural market in a country like Tanzania.

1 comment:

Damian Wise said...

Alfred, That sounds like an uphill struggle they have. I wouldn't know where to begin. However, if they decide to make their own solar cells as a cost reduction measure, nLight has a few solar cell growth reactors we would love to get rid of for cheap!