The NGO SolarAid is exploiting Africans

The NGO SolarAid is selling a cheap portable solar lamp – the model SM100 - for US$5. This will soon be available in Zimbabwe, if it is not so already, because SolarAid is looking for agents pan Africa.

This solar lamp is a disgrace, and it is a good example of the cavalier way in which some aid agencies treat Africans. SolarAid needs to be told that selling something at a cheap, even subsidised price in no way excuses foisting a sub-standard product onto Africans.

First, the lamp is manufactured in China, not Africa. How many times must aid organisations be told that they must stop importing products when they could be made in Africa, because they aren’t helping to eradicate poverty, they are actually undermining the economy and making poverty worse by depriving Africans of jobs? This is very serious.

Admittedly, the solar panel and LED would have to be imported because Africa does not yet make the right quality at an economical price. But I know from my own investigation of this market that everything else can be sourced and the lamp assembled in Africa, creating literally thousands of jobs in each country.

The lamp is also badly designed. Does this mean SolarAid don’t care enough about Africans to make sure the product is right for them? For example, the logical and easiest way to switch the light on is with the LED pointing towards you. The result was that everyone we tested the lamp on blinded themselves the first time they used it.

Bad enough for any user, this is criminal in Africa where so many people suffer from glaucoma and other eye diseases. It doesn’t help that the switch requires some pressure and wiggling to turn on and off, making it hard for older people and young children to use.

Then if you place the lamp on a slightly forward-sloping surface – which will be the case in most African huts and schoolrooms – it will fall forward. This would have been simple to correct just by bending the supporting arms slightly to move the centre of gravity slightly backwards.

It is also not fit for purpose in African conditions. It is only water resistant, not waterproof, and that is ridiculous given Africa’s sudden torrential rainstorms, not to mention its rainy season. You only have to forget once that it is outside being charged or be away from home when the rain starts, and you will need a new lamp.

Then you have to charge it all day to get five hours use out of it, meaning that you have to charge it for all day every day. That is useless in the rainy season. Yet at minimal additional cost, the lamp could have had at least 12 hours’ capacity (actually, our tests showed 13 to 15 hours) which is enough to cover three days in typical use.

Then the African heat is notorious for ruining batteries. Yet you cannot open the lamp to replace the battery because the heads of the screws holding the body together have been reamed out. But even if you could open the unit, the leads from the circuit board to the battery are soldered at both ends so you can’t replace it anyway unless you are a dab hand with a soldering iron. So if the battery fails, you will have to buy a new lamp.

SolarAid claim to have tested the lamp on 9,000 African families. Given the faults in it, I find that impossible to believe.

The lamp also only carries a year’s guarantee, which shows how much faith SolarAid has in its longevity.

SolarAid is being even more devious than that. It is distributing the lamp via SunnyMoney which is owned by SolarAid and is promoted as a “social enterprise”. A social enterprise means it is set up as non-profit making. On this basis, SolarAid asks the public for donations to help in the running of SunnyMoney. But it also means it qualifies for grants, other means of preferential financing and tax benefits that are meant for genuine charities only.

This, frankly, is fraudulent because SunnyMoney has a range of other solar products which it buys largely or solely from d.light, an American manufacturer (again, none of these products are made or assembled in Africa). D.light is a commercial operation that sells to importers, wholesalers and retailers to sell at a profit. So if d.light’s other customers can buy and sell their products profitably, so can SunnyMoney. In fact, SunnyMoney may be selling d.lights at a reduced price. If it is, that is unfair trading because commercial sellers of d.lights cannot compete on price with a charity or social enterprise. So, again, this is undermining the economy as well as reputable dealers.

SunnyMoney claims that by being non-profit, it can distribute lamps to remote areas that a commercial operation would not find viable. This is absolute rubbish because SunnyMoney’s own distribution system will make delivery of its products profitable in even the remotest areas. If it can’t do that, it is being badly run.

So at least in this instance, SolarAid is pretending to be a charitable operation when it could clearly, and perhaps even more effectively, be a commercial business.

Yet again, a Western organisation sets out to exploit Africans, and no wonder so many Africans are cynical about NGOs and Western charities.

Post published in: Letters to the Editor

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