Steve Andrews

on Sunday, 20 May 2012. Posted in Expert Climate Change Panel

Steve Andrews
Solar Aid, Whitewater
Chief Executive

Steve Andrews, Chief Executive, is former Director and Chairman of leading charity marketing agency Whitewater. Steve has been closely involved in SolarAid since the charity was founded in 2006, assisting with strategy and marketing consultancy and helping to raise the profile of the charity. He has worked as a fundraiser for over 20 years, advising a number of development charities, including Christian Aid, Save the Children and WaterAid on marketing and fundraising strategies. Having built Whitewater up from a seven person company struggling to break even into a 45-strong £3 million company, he now leads SolarAid into its next stage of development. 

Interview with Steve Andrews 

What do you see as the philosophy that is behind SolarAid and why do you believe in it?

Imagine if you had no electricity in your home. So when the sun goes down, your choice is between living in darkness or using candles. Just getting around your house would be difficult, never mind doing anything productive or entertaining.

Well that’s the reality of life for 79% of people in the developing world. Except for most of them, their main option is a kerosene lamp, not candles.

SolarAid wants to rid the world of the kerosene lamp. It is a brutal technology which, aside from giving poor light, is a major cause of respiratory disease, is often responsible for horrific tragedies (they can explode and cause fires); and almost worst of all, are very expensive to run.

We meet families for whom over 50% of their expenditure goes on kerosene. It bleeds them of money to spend on school fees, income generating activities or better food.

And yet the technology now exists for these people to replace their lamps with solar lights.

SolarAid is building awareness, understanding and trust in solar lights, helping to create demand and a sustainable market for them. One day, we’ll achieve our goal and the kerosene lamp will be gone.

The social, environmental and economic benefits of us doing so are mind-bogglingly huge

What does SolarAid have to do with climate change and why are SolarAid's efforts focused on Africa?

Kerosene lamps are pumping 100 million tonnes of CO2 into our atmosphere each year. When we succeed in our mission to get rid of them, we’ll have made a very big contribution to the fight against climate change.

We are focussed on Africa as a first step.

Despite their huge benefits, it is still proving difficult to economically sell solar lights to people for whom the capital outlay may be many weeks of income; for a product that they don’t yet trust and for which there is no established market that can respond if their light stops working.

SolarAid, through our social enterprise, sunnymoney, is testing ways to sell lights at scale and create this trust. When we’re confident in our business model, we’ll look to scale beyond Africa.

How does SolarAid work with remote and disadvantaged communities in Africa?

In many ways! We’re constantly testing ways to economically sell lights in the remotest communities. It’s a huge challenge.

And we’re putting larger solar systems on schools and clinics that have no power. This is thrilling work: exam results go up quickly when a school has solar power. The kids can study for longer and, being Africa, they do! And clinics with power can remove toxic kerosene from maternity suites; or store vaccinations in a fridge for the first time.

What have been some of the impacts of SolarAid on these communities?

The impacts are huge!

We’re seeing children’s exam results going up quickly. And families, no longer being bled dry buying kerosene, able to afford better diets or invest in small businesses.

In one clinic in Tanzania, we heard of a midwife, so reluctant to use a toxic kerosene lamp when supporting a mother in labour, she lit up her way by holding her a mobile phone in her mouth. In any context, this would have been a shocking situation. In a country with high levels of HIV, the implications are just awful. But that’s no longer a problem since SolarAid installed solar lighting throughout the clinic.

What have been some of the challenges you have encountered in establishing SolarAid's vision?

SolarAid’s vision is a world where everyone has access to clean, renewable energy.

I strongly believe that a vision is pointless unless you take it literally. What this means for SolarAid is that we have to achieve something so vast and audacious that we’re going to have to re-write the rules of how NGO’s work. Maybe achieve things that no other NGO has achieved before us.

We’ll need to perform like the most entrepreneurial business you can imagine. Hire truly outstanding people (who are going to cost us!). Develop breakthrough strategies. Take huge risks. Behave in ways that people don’t normally associate with NGOs.

Before joining SolarAid, I built up and sold a successful business. But that was a walk in the park compared to SolarAid. This is the professional challenge of my life-time.

I want us to achieve the vision within 10 years.

What are the main drivers for you in believing in climate change and taking action?

I have one driver for believing in climate change. It’s called science. 

And one driver for taking action: knowing, when I go to my grave, that I did everything I could to prevent disaster; for my children and the world’s poorest people – who have small carbon footprints but are already experiencing the greatest consequences.

Do you regard solar energy as being an economic alternative source of energy that should be adopted more extensively by governments and how do you compare solar energy with other alternative sources of energy such as nuclear power for long term investment?

Solar's costs are plunging, nuclear's are soaring. As soon as anything approaching full cost accounting comes in, nuclear will no longer be an option. Unless you want to build nuclear weapons of course.  

In much of the developing world, where there is no grid electricity but there is a lot of sun, solar is by far the most economical option. 

Other renewable sources such as wind and tidal also have a huge part to play, depending on local geographies.

What do you see as some of the best practice solutions which UK businesses have put in place to tackle climate change problems?

Full supply-chain carbon targets have instilled impressive energy efficiency improvements among retailers. All companies should use solar more because they all know what is going to happen to conventional energy prices over the life of a solar system.