After gauging the response to the initial batch of solar flashlights over several months, EE raised the funds to distribute and market lights to nearly 1,000 households in two conservancies (a bounded area of communal land governed by its members). Sobbe Conservancy purchased flashlights at a subsidized price and distributed them to members, while Wuparo Conservancy sold lights directly to its members for $7—the amount a family would normally spend on candles each month.
The solar flashlights spurred local interest in other solar-powered products, driving EE to open a shop in Katima Mulilo, the capital of the Caprivi Strip. In the first two months, the shop sold more than 250 items.
The products—hand-crank radios, solar-powered lights, and cell phone chargers, ranging in price from $10 to $60—are supplied by companies based in the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia, but manufactured in China. “I’m often asked why we aren’t teaching the people how to make the products locally. The reality is that, if we built them in Africa, they’d be four times more expensive and no one could afford them,” Vilsack says.
To extend its reach and keep costs down, EE also relies on existing distribution channels—including a network of 26 rural bike shops established by Bicycles for Humanity (bicycles-for-humanity.org). In addition, EE provides products through eight energy shops established by the Namibian government and the Polytechnic University of Namibia.
This year, EE quadrupled its sales, distributing 2,000-plus items to an estimated 10,000 users (about one product per household with an average of five people), creating upwards of $3,500 in revenue. Bulk sales have increased as well, including the sale of 240 solar-powered lights to World Wildlife Fund game rangers.
Despite such impressive strides, EE is still a long way from making its exit. The primary obstacle is geography, according to Tim Weiss, a volunteer with EE in Namibia. “Most of the people we serve get their income in a variety of ways and at very inconsistent times,” Weiss says. “This volatility in their income requires us to develop creative, flexible financing solutions, or have products available at the exact right time and place, which means we must go to the customer. This is very challenging because of how remote these villages are and how far apart they are from each other.”
“Affordable small-scale solar technology is a perfect fit for many of these people because it fills their fundamental energy needs while actually saving them money,” he adds. “When I travel through rural villages at night and see people either using candles, kerosene, or just living in darkness, it motivates me—all people should have access to light that is clean, safe, affordable, and bright.”