Sally Struthers, Is That You?

Solar Aid has embarked upon an Internet ad campaign to raise donations to provide solar power devices to impoverished nations in parts of Africa. They lead off with “Imagine a world where everyone has access to affordable, clean, renewable power.” Alongside the text is a picture of a young black boy, shading his eyes with his hand, while looking up at the sun. Below is the suggestion that we “Give the gift of light this Christmas” by buying a solar lantern. The price? A mere $60 dollars.

Watching their video, one could almost be moved and convinced. Like an email from a Nigerian scammer, a few small flaws give us pause: Supposedly 1.2 million people die of smoke related deaths each year — one every 20 seconds. We question that statistic, as it seems unlikely for a number of reasons. They also show their campaign teaching people to convert their lamps to solar with LEDs, florescent bulbs, and solar panels. Its a simple electronics lab project, easily taught in an afternoon, but they’re promising to teach this skill to 250 people this year, and 500 next year. Thinking about it, that doesn’t seem like a very productive schedule.

I’d certainly like to be able to imagine even a COUNTRY (this one, for starters) where everyone has access to affordable, clean, renewable power. That would be a good start. Maybe it would be easier to bring the African continent up on solar since grid electricity isn’t as thoroughly entrenched there as it is here. I’ll give them that much… but charity still begins at home. Moreover, technology advancements will be far greater here than those achieved in a “developing” nation, and can then be handed across to them to utilize. When the U.S. and the rest of the Western World aren’t yet on board with that affordable, clean, renewable power, it’s a bit much to ask us to dig deep and give Africa money to get it.

The site goes on to show that Gwyn Roberts is driving a 1989 Landcruiser from London to Cape Town, hoping to raise £20,000 for them. The tie-in? He’s going to use solar panels on the vehicle, supposedly to increase MPG. Then there’s the 5k run. There’s a long laundry list of corporate donors and sponsors, including utility companies. It LOOKS like a valid cause… but are looks deceiving?

$60 is a fairly good chunk of change. On a wholesale basis, $60 buys a LOT more than one solar lamp. That much can buy a solar panel that can give lights to several LED lamps. Not sure? Think about those solar lamps for the yards. They have a couple off-brand AA rechargeable batteries in them, a very small solar cell, and they can provide light to read by. Such lamps retail in the stores in the States for well under $10 each. Where is the rest of the money going? Administration? New Landcruisers? And what about all of those corporate sponsors?

We agree with the sentiment, and the goal. But the numbers don’t add up, and that’s really too bad. Africa’s people ARE poor, and they could use solar technologies. But this program brings to mind a bloated Sally Struthers dolefully pleading for starving children while wearing a $1500 wardrobe. Cate Blanchette and the rest of the cast and crew may have the best of intentions, but that doesn’t mean they’re not being fleeced. It’s a myth that solar must be expensive — especially when we’re talking about solar lanterns. We’d be happy to pass along good news about a worthy solar charity. This just isn’t one of them, in my opinion.

VIDEO: Solar Aid Needs Your Money NOW!


4 Responses to “Sally Struthers, Is That You?”

  1. Russell McMahon on December 30th, 2008 1:02 pm

    You may wish to have a look at and decide if their solar products and pricing meet your expectations. I’m biased – I designed the electronics in their second generation light – but look for yourself and see what you think.

    The SL-2 light is designed to provide both narrow beam task lighting and wide beam kerosene lantern replacement room lighting.

    Russell McMahon
    New Zealand.

  2. Gwyn on January 11th, 2009 12:40 am

    Interesting article, but I think you missed some pretty important facts.

    Yes the technology is simple – and to somebody who has a basic understanding electronics it is simple to wire together a few LEDs and diodes up to a Solar panel – but the education does more than this.
    Often you will be talking to people who have never even seen an LED, let alone a Solar panel so explaining how these work will take a little longer than an afternoon!

    There are plenty of examples where charities have installed Solar systems in places across the world (especially in South America) and then left, only for things to go wrong a couple of months later with nobody with the knowledge (or inclination) to fix it. SolarAid is different as the education is the most important part!

    Your donation doesn’t just pay for the physical lantern – you are training people to become entrepreneurs in the solar industry so they can source all the parts from a local supply chain – supporting the local economy. Simply giving a solar torch made in china will have very few benefits.

    I do however agree with you that Solar is often more expensive than it should be – and we need to work together across the world to help dispel the myths.

    The charity is still relatively new and needs constructive support, isn’t just saying “no” what the oil and gas industries do say about “alternative power”?

    Just to note; Not a single penny from the charity is going towards the overland trip – this is completely funded by the team and our own sponsors.

    Please add a few links so people can make up their own minds-

    London, UK

  3. Brad on April 1st, 2009 4:45 am

    It seems odd the author mistrusts a charity that addresses poverty and climate change at the historical moment when civilization is melting down economically and environmentally.

    But I share your mistrust. We don’t trust government. We don’t trust any corporations, particularly those which control essential services like water and energy, food or medicine. We don’t trust the news – we don’t trust the BBC. We can’t trust history. We don’t trust celebrity. We can’t trust our ISPs. And even the banks don’t trust the banks anymore. Hence the meltdown.

    And I don’t trust the author as I can’t figure out where his $60 solar panel figure comes from. SolarAid’s Gift of Light donation page says, “£15 will buy a solar lantern for someone living in one of the world’s poorest countries.” That’s $20 USD.

    SolarAid is one of the few organizations I do trust.

    Incidentally, I don’t agree with the ‘charity begins at home’ sentiment owing to our Western tendency to drive developing nations into poverty with unequal trade positions, multinational oligarchies, WTO and IMF policies, while simultaneously offering tiny charitable handouts and grumbling about it. The right hand beats them down and the left hand offers to help them up while the mouth runs on about how magnanimous we are about the whole thing. The one sense in which charity DOES begin at home: some countries have the same relationship to the poor domestically. We destroy unions, slash social services, create an obscene gap between the rich and poor, and then laud the charitable instincts of billionaires.

  4. JohnTaylor on April 2nd, 2009 5:57 am

    Brad, you may want to review the offer again. At the time the post was written, 15 pounds was $30, and there was some sort of requirement, as I recall, to spend a total of $60 USD. If I’m mistaken or they’ve lowered it, that’s a good thing… but at the time it was written, the Contribution equated to $60 USD. So now you can go back to trusting the author.

    I’ve lived in Africa. I’ve seen the truth, the blatant corruption, and know where the money doesn’t go. A few people get a shiny new Landcruiser to drive around in, have a relatively cushy life. Meanwhile, LEDs cost next to nothing..

    Africans are nothing if not innovative. Blacksmiths create a forge with a small rock and a bicycle wheel, a band of rubber and a hamster fan. With that, they modify 1970′s car parts to fit on the 1980′s cars… and somehow the clap-traps keep on going down the road. Some (few) have generators to power their TVs in places where they have no electricity. THey can certainly handle a few LEDs and a battery or solar-charged battery.

    The Author is steeply involved in, and aware of, the ecological and social aspects. But this project is just another way for well-intending Westerners to feel better by giving money, and for a handful of people to do REALLY well while others get a lousy LED and a battery out of the deal.

    LED — a couple cents each. Batteries? Already all over the place in Africa. Wire between the two? C’mon, do you really think any human being is THAT stupid? Have you ever been to Africa, Brad? Ever paid attention past the wild animal tour? It’s pretty obvious that you haven’t, or you’d know better than to write that heap of sophistry.

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