Imagine living without electricity, all the way down at the end of the last road out into the country.
In this imagined life, you occupy a part of the world that got cell phones before landlines, lightbulbs, and stoves. At night, you send text messages by candle light while your dinner cooks over an open flame. And it’s perfectly normal for you to walk for hours to reach the nearest person who can charge your cell phone—for a fee.
You were raised by farmers. You are, yourself, a farmer. You expect your children will be farmers too. They’re going to school but, after sundown, they can’t study because it’s too dark to make out the words in their books.
And then one day, your cousin shows up with a basket full of rugged little solar-powered gadgets—lamps, cellphone chargers, fans, radios. Little gadgets you can afford to buy. Little gadgets that can save your time and your money and the futures of your children.
On this episode of The MLM.com Podcast, Solar Sister Founder, Katherine Lucey tells us about her experience using direct sales to spread clean energy to rural communities in sub-Saharan Africa. In her words, “no country comes into the modern era if they don’t have access to electricity,” and “every family needs to have electricity in order to develop and to be able to live lives of prosperity and productivity.”
Listen in for the full story.
Nancy Tobler: Welcome. This is the MLM.com podcast. I’m Nancy Tobler. I’m guest hosting for Kenny Rawlins.
Today our guest is Katherine Lucey. She’s the Founder and CEO of Solar Sister which is an innovative last-mile distribution solution for clean energy technologies in rural Africa that taps into the power of women entrepreneurs.
It’s such a great concept.
Katherine is a Schwab Foundation Entrepreneur of the year and Ashoka Fellow and a Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation Entrepreneur. She has received recognitions and awards for her work with Solar Sister including the Clinton Global Initiative the Social Venture Network, C3E, and the International Center for Research on Women “Champion of Change” Award. She holds an MBA from Georgia State University and a bachelor’s degree in Journalism from the University of Georgia. Prior to becoming a social entrepreneur, Katherine spent 20 years as an investment banker on Wall Street providing structured finance solutions to the energy sector.
So, Katherine, welcome!
Katherine Lucey: Thank you so much. It’s a pleasure to talk to you.
Nancy Tobler: Great. I’ll just have you start off by telling us just a little bit about Solar Sister and then we’ll go into some questions.
Katherine Lucey: Sure. Solar Sister, as she said, is a social enterprise. We work with women entrepreneurs in rural Africa and help them build businesses. They are bringing clean energy products—things like solar lamps and clean stoves—to their communities.
And so, it has two major impacts:
The first one being we’re providing these incredible, life-transforming technology product/services to communities that are currently living off-grid—which means people who are living in very rural areas, don’t have any electricity. And so, at nighttime they use kerosene—they burn kerosene for light—or candles. They cook dinner over an open stone fire. And so, these solar lamps and clean cookstoves really improve lives and [cause] just tremendous changes.
And then it also has a secondary impact which is the women themselves—by starting these businesses and selling these products and making them available to their community—are earning income and they take that money and they invest it in their business. They invest it in their families.
And that has again a ripple effect of benefits where they’re sending their children to school, they’re buying better food for their families, they’re also investing in healthcare that they would otherwise not be able to afford.
And so Solar Sister finds that because the women are thriving and they’re learning to run a business and they’re doing well, they are also becoming leaders in their community and really bring changes in their community because of their leadership.
And so, it kind of starts a virtuous circle where the stronger the entrepreneur and the better she does the more impact she has in her community. And the stronger she is in her community the more people she’s able to reach with these technologies.
Nancy Tobler: Yeah great. It’s just such a wonderful concept. I’m… I’m proud of you. I’m just going to say that. I don’t normally say that on a podcast—
Katherine Lucey: [Laughs]
Nancy Tobler: —but I’m really proud of you. But let’s dig just a little deeper into the need. Why is it such a problem that they’re off-grid and using kerosene and open fires?
Katherine Lucey: Yeah! I mean you know we live with electricity so abundantly. We don’t really think about it. It kind of runs through our entire lives.
Probably the first thing you do in the morning is you turn the light on and the last thing you do at night is you turn it off. All day long you’re powered up on your cell phone or your computer.
Every appliance you touch is using electricity and you don’t think twice about it.
But in rural Africa there are 700 million people who live without electricity. And what that means for them is they are living life in the dark at night. It gets really dark. And when you live on the equator you have a 12-hour day in a 12-hour night. So, at six o’clock at night it gets dark. And that brings everything to a halt. Productivity stops. Your children aren’t able to study at night. It’s a safety issue because walking around in the dark can be quite unsafe. And so, it has a real impact on people’s lives.
I was a banker for many many years and I was in the energy sector and I knew that on an infrastructure level, at the country level, no country comes into the modern era if they don’t have access to electricity.
It’s the first and most fundamental aspect of development. And what we’re working with now is not big power plants. What we’re working with now are individual household-sized power where every family needs to have electricity in order to develop and to be able to live lives of prosperity and productivity.
You can just imagine if every night you had to light your kerosene light just to go from room to room or to cook your dinner or for your children to do homework. It’s just devastating.
Nancy Tobler: It has health consequences as well doesn’t it?
Katherine Lucey: Yes, because burning kerosene and then burning wood or charcoal for your cooking produces indoor air pollution. Really really devastating indoor air pollution. And that itself causes many many deaths.
And also, there’s also the issue of safety. Of burns from the kerosene lamps. We see a high number of burns and fires. And so, it’s a health issue.
It’s also an issue for education because if children aren’t able to study then they don’t do well in school. And if they don’t do well in school they tend to stall out and then drop out.
And it’s an issue for the economics for the family because kerosene is possibly one of the most expensive fuels you can use to burn for light. And even though the families are buying it in very small amounts, they’re buying it frequently.
They’re spending two to four dollars a week maybe to buy kerosene just for light, just for their home. And that doesn’t sound like a lot of money but when we’re talking about economies where families that are living on under two dollars a day. That’s actually quite a big amount of money to spend—just for light.
So, by buying a solar lamp they’re able not have to spend that money on the kerosene and then that goes toward being able to spend that on much more happy things. Things like education or better food.
Nancy Tobler: Yeah. I think we’ve really touched on the first couple of things I wanted to talk about. That that need for solar and then how your product really transforms lives right.
I don’t know if there’s something else you want to say about how the product transforms lives, but I think you’ve really hit on to… It’s educational, it’s health, it’s safety. Yeah. What a unique concept. I just really have never thought about power being at an individual level. Right? At an individual family level. Each family can have its own electricity source and provide its own… They’re still off the grid but…
Katherine Lucey: Yes, and maybe I can paint a picture of what these products even look like.
Nancy Tobler: Okay.
Katherine Lucey: So that you can imagine you know what we’re talking about.
Nancy Tobler: Great.
Katherine Lucey: So, the kerosene lamp that families use is not something that you would go to an REI or an outdoor store and pick up a nice lovely kerosene lamp that you’d use on a camping trip. The kerosene lamps that they use looks much more like a tuna fish can with a wick stuck in it.
Nancy Tobler: Oh.
Katherine Lucey: And then they pour kerosene into that. It’s extremely dangerous—and flammable of course. And so, what they’re replacing that with is a very small solar light. It’s about the size of…
We carry a whole variety of products. But the very first smallest product we sell, it’s about the size of your hand. And on one side of it it has a built-in solar panel and then you flip it over and on the other side it has the LED light.
And it comes on a small stand that you can put on the table so that you can use it as a desk light or a table light. You can actually hang it from the wall so that it has a more ambient light for the whole room. You can carry it around with you as you’re going from place to place.
There’s a lot of flexibility of how you use it. And it’s also very very rugged and robust. It’s not breakable. It’s going to withstand getting wet. It’s going to have to stand up to really some of the most harsh environments and really a lot of use.
And so, having this technology that’s appropriate, it’s affordable, it’s available is what’s so important.
And then what Solar Sister does is we make sure that this technology…
It’s not something that you just buy if you go to the city and you see it in a shop. Most of the people we’re working with don’t go into the city very often. They don’t go to a shop. They’re never going to come across this technology.
And so, what the Solar Sister network of entrepreneurs does is bring these technologies out to the rural areas, right to the doorstep of the people who most need it.
And they introduce the product to people through their social network. So, it’s through their families, their friends, their neighbors, their community, their church groups.
They are talking about “hey! Look at the lights I use now. And I don’t have to use that old kerosene. I’ve saved a lot of money.” And they talk about the benefits of it because they use it themselves.
And so, they are the best salespeople in the world because they themselves are so convinced of the product benefits that they sell it to people that they know and that trust them.
They are the original social entrepreneurs because they’re doing it for social reason. They’re really benefiting their community. And they’re entrepreneurs. They’re earning an income by doing that.
Nancy Tobler: Yeah great. It’s just such a powerful concept.
The “women as entrepreneurs” I think is really interesting too. We’re here at MLM.com. You’re really a direct sales model—sort of that one level commission. They make most of their money off the retail sales, right?
Katherine Lucey: Mmhmm.
Nancy Tobler: But they are in business by themselves but not alone. Right? You support them in that.
Katherine Lucey: Right. So, they are true business women. They’re running a business. They’re buying inventory. They’re marking it up. They’re selling it. They are keeping track of their profits. They’re reinvesting their capital and all of that is… You know that’s a lot. Right?
Nancy Tobler: Right.
Katherine Lucey: What Solar Sister does is we provide the training and the support to the women who sign up to be the entrepreneurs.
And we give them business training.
We give them the technology training so that they understand what the technology benefits are, and how it works, and how to repair it, how to service it, how to service the warranties and things like that.
And then we also give them training around… We call it “agency-based training.” And that’s training around building up their confidence and their leadership skills and their communication skills so that they are able to really thrive as business women in their communities.
They are individual entrepreneurs, but they gather together once a month in their community with the other entrepreneurs in their communities. And they hold sisterhood meetings once a month where they come together, and they support each other.
So, they provide… They challenge each other. They help each other solve problems. They have social time. They celebrate their successes. And really build up this bond with the other entrepreneurs. And it’s that connection and that support network that helps them go through… Because being entrepreneurs are really hard.
Nancy Tobler: Yes.
Katherine Lucey: Anywhere in the world.
Nancy Tobler: Yes. It is!
Katherine Lucey: Yeah and you have your ups and you have your downs. But by having this network of sisters—the people who are there for you to celebrate when you’re having your good days but are also there for you to pick you up and support you when you’re having your bad days—that is really the backbone and the strength of being a Solar Sister.
Nancy Tobler: Yeah maybe talk a little bit more about those monthly meetings. You have people come from corporate and they provide services as well. Right?
Katherine Lucey: Right. So, we work in Nigeria and Tanzania. So, two countries that are very large countries. Big population and a lot of people without electricity in very rural areas.
And so, we have our staff are called “Business Development Associates.” They’re local staff. So, they are from the areas that they’re serving.
They live in that area and in each—you can imagine a state, or you know a district—in that district you would have a Business Development Associate. She lives right in that district.
And then she would recruit, train, and support women in that district to be entrepreneurs. And then she stays there as she provides the training and support and arranges these sisterhood meetings and provides the logistics of the delivery of product to all the entrepreneurs in her area. And to that… It’s kind of a spider web structure.
Nancy Tobler: Right.
Katherine Lucey: Where in each district you’ll have this kind of center Business Development Associate who is the mentor and the organizer and the facilitator and then you have this network of entrepreneurs.
Nancy Tobler: You know we talked a little bit a couple of days ago about the technology, right? These women have phones and that’s it right. They don’t have smartphones they just have “feature phones” as you called them. So, the business development person also provides technology that helps them run their business with such simple tools.
Katherine Lucey: Right. So, it’s amazing in these areas where we’re working where you know 90 percent of the people don’t have electricity and yet 90 percent of the people do have cell phones.
And so, one of the first questions is like “where do they charge their cell phones?”
Nancy Tobler: Right. [laughs]
Katherine Lucey: [laughs] And so that’s one of the products that we sell: a solar powered light that also charges cell phones, which as you can imagine is very popular. Because if you don’t have some way to charge up your phone it’s not much use.
Nancy Tobler: Right.
Katherine Lucey: And you’d have to walk miles often to go to the nearest town to pay someone to charge your phone. You leave it with them for a couple hours, you come back couple hours later, you pay some small fee, and then your phone is charged.
But to have your own cell phone charging unit it really frees up time, it frees up safety, it frees up money. So that’s one of our very popular products.
So, all of our entrepreneurs have cell phones. They tend to be, as you said, they’re called feature phones, which is like the old fashioned… It just is a, you know, a phone. It might have a small screen on it that you can do some texting. But it’s not going to have all of the iPhone apps or anything like that.
Nancy Tobler: Right.
Katherine Lucey: So, they’re working off of their phones and are using them to order new products, they’re using them to “what’s up” each other and talk to each other, and to arrange meetings and things like that.
And then the Business Development Associate who comes to those meetings does have a tablet that she uses that is fully loaded with all of the training materials and all of the… we have a mobile tool kit which she uses which enables her to place all of the orders electronically.
So that we have this incredibly detailed data capture that is live in real time that we can see exactly what products are being sold to whom, at what price, how many, what day. And that allows us to take a look at all of that data and really understand the trends.
What products are selling? What’s not selling? You know… At what pricing? And things like that.
And that really helps us then provide feedback to our entrepreneurs about new products or what they might want to try and everything. So, it’s this really interesting combination of very advanced technology and very basic human-centered sales.
Nancy Tobler: Yeah, I think the last question’s probably been answered here but… You talk about this last-mile distribution issue that you’ve really sort of set up your system to make that last mile. Maybe just want to talk a little bit about that what that is? Last-mile distribution and how you’ve overcome that.
Katherine Lucey: Yes, so our business, we often think of it as “last-mile distribution.” That’s the phrase we use. And what we’re talking about there is we are working to give access to energy to the people who most need it.
And those are the people who are living… If you can think of that long road out into the country, and that very last mile on the road, that’s our target market. They’re the ones who are the furthest away from all the services and the technology and the electricity that you get in town—that’s where we’re targeting. And that’s where the biggest impact is.
When you bring someone in that market this product and you make it available to them at a price that is affordable, that it’s an appropriate product for them, you’re making it available at their doorstep and they’re able to take on this technology from somebody that they really trust, and they trust will be there that next day. If they have a problem with it or [if it] breaks, they know who to go to to get their warranty.
Nancy Tobler: Right.
Katherine Lucey: That’s really a groundbreaking service in that kind of community it really changes for them. It makes available to them what’s available to us so easily.
Nancy Tobler: Yeah. I think it’s such a unique concept. I mean… This idea that you’re you’re transforming lives with the technology. You’re transforming women. But you’re also transforming social networks because you’re connecting them on a new level. Right? A new connection that just hasn’t been there before. So, it’s very powerful.
Katherine Lucey: Thank you.
Nancy Tobler: Anything else you want to talk about? Did I skip anything?
Katherine Lucey: So, I think just the core of Solar Sister is really captured in our name. That it is both the solar—it’s the technology and it’s bringing technology, energy to people who really need it—and the sister. It’s this woman-centered distribution network that creates impact for the women, for their families, and for their communities.
Nancy Tobler: Great. Thank you so much. I appreciate you sharing Solar Sister with us today and we look forward to watching what happens for you. You’re now on our radar so we’ll keep in touch from the web and find out how you’re doing.
So, thanks again. Katherine Lucey, from Solar Sister. Bye!
Katherine Lucey: Thank you so much. Bye.
Nancy Tobler: Thank you for listening to this episode of the MLM.com podcast. I’m Nancy Tobler, MLM.com’s Editor-in-chief guest hosting for Kenny Rawlins. I want to thank Katherine Lucey of Solar Sister for her insight into a unique product and opportunity in Africa. I also want to thank Dave Payne and Jana Bangerter for producing this episode. Thank you again so much for listening and—if you want to thank us for the work we do at MLM.com—we love it when listeners comment, like, rate, follow, and share.