Let There Be Light International’s Founding Board Member, Ben Kerman, recently spent a week in Malawi on LTBLI business. He visited off-grid communities and solar beneficiaries, collecting information and assessing our solar programming in Malawi. Most importantly, he concludes that effective programs like ours rely on excellent local partners. He reports that a willingness to be flexible when challenges arise helps to keep things light when the power goes out. Or, the car breaks down, the boat takes on water or the phones don’t work.

Arrival in Malawi

Walking out of Blantyre’s airport, I wondered if my rendezvous with the Director of LTBLI’s local solar partner would actually happen. Unfortunately, I had no language skills, no backup hotel, and a US cell phone without a signal. Things could get interesting quickly. If I couldn’t find Francis of Compassionate Missions Center, what then?

Ten long minutes passed. Suddenly, there was Francis with his infectious smile and warm embrace. Francis is nearing 50 and is strong of heart, tall of spirit and exudes a bottomless optimism. Showing the gentle warmth for which his country is known, Francis welcomed me into his home at the orphanage run by CMC.

Background to our Solar Involvement in Malawi

A landlocked, least-developed country, Malawi battles entrenched poverty. In fact, more than 50% of Malawians live on less than $1/day. Consequently, accessing solar lights through market-based solutions is not a viable option for many. Most of the village residents I met scratch out a living through subsistence farming.  Others engage in informal activities like selling firewood. Certainly, Malawi is made richer by people like Francis and his commitment to programming for the poor.

My trip’s intent was to deepen LTBLI’s understanding of the successes and challenges of our 3-year partnership with Francis and CMC. To-date, LTBLI has donated 1,100 safe solar lights to vulnerable families in Malawi, impacting 7,025 people. Using a model of piggybacking onto existing programming, LTBLI keeps costs down while meeting the basic energy needs of vulnerable households. Therefore, through our innovative programming, LTBLI helps change-makers like Francis to amplify the impact of their projects.

Annual site visits ensure that LTBLI understands what’s happening with our valued local partners in the targeted communities. LTBLI identified Malawi as a prioritized country because 85% of the population lives in rural areas where only 1% have access to electricity.

Challenges, Resilience and Solar Impact

My travels with Francis by boat, 4 x 4 truck, motorcycle (often with 3 of us piled onto one seat), bicycle, and foot helped deepen my appreciation for the challenges facing vulnerable off-grid families. “Resilience” encapsulates the attitude of Francis, his team and the families and villages we visited.  Furthermore, Francis and his team illuminated the impact of solar donations and distribution as well as the efficacy of advocacy for more renewables.