04/09/2012 08:10 am ET Updated Jun 09, 2012

One Step That Can Solve A Critical Health Problem In Africa

At the end of February I attended the Regional Finals of the Hult Global Case Challenge in Boston as a judge for the nonprofit SolarAid. It was an extraordinary experience and gave a glimmer into the potential that every social cause could tap into providing they open their minds.

My role in SolarAid is Director of Fundraising & Marketing -- in other words engaging and inspiring people to donate or give in some other way to our cause. I've worked as a fundraiser for nonprofits for over 20 years. It's a great driver to get out of bed each morning believing you can make a difference to people's lives. But fundraising, and marketing is changing. No longer is it about broadcasting your message, often ramping up the volume on images of guilt and pity. The challenge is how to inspire people to carry your message for you and advocate your cause or mission. That needs a totally different approach. You need to inspire and engage people.

Half way through 2011 SolarAid did something so simple which profoundly changed our thinking. We set ourselves a "BHAG" or big hairy audacious goal. I now believe every organization should have one. Ours is to eradicate the kerosene lamp from Africa by the end of the decade. Kerosene lighting is what most people in Africa use. Currently there are 110 million households off grid which is expected to grow to 120 million by 2015 -- that's 75 percent of the population. Kerosene is brutally expensive, dangerous, bad for people's heath, and bad for the environment.

The solar light offers a clean, safe and affordable solution.

Our BHAG is one of those goals that is just the other side of impossible -- but we believe it can be done. It will need us to take risks and it will need us to collaborate with others.

It was at this time we heard SolarAid had been selected for the Hult Global Case Challenge (in fact it was first day!). Armed with our ambitious goal -- it was a great opportunity to share the very challenges preventing us from achieving it and put them in front of some of the world's most enterprising and open minds.

And getting the next generation involved is key to ending social issues. The key word is "involved." There is a tendency amongst among charities and nonprofits to say we have the answers.

"Here is the problem." "We have the solution." "Fund this".

It can be a little arrogant. Now a more engaging way is to say: "Here is the problem -- it's a tough one, can you help? What ideas do you have?"

And Africa, where we operate, is so inspiring. When I visit communities in Africa I don't come back with feelings of guilt or pity. I come back in awe of people's resilience and determination.

Yet too often nonprofits don't convey this image -- and so Africa, more than any other continent -- is marketed as a bottomless pit of need. This might help boost response rates for some fundraising appeal, but it does nothing to help engage the next generation.

And yet there is an Africa emerging that is truly exciting, full of enterprise and opportunity. And with a little help we can help set it on its course. It's a story which needs to be told and one we find young people get excited about.

Despite our name, SolarAid, we have come to realize that traditional aid is not the answer. The scale of the problem is too big for charity alone to provide a complete and long term solution to solar lighting. The only way this will happen is if the talented hard working entrepreneurs of Africa from the embrace this opportunity.

Which is why we believe in business-based solutions to poverty. For starters, we don't give lights away to poor communities, we sell them. If we gave them away, it does nothing to help build the market. Moreover, people remain dependant on handouts and are less inclined to buy something if it is available for free.

Paradoxically, we have found selling solar lights has several major advantages. By selling a light, someone really values what they receive. They ask lots of questions to make sure it really is what they need (when you get a handout you take what you are given). As a "customer" versus a recipient of aid, they have consumer rights, such as warranty if the product proves faulty. Furthermore, if local traders see that our lights are selling and there is demand, they will be willing to act as points for repair and future distribution (which is important, as new products are coming onto the market all the time).

And solar is starting to sell. In the last 12 months, SunnyMoney, the social enterprise set up by SolarAid, sold over 50,000 solar lights (a four-fold increase on the previous year).

But there remain challenges in this exciting space.

There is the capital cost to buy a solar light in the first place. Families have little disposable income, often needing to buy kerosene on a regular basis (sometimes every day), spending $1 to $1.50 a week. So what do people do? Do they go without light until they have set aside enough? Credit is not currently an option. The majority of people are "unbanked" with nothing to offer up as security and often no proof of address on which they can be given a loan. Microfinance institutions are not the solution, as they cover less than 5 percent of the unbanked and they lend to entrepreneurs not consumers.

Then there is a lack of trust. It's a big investment for a family to make even if they had the funds. There are also a lot of poor quality solar products out there that undermine trust.

We are tantalizingly close to addressing these major barriers. We know to do so, we will need new innovative approaches. Which is why we are so excited at the solutions being presented by the case challenge teams that have made it to the finals.

Our advice to others like us is simply think like a business. Nonprofits tackling some of the biggest social issues on the planet should leverage the power of crowd thinking and offer through initiatives like the Hult Global Case Challenge. Share your problems -- the solution is out there.

After all, we know we are not going to solve the big hairy audacious goal of eradicating the kerosene lamp from Africa on our own.