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8 Questions with Robert Freling, Executive Director of SELF

2014-07-14



Bob and Kogi child

This July, We-Care.com has chosen to honor the Solar Electric Light Fund (SELF) as Cause of the Month to help bring sustainable energy systems to communities where it will change lives. More than 1.2 billion people live without access to electricity. We sat down with Executive Director of SELF, Robert Freling, to understand the state of energy poverty, future solutions, challenges being faced, and finally, how to help… all in 8 questions.

1. You’ve been with SELF since 1997 as Executive Director, what first drew you to SELF and what has made you stay with the organization over the years?

When I was first hired by SELF to manage a solar project in western China, I witnessed a family living in a very poor village flip a switch and experience electric light for the first time in their lives. That encounter was a life-changing event; it made me realize just how transformative electricity can be to people living without access to modern energy services.

Since then I have seen time and again the many ways in which solar energy can change lives, initially at the household level, and later, for entire communities as SELF’s model expanded to use solar energy to power schools, health clinics, water pumping systems, micro-enterprise centers, and wireless Internet kiosks.

2. Many of the nonprofits on We-Care.com provide communities in need with water through wells, infrastructure, livestock, educational resources, or even money directly; how does a solar energy system uniquely impact a community?

At first, SELF focused on using solar energy in homes to power lights, radios, televisions, and small appliances. But I knew we could do more. So beginning in 2000, we expanded our mandate to address a larger spectrum of basic needs at the community level. Our projects are now designed to power a wide range of applications, including computers, vaccine refrigerators, water pumping systems, street lights, micro-enterprise centers, and wireless Internet kiosks.

All of this has culminated in the creation of our “Whole Village Development Model,” which is designed to improve people’s health, education, economic development, and food and water security.

3. With over 550 solar projects in more than 15 countries worldwide, you’ve been able to see the SELF model implemented in a variety of different ways. What are some ways that these projects are similar? What are some of the ways these projects differ?

Through our “Whole Village Development Model,” we are transforming lives. The basic benefits are always the same. Many adults have access for the first time to quality health care services, clean drinking water, and sustainable sources of food. And the children born into the communities where we work can now look forward to a lifetime of decent health care, clean water, full-time schooling, food on the table, and other opportunities their parents may have never dreamed about.

Of course on-the-ground conditions vary from project to project. Some villages we work in have very basic infrastructures that can help ease the design and installation of our solar systems. Other locations have nothing. In those instances, our team must come up with innovative ways to get things done in order to meet the needs of the community.

4. How has SELF changed in the past 17 years? Where do you see the organization heading in the future?

SELF’s role in sustainable development has evolved from having a singular focus to taking a holistic approach. We believe our Whole Village Development Model can be replicated around the world to scale up the use of solar energy to help communities lift themselves out of poverty. It builds upon SELF’s unique strengths and capabilities and ensures that we remain at the forefront of technological and social innovation. Implementing the plan will help us to reach millions of people and continue leading the way toward solutions that help those living in energy poverty secure their future.

5. What is the biggest challenge that SELF faces providing solar energy systems?

Because we operate globally, the challenge is allocating enough resources to meet our goals everywhere we work. That’s why our partners and supporters are critical; without them, much of our work would simply not be possible.

6. Energy wasn’t addressed in the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals, do you think this has been an obstacle in fighting energy poverty? If so, how do you think it can be overcome?

For nearly 20 years, I’ve been advocating the concept that energy is a human right. Without it, there is no way to light our homes, pump water, store vaccines, run computers, operate machinery, or communicate with the rest of the world. It is a cornerstone of modern civilization; yet 1.2 billion people still do not have access to electricity. This is unacceptable.

Thankfully, progress is being made. In 2012, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon formally launched the “Sustainable Energy for All Initiative,” whose primary goal is to ensure universal access to modern energy services for the world’s poor.

It has been gratifying to see SELF’s whole-village approach to rural electrification validate the idea that access to modern energy is absolutely essential to achieving the Millennium Development Goals. Whether powering a health clinic refrigerator to store vaccines, a WiFi-enabled computer lab to connect a classroom with the outside world, or a water pumping system to irrigate fruit trees and vegetable crops, SELF’s projects have shown just how critical energy is to improving the health, education, and economic prospects of the world’s poorest citizens.

7. What do you see as the biggest opportunity in providing universal access to sustainable energy? Are we waiting for a breakthrough in technology? or for the issue to be made a priority on the world stage? or for individuals, organizations, and governmental bodies to invest in these systems? or something else entirely?

Solar photovotlaics, which has come down in price dramatically over the past few years, represents the least-cost option for generating electric power for the 1.2 people who still live in energy poverty. Now that access to modern energy services has become a priority at the highest level of the United Nations, a unique opportunity has emerged for the private sector to join forces with nonprofit organizations and government agencies to extend energy services to the poor. The primary challenge is no longer technological; it is a question of political will and financial commitment to bring to fruition the dream of universal energy access.

8. We imagine there are countless stories of particular projects, communities, and individuals that have resonated with you over the years. Could you please share one of these stories–a story that has stuck in your mind more than some others?

In 2011, I was invited to participate in “Energy for All: Financing Access for the Poor,” a high-level conference that took place in Oslo, Norway. I was asked to present a case study on our solar-powered drip irrigation model in Benin that has enabled women farmers in the arid, northern part of the country to grow highly nutritious food year-round.

The organizers of the conference also asked if I could bring with me to Oslo a member of the local community in Benin so that he or she could provide a first-hand account of how village life has been transformed as a result of our project. I immediately thought of Ms. Ganigui Guera, president of the women’s farming cooperative in Dunkassa—one of two remote villages in northern Benin where SELF’s Solar Market Gardens have been in operation over the past four years.

Madame didn’t have a passport, nor did she have a national ID card, or even a birth certificate. Against all odds, Madame Ganigui was able to obtain all of those documents within one week, and with support from the Norwegian government as well as Danish embassy in Benin, she was issued a visa just one day before her scheduled flight to Oslo. I can only imagine how disorienting it must have been for someone who had never traveled abroad or flown in an airplane before to embark on this journey alone. Yet, she arrived safely, even navigating the airport in Brussels without assistance to make her connecting flight.

The day before my presentation, while waiting in the hotel lobby with Madame for a tour of Oslo, we had a most fortuitous encounter. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon walked through the revolving front door of the hotel, and suddenly there he was, right in front of us. I seized the opportunity and quickly introduced the Secretary General to Madame, and told him about the solar-powered drip irrigation model that she has championed in Benin. As Madame La Presidente shook hands with Ban Ki-moon, one of the UN staff photographers took pictures. Needless to say, it was precious moment.

The next morning, I gave a talk on our work in Benin. After my remarks, I invited Madame on stage for her to share her thoughts with the audience. A bit nervous but resolute, Madame walked up to the podium and began to speak. Her voice was quiet and measured. Everyone listened intently as Madame explained who she was and what she has been doing to help her community improve its food security and climb out of poverty. “Solar energy”, Madame affirmed, “has transformed our village.”

When Madame concluded her remarks, the moderator of our panel captured the general mood and reaction of everyone in the room when he said, “If ever we needed a clearer reminder of why we’re here, I think we’ve just heard it.”

This story is a testimony as to how the people we work with have the perseverance to overcome many challenges, and literally how far they will go to make sure the world understands the importance of electricity and the role it plays in making their lives better.

The full story can be seen on my blog: “Madame La Presidente: A Journey Out of Africa” located here: http://www.bobfreling.com/2011/11/madame-la-presidente-a-journey-1.htm

Madame Sitting Full

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Dylan Nord works with nonprofits to maximize fundraising through We-Care.com. Working with partners like the ASPCA, the National Autism Association, Save the Children, and Clean Water Action, Dylan has helped supporters raise over $4.6 million dollars through We-Care.com. Dylan believes that small deeds can add up, that we all have a responsibility to do good, and that technology is creating collaboration that will change the world. Dylan holds a Bachelor of Arts from Hartwick College in Oneonta, New York.