The case of We Care Solar and our failure to spot winners

“The first ever US$1 million UN-DESA Energy Grant has been awarded to We Care Solar, a non-profit organisation, to enhance and expand the use of its ‘Solar Suitcase’. By making solar power simple, accessible and affordable, this device allows for the provision of electricity for medical procedures during childbirth in many developing countries, helping to avoid life-threatening complications for mothers and children” – UN website

Yesterday afternoon at United Nations HQ in New York, Laura Stachel and her organisation, We Care Solar, picked up the inaugural UN-DESA award. It’s the latest in a string of awards and accolades for a project I’ve known and admired for many years. You can read more about what happened yesterday on the UN website.

Liberian Health Workers receiving their  Solar Suitcase (Photo: We Care Solar)

Liberian Health Workers receiving their Solar Suitcase (Photo: We Care Solar)

I was already a fan of simple, appropriate technology solutions to problems before I met Laura in 2009. While almost everyone else at the time seemed to be aspiring to build complex tech solutions to often simple problems, the idea behind the Solar Suitcase was beautiful in its simplicity. It was based on a rather simple hypothesis: If the power (and therefore lighting) goes down in the middle of a difficult (or any) childbirth, and there’s no backup, people can die. This is not just true of maternity wards in the developing world, where Laura first witnessed this happening. Try plunging any operating theatre anywhere in the world into darkness and see how the surgeons cope.

I always found the idea compelling, and always did what I could to help. Laura was as committed to ending these unnecessary deaths as anyone could be, and her determination was at times a source of frustration to her. She gave it everything, and taking it on changed her life. The fact she got so little support early on, despite the compelling nature of her work, was an injustice in my eyes, and another reason I always did what I could. It was another reason why I wanted to include her story in my recent book, “The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator“. In celebration of their award yesterday, we’re offering Laura’s chapter here for free (PDF).

Why Laura was so committed was clear. From her Nigerian fieldwork (2008), quoted in the book:

I had not predicted the challenges facing my Nigerian colleagues. At night, I observed maternity care, watching helplessly as doctors and midwives struggled to treat critically ill pregnant women in near-total darkness. The dim glow of kerosene lanterns often provided the only illumination. Without electricity, doctors had to postpone Caesarean sections and other life-saving procedures. When the maternity ward was in darkness, midwives were unable to provide emergency care and, on occasion, would turn patients away from the labour room door, despite their critical need for care.

The story of Laura’s response, the Solar Suitcase, is not the rosy tale of social innovation and overnight success that many people hearing about her work for the first time yesterday might think it to be. Today, things might be going well but, as Laura will remind us, there’s always more to be done, and women and children continue to die in the dark in wards the developing world over. It’s obviously great news that, as a result of yesterdays award, that number will continue to decrease, but that level of support hasn’t always been there, despite the compelling nature of what she was doing.

Poster for the Solar Suitcase (Courtesy Laura Stachel)

Poster for the Solar Suitcase (Courtesy Laura Stachel)

After that Nigerian trip in 2008, Laura and her partner, Hal, sketched out the early plans for the Solar Suitcase. That done, they needed money to build a prototype. A $12,500 competition at UC Berkeley looked like the perfect place to get it, but out of twelve finalists they didn’t win. In her own words, Laura felt dejected and, worse, felt she’d let down colleagues in Nigeria who she had promised to help. But someone there believed in them. Thomas Kalil, a campus official who had been at the competition, called Laura up and told her they should have won. He committed to helping. Within three weeks he had pulled together $25,000 from The Blum Center for Developing Economies and Berkeley Big Ideas, and We Care Solar was born. Considerable challenges remained as the work progressed, and on numerous occasions anyone with less determination would have quit. There’s nothing more deflating that having huge belief in what you’re doing, only to find so few others who share it. If you want the real story behind what it means to innovate, read Laura’s chapter. Trust me, it’s worth it.

The story of We Care Solar is littered with opportunities for the official development sector to come on board. But on so many occasions it didn’t. There could be many reasons for this. Perhaps the technology wasn’t clever enough? Maybe donors didn’t see the potential in what Laura was doing? Maybe they were too busy looking for the next big thing? Maybe all of the above?

Yesterday’s award is proof that Laura was right sticking to her belief in the Solar Suitcase, despite the immense personal sacrifices that involved. And we should be grateful that she did. We talk a lot in the development sector about ‘picking winners’ and the ‘need to support things that work’. But that clearly didn’t happen here. Until now. How many Laura’s are out there who don’t battle through, who call it a day on potentially life-changing ideas because they can’t get the support they need? Or, worse, because they are constantly rejected?

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but what’s not compelling about giving light to maternity wards in the developing world? What’s not compelling about wanting to stop women and babies dying in the dark? And why did it take so long to help someone fix it?

Halting the push-push of global development

“On 29th August 1965, an article was published in The Observer entitled “How to help them help themselves”, written by Fritz Schumacher the distinguished economist with support from his close friend Observer editor, David Astor. In it, Schumacher pointed out the inadequacies of aid based on the transfer of large scale, capital-intensive technologies and argued for a shift towards “intermediate technologies”, based on the needs and skills possessed by poor people themselves. This article helped shape the future of development.”Simon Trace, CEO, Practical Action

"Small is Beautiful"I came across Schmacher’s writing almost 20 years ago during my time at Sussex University. I was only three years into my global development journey, having spent a decade working in the technology sector until everything changed after a trip to Zambia in 1993. Shumacher’s call for appropriate technologies resonated on so many levels, and seemed to sit in stark contrast to many of the active – and failed – policies of the development system. Sadly, despite the rhetoric, little has really changed, and many ICT4D projects simply follow big brother’s bad practice. This is why, for the best part of the last 13 years, I’ve been relentlessly focused on development ‘outside the system’, and how we might support the grassroots response to many of the problems out there. In 2005, FrontlineSMS was specifically built with this – and Shumacher’s vision – in mind.

(For more on how Schumacher’s work has influenced my own, check out this excellent article and interview in World Watch Magazine from 2010).

My sense has always been that we need to support the people closest to the problem. Not only do they often have a better understanding, but they also get the local context (cultural, geographic, economic and so on). As outsiders, we often do not. As Ahmed Djoghlaf pointed out during the current climate talks, “It’s difficult for someone living up on the 38th floor to know what is going on in the basement”. The same applies in global development, where many of the organisations that drive the agenda are based far away from the problems they’re trying to solve.

Until local actors drive more of the development agenda there will inevitably be a disconnect. And whenever there’s a disconnect, there should be caution. We may have the money, and what we believe to be the better technology and expertise, but history tells us that we often struggle to apply them in ways that result in meaningful change, or any change at all.


This quote from William Macaskill’s new book, “Doing Good Better“, should be printed off and pinned on the wall of every development agency working overseas. It should be the starting point, and opening question, to anything and everything we do.

It’s time to vacate those offices on the 38th floor and move our thinking a little closer to the basement. We still might not get everything right, but it’s almost certainly a better starting point. Just ask Schumacher. He’s been saying it for 50 years.

Want a holistic view of the world of social innovation? Try these four books.

We’re seeing a steady stream of great books hitting the shelves at the moment, each focusing on a different aspect of the technology/social innovation debate. While some offer hardcore theory and research, others offer softer inspiration and advice. One day we’ll have a book which captures and weaves together all four – that would be the ideal book – but for now we’ll have to read them all as separate volumes.

So, what are they? Well, if you’re interested in the whole spectrum of social change, with a slant towards the use of technology and innovation, these four books should make your summer reading list.


For background, theory and context:

Ben Ramalingam

It is widely recognised that the foreign aid system – which today involves every country in the world – is in need of drastic change. But there are conflicting opinions as to what is needed. Some call for dramatic increases in resources, to meet long-overdue commitments, and to scale up what is already being done around the world. Others point to the flaws in aid, and bang the drum for cutting it altogether – and argue that the fate of poor and vulnerable people be best placed in the hands of markets and the private sector. Meanwhile, growing numbers are suggesting that what is most needed is the creative, innovative transformation of how aid works. In this ground-breaking book, Ben Ramalingam shows that the linear, mechanistic models and assumptions on which foreign aid is built would be more at home in early twentieth century factory floors than in the dynamic, complex world we face today.

For inspiration and inside stories of social innovation:
Ken Banks

Classes in social innovation, social entrepreneurship and design thinking have become increasingly popular in recent years. On the one hand, this might be seen as a good thing. After all, the world needs as many smart, engaged citizens as it can get, particularly when you consider the multitude of challenges we face as a planet. But does a career in social change really begin in the classroom, or out in the real world? How much social change is planned, and how much accidental? And which approach tends to lead to the most meaningful, lasting or impactful solutions?

For research, theory, context:
Kentaro Toyama

In this incisive book, Toyama cures us of the manic rhetoric of digital utopians and reinvigorates us with a deeply people-centric view of social change. Contrasting the outlandish claims of tech zealots with stories of people like Patrick Awuah, a Microsoft millionaire who left his engineering job to open Ghana’s first liberal arts university, and Tara Sreenivasa, a graduate of a remarkable South Indian school that takes impoverished children into the high-tech offices of Goldman Sachs and Mercedes-Benz, Geek Heresy is a heartwarming reminder that it’s human wisdom, not machines, that move our world forward.

FOR Inspiration, advice:
William MacAskill

Almost all of us want to make a difference. So we volunteer, donate to charity, recycle or try to cut down our carbon emissions. But rarely do we know how much of a difference we’re really making. In a remarkable re-examination of the evidence, Doing Good Better reveals why buying sweatshop-produced goods benefits the poor; why cosmetic surgeons can do more good than charity workers; and why giving to a relief fund is generally not the best way to help after a natural disaster. By examining the charities you give to, the volunteering you do, the goods you buy and the career you pursue, this fascinating and often surprising guide shows how through simple actions you can improve thousands of lives – including your own.

Happy reading!