United Solar Initiative Seeking Sustainability in its Relationship with World Vision

   23rd Jan 2016
Young boy at water pump / well. Samba Diallo, age 7. Sansacoto Village.

United Solar Initiative could not have found a better fit. When World Vision originally reached out to United Solar Initiative, members of USI knew good things were in store.

World Vision, the largest nonprofit provider of clean water in the world, is making strides to expand its efforts in drinking water provision. The organization recently extended its already bold commitments to provide clean water in the coming years. Currently reaching a new person with water every 30 seconds, by 2020 the organization hopes to provide clean water to a new person every 10 seconds. And by 2030, it plans to provide water to every person in every community that it serves.

For World Vision, an expansion of these efforts means an expansion of its partnerships in order to do its work both more efficiently as well as on a larger scale. That’s where a partnership with USI is brought into the picture.

Over the next several years, United Solar Initiative will solarize 100 World Vision water pump systems in 10 different countries, the majority to be installed in West African countries. The average solar panel system, at 2500 watts, will provide the energy needed to give water access to between 1500 and 3000 people, depending on the community size and pump system type.

Keith Kall, senior director of strategic partnerships with World Vision, spoke to the nature of the relationship.

“Some of these communities where we work are off-grid, or if they are near or on-grid, the grid is really unreliable. So to have a solar company or solar-focused nonprofit is a great partner to be associating with,” he said.

A partnership with an organization like United Solar Initiative helps World Vision to better its potential as a water provider as USI offers solar energy solutions. Kall noted that through such a partnership, where USI provides solar panels and installation expertise, “that really allows us to use the money that we do have to go farther.”

Steven Thomsen, co-founder and vice president of USI, believes that the partnership with World Vision “lets us both play to our strengths.” The partnership “allows us to focus on our core competency,” deploying solar power in developing countries, and allows USI to “start learning about clean water (provision),” he said.

Thomsen attended the World Vision WASH conference, the Water and Sanitation Hygiene community of practice meeting, hosted in Ethiopia in May of 2015. He described that the conference brought together World Vision’s partners, donors, and supporters from across the world in order to plan a scaling up of World Vision’s efforts. He was not only impressed by the organization’s ambitious new goals for 2030, but also the different approaches its partners are taking to aid in solutions to the water crisis, citing new water tablets as well as the creation of a Sesame Street Character that addresses the importance of clean and safe drinking water access.

“There’s so much more to solving (the crisis) than putting in wells,” Thomsen said.

This certainly holds true of Kall’s outlook, who points to water as a key aspect of a country’s development. World Vision’s model in these communities, in most situations, is water pump installations that are paralleled by providing other development efforts — education, economic development, and health programs. While this model looks different for every community, he notes that “everything is in fact predicated on water.”

Without the water that these communities need, Kall explained that underperformance becomes a reoccurring motif in terms of meeting economic development, education, and health goals. When women and children have to spend time each day walking for drinking water, “a large part of your population (is) not engaged in economic development work… and a lot of young children don’t go to school,” he said.

“Eighty percent of diseases are water-related in the developing world, so any type of health interventions will underperform as well without access to clean drinking water,” he said.

It is Kall’s personal belief that these “interventions are accelerated once clean drinking water is available.”

This water crisis is an issue United Solar Initiative originally came into contact with when completing its first projects in San Ramone, Nicaragua in the summer of 2014. Thomsen recalled his experiences there.

“We asked the community members, ‘What are the biggest needs you see on a daily basis?’ One of their first responses was, ‘We need access to clean water.’ So we thought, okay, how can we use electricity to help bring clean water to people?” he said.

USI had been hoping to address the water crisis issue since this encounter but was unsure how to overcome the barriers put in place by the complexity of the water pump installation process. This question was answered by the offer extended by World Vision — a perfect way for USI to create this shift in its approach.

“Ultimately our goal is to provide electricity to people living without it, and that can take a lot of different forms… Our core mission remains the same, but what that electricity is being used for is changing,” Thomsen explained.

Co-founder and President Alex Wilhelm expressed his enthusiasm for what the relationship has to offer, noting that World Vision is “giving us the perfect way to go about our mission.” He is excited particularly by the project’s “scalability and the ability to impact thousands of people.”

Wilhelm hopes that these projects will mark the foundation of a long-term relationship. In such a relationship, USI hopes to be a part of many more projects beyond the initial 100 that have been outlined, perhaps to become the partners solely responsible for World Vision’s solar installations.

Kall explained that World Vision’s 2020 and 2030 goals would be unattainable without good partners. As United Solar Initiative becomes key to helping attain these goals, it will be allowed to expand its horizons, redefining what it means to provide solar energy solutions. Through this partnership, United Solar Initiative’s work has been given more purpose, as it hopes to create a larger impact on the developing world. Throughout the relationship, the organization hopes to see its empowerment of developing communities through solar energy come to fruition.

Article By: Meredith Ratledge