A good news story at SolarAid / status report on ‘The Test’


Brave Mhonie has worked for SolarAid in Malawi for 10 years, through good times and bad, working his way up to be national director of our non-profit retail brand, SunnyMoney. In gratitude we part-paid for him to achieve a dream of his: a qualification from a top European business school. He has now been awarded his Diploma in Advanced Studies in Renewable Energy Management from the University of St Gallen.

In an e-mail to the team in London, letting them know of his success, Brave said: “Thank you for the powerful gift of knowledge that you have given me. Through the programme, I have gained valuable experience which will help me to positively contribute to the growth of SunnyMoney business not just in Malawi but other countries too.” Our response to him was: “Thank you for the powerful gifts of loyalty and hard work you have given, and are yet giving, to us.”

I offer this story as a microcosm of an important theme in development: the power of education to accelerate change. In doing so I should declare an interest. I teach one day a year on the St Gallen course, and the director, Professor Rolf Wuestenhagen, is a friend. But I mark no exam papers or theses.

Brave features in my serialised book, The Test, naturally. I have been writing Chapter 5, and I append a scene involving him and the course in question.

But when it comes to The Test, I find I have hit a problem. As I intimated in Chapter 4, SolarAid and SunnyMoney CEO John Keane has had a big new idea. It has become a central theme in the evolving story. But if I write about its detail, and progress, I risk undermining its prospects of success. This is a quality problem, easily solved: I have decided to stop publishing episodes in serialised form.  I promise to finish the book at a suitable break point in the “defining challenge for humankind”, as I style it, probably in 2020. But the remaining chapters will have to wait until then before seeing the light of day. I apologise to those who tell me they have been enjoying the story so far, and that they look forward to the next instalment. I appeal for your understanding.


Berlin, 26th October 2017

A city I love, full of memories. October 1989, and a middle-of-the-night train ride in then East Berlin, past a floodlit wall, drinking in the sullen misty violence of it, never imagining that in just a few days it would be torn down. April 1995, taking a delegation from the insurance industry to the first ever annual summit under the Framework Convention on Climate Change, where governments agreed for the first time that they would act collectively to reduce global emissions. November 2004, on the Queen’s delegation of British scientists to discuss climate change for a day with the German Chancellor’s delegation. November 2013, on a massive demonstration in support of renewable energy, mourning my old friend and father of the German renewables industries, Hermann Scheer. March 2017, at a German Energy Agency conference on clean-energy, plotting trans-Atlantic resistance to the new despotism and its climate-change denial with American billionaire climate activist Tom Steyer.

Today is a rare day of teaching: eight hours with a class of business executives taking the University of St Gallen’s diploma in renewable energy management. St Gallen is in Switzerland, but the executives are treated to block release teaching sessions of a week at a time in relevant locations around the world. Today’s is on a campus set up by the German government for research, development, promotion and analysis of the national renewable energy programme, the Energiewende. EUREF, as it is called, is built on the site of an old gas works. Today it is both a university and home to more than 100 companies, with students and workers alike housed in the most smart and low carbon of new buildings. An unused gas storage tank dominates the skyline, wind turbines now atop it and Teslas charging at its base. The air smells no longer of gas, but the future.

My class comes from an array of corporate giants, mostly Swiss and German. There is one exception. Brave Mhonie, sales director at SunnyMoney Malawi, is realising a dream of his: postgraduate business training. SolarAid is paying most of his fees, a scholarship the rest. It is our reward for ten years of service. Brave will soon take over from Phil Walton as country director.

It is a long time since I have taken a class for a whole day. I split the sessions into four, stock up with water and sore throat tablets, and hope for the best.

The fourth and final session is the first time I have attempted a synthesis of tech in its entirety, in full societal context, for a business audience. My helicopter view spans the uses and abuses of AI, robotics, and all the rest, conflated with the broadly bullish analysis I present these days on the state of the global energy transition. The net result is, shall we simply say, less positive and optimistic than the energy-alone analysis. That can and of course must change, I conclude. It makes business sense that it does so.

I time the presentation poorly, and have to rush the end of it. I also have the feeling that I have included too much background on neuroscience and psychiatry, of the kind that liberals might cherry pick, and which risks making the selling of the overall idea more difficult should there be conservatives in the audience. Swiss business execs, after all, are not generally known for their liberalism.

I repair to a bar afterwards with Brave and Rolf Wuestenhagen, the University of St Gallen professor who runs the whole course. I find myself much in need of a large beer.

We review the day. Rolf allays my fears: he has had good feedback from many of the students, he says. Relieved, I move the conversation swiftly on to SolarAid’s state of play, and a brainstorm of our challenges and opportunities. I find Brave aflame with desire to break SunnyMoney out of its stagnation, eager to apply the things he is learning on Rolf’s course back home in Malawi, much looking forward to John Keane’s upcoming visit.

The beer tastes better with each sip.

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Winner of awards including Queen's Award for Enterprise in Innovation
Winner of awards including BITC Unilever Global Development Award