I don’t get excited about buying cars. In fact I hate the experience. I’m not only disinterested in cars but buying one always feels to me like a terrible admission that I’m committing my family to another few years of fossil fuel dependency; with all that that means for our climate. What’s more, I’ve never bought a new car in my life. Second hand has been part of my sustainability efforts.
But all of this has changed in the last few weeks. I’m now the proud owner of a brand new car and I couldn’t be more excited.
And that’s because my wife and I have just bought a Nissan Leaf: the world’s biggest selling fully electric car. With zero emissions at the exhaust – actually, there is no exhaust – and a massive improvement in energy efficiency on your standard carbon-fuelled car, we feel like we’re helping the world to take a big step towards the future. And that’s before you consider that our electricity supplier is the awesome Ecotricity so our car is powered by wind turbines.
The car has a range of 100-150 miles on one charge which is plenty for 80% of the motoring we do within our community. And as part of the deal, Nissan will lend us a petrol car for two weeks a year for our holiday trips. I could go on and on about this car… but that’s not the point of this article. What I want to share is the similarities between what my family have done and a rural African buying a solar light.
If we had to buy the car for the cash price of £25,000, we definitely would not have bought it. Instead we are buying through Hire Purchase. After a small deposit, we’re paying roughly £300 per month to Nissan for three years. At the end of this period, we can buy out the balance or hand the car back. But here’s the thing. Claire and I were spending roughly £200 per month on petrol (yes, we live in the 7th most expensive country in the world to buy petrol). So we’ve bought a shiny new, super-high tech, fully warrantied car for a net cost of around £100 (the electricity costs are negligible) per month.
Families in Africa buying solar lights face similar economics. They often cannot afford the up-front cost of this system and yet if they can buy one on a pay-as-you-go basis, the savings outweigh or completely off-set the cost of the system.
The challenges facing me in the UK with my car purchase and a very poor family in Kenya with their solar light purchase are the same. And this challenge requires great financing solutions; as well as great products and distributors. Financing is, in fact, the real foundation of this industry.
The big difference, of course, is that families in Africa who wish to buy a solar light are trying to buy something that I have never lacked at any point in my life: the basic ability to turn on a switch and have a safe and affordable light. Whereas I’ve bought a car.