Open Collective
Open Collective
Sharing a solar-powered future
Published on June 10, 2024 by Te Waiora Wanoa-Sundgren

Kia Kotahi Ako Trust, an alliance of EHF Fellows, is at the forefront of solar-powered education in Aotearoa NZ, drawing on indigenous knowledge to transform both educational and environmental systems.

Kia Kotahi Ako focuses on driving systemic change through hands-on, practical education for rangatahi (young people). It was established in 2021 by the founding Trustees and EHF Fellows Joanne (Jojo) McEachen (Waitaha, Ngāti Māmoe, and Ngāi Tahu) and Nikora Ngaropo (Te Rarawa, Tuhoe, Ngāti Porou, Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Kahungunu), with pivotal input from Sarah Grant, Huia Lambie (Ngāti Mutunga, Te Atiawa) and Barry Neal. Central to this initiative is the integration of the globally successful 'We Share Solar®' - an innovative international education programme designed to engage students in learning about solar energy, sustainability, and global citizenship. With proven success and impact in the US and energy-scarce regions in Africa, the programme tasks students with assembling solar suitcases that are small, portable solar power systems which provide electricity to off-grid or other areas with unreliable electricity. By imparting knowledge and skills for utilising solar energy, the ‘We Share Solar’ programme enables students to become agents of change and drive sustainable energy solutions within their own communities or other regions of the world.
Founding Trustee and EHF Fellow Jojo McEachen (middle), with strategic advisor Huia Lambie (left) and Kia Kotahi Ako CEO and EHF Fellow Sarah Grant (right).

Collaboration for action
Having seen first-hand the transformative impact the education programme had for underserved communities around the globe, Fellow Barry Neal recognised the potential for similar positive outcomes in Aotearoa NZ. 

"I was exploring the possibility of bringing We Share Solar to Aotearoa, but only if it made sense in the context of the culture, people, and education system," Barry explains. "My expertise is in renewable energy and climate, and not in education, so I knew early on that I wanted to find people both in EHF and in the broader NZ ecosystem who understood the NZ education system and culture."

Drawing on Barry’s expertise in renewable energy and his role on the Board of We Share Solar, Jojo and Sarah, both educators, saw an opportunity to collaborate. Sarah says:

“I was really interested in the knowledge-to-action piece. It’s awesome to get rangatahi [young people] to learn about solar and climate change - that’s really important, but then what? How do we support them with that knowledge, and what can it lead to that will spark and catalyse new ideas that will transform the wider challenges we have with the education system, and with environmental challenges?”

Connecting education and climate change
Barry emphasises the importance of educating children early on about the link between climate change and energy consumption in driving environmental shifts: 

“Climate change is an existential threat to our planet and our communities. It is essential that all people understand what is happening and how we can make changes. As history shows us, if you want to make changes in behaviour, one powerful way to do so is to focus on educating the kids. It’s their generation that will be most impacted by climate change and it is essential for them to understand that they have the power to change this dangerous course that we are currently on.”

With Sarah as CEO, and guided by Huia Lambie (long-time connector, advisor and support for EHF Fellows), the alliance of EHF Fellows (which also includes Jeff Schlichting, Tim Derrick, Chuck Chai, Satya Kumar, Erin Jackson, Bex De Prospo, Mike Bracco, Rajesh Kurup, Steven Moe, Cristián O’Ryan, Rangimarie Parata Takurua, and Rich Bodo) has provided invaluable expertise, financial support, and networking opportunities, significantly elevating Kia Kotahi Ako’s impact and reach. Reflecting on why so many Fellows are keen to be involved with Kia Kotahi Ako’s We Share Solar programme, Sarah says:

“I think Fellows have really liked the tangible side of it - it’s a solar education kit that’s hands-on. It comes in a suitcase; you can charge your phones with it, there are solar panels that make the light bulb turn on, it’s a really visual hands-on programme. But from that, there’s a huge amount of potential in terms of what we can change and spark through the programme that we’re really excited by.”

Reflecting on the impact of programme, EHF Fellow and Co-Founder & Managing Director of Helios (one of Kia Kotahi Ako’s programme partners), Jeff Schlichting says:

“It draws out students who might not otherwise have an interest in STEM topics and it also helps them understand what this really means, how it works, puts it in the simplest terms. We believe that education is obviously central to the future of not only our industry but the culture more broadly to take advantage of sustainable technologies.”  

From left to right: Sarah Grant (EHF Fellow), Kia Kotahi Ako strategic advisor Huia Lambie, We Share Solar founder Hal Aronson, Barry Neal (EHF Fellow), programme coordinator Te Waiora Wanoa-Sundgren, and Sera Gibson, renewable energy project manager for Te Aranga (a collective of the 8 Iwi of Taranaki).

Power of the Collective

The collaborative efforts of Fellows has been instrumental in shaping the journey and impact of Kia Kotahi Ako. Their collective wealth of knowledge and innovative ideas has proven invaluable, allowing Kia Kotahi Ako to navigate complex educational and environmental landscapes with agility and purpose. Reflecting on the powerful synergy of the alliance of Fellows involved, Jojo says: 

"Being an alliance of Fellows means that together, we can achieve more than we can individually. Drawing upon indigenous knowledge and innovative thinking within both communities, we can co-create transformative educational experiences that not only educate but also inspire. By harnessing the collective strengths and diverse perspectives of EHF Fellows and Kia Kotahi Ako, we can develop equitable and galvanising solutions that resonate globally. Through this partnership, we have the potential to pioneer new pathways in renewable energy, rooted in the principles of Tangata Tiriti and the values of Sir Edmund Hillary, ultimately driving change for a sustainable and inclusive future for all. And, we are already seeing this begin."

Particularly noteworthy has been Fellows’ financial support, which has empowered Kia Kotahi Ako to pursue its pilot initiatives in innovative ways, with the majority of funding originating from Fellows and their networks. Sarah explains: 

“We would not have been able to test and pilot our projects in the way we’ve been able to without Fellows. Having that flexibility of funding and time to test ideas and learn from failure has been a huge asset to the Trust. Overall, this type of funding is very rare in the philanthropic sector and limits how we find new solutions.” 

Nurturing Student-Led Solutions

In the three years since its establishment, Kia Kotahi Ako has made significant strides in expanding its reach and refining its strategies. Four We Share Solar pilots have been conducted, spanning regions such as Ōtautahi/Christchurch, Tāmaki Makaurau/Auckland, and Taranaki, engaging both primary, secondary and kura kaupapa Māori (Māori-language immersion school) students. Last year, Kia Kotahi Ako shared an impact report for the Taranaki pilot, highlighting the success of the project in kura kaupapa Māori with fostering a Te Ao Māori approach (Māori worldview) to create equitable solutions. While the pilots primarily aim to gauge interest in the programme, they are also a means to understand student engagement and pinpoint areas for improvement. Commenting on their strategic approach, Sarah says: 

“Rather than just thinking about how we scale the number of students we’re working with, we’re thinking about how do we actually scale our impact and how do we work in a few different regions really deeply with the community to have that much bigger systematic change, rather than just running lots of programmes with schools.”
A Shared Journey

More recently, Kia Kotahi Ako embarked on a comprehensive co-design process to adapt and tailor the ‘We Share Solar’ programme more closely to the needs of Aotearoa NZ students with their partner kura (school) Te Pi'ipi'inga Kakano Mai I Rangiatea. This approach reflects the Kia Kotahi Ako commitment to embed the programme within schooling communities to ensure sustained impact and lasting change. 

“Rather than just taking the existing programme and just translating it [into te reo Māori], we wanted to really look at the design narrative around it and the pūrākau [traditional Māori stories] we could draw on. We wanted to do the full adaptation as a co-design with the students, along with the We Share Solar team and people from the industry, to really look at how students want to learn, what does industry want in the future, and how can this all support iwi workforce development strategies and aspirations,” says Sarah.

Jojo adds:
"One of my goals with Kia Kotahi Ako was to provide local examples of how we can transform education by revolutionising how our ākonga (students) access learning. Through the collaborative efforts with kura (schools) and the community, we have been able to tailor the We Share Solar implementation to align with our rich creation stories, weaving indigenous wisdom into modern educational practices.”

Milestones, Innovation & Inspiration

In March 2024, a milestone was achieved in the co-design journey, marked by Hal Aronson, founder of We Care Solar, visiting Taranaki to meet with some of the students involved with the pilot. This event wasn’t just a meet-and-greet; it was a deep dive into potential innovations and collaborative opportunities between the global education programme and local Aotearoa NZ communities. Instrumental in reaching this milestone is Huia Lambie who as former co-CEO of Kia Kotahi Ako and now strategic advisor, has nurtured the key relationships to ground the kaupapa (programme) in Taranaki, Aotearoa NZ’s ‘energy centre’. 

Accompanied by Keith Scoles, an engineer and Trent Hohaia, a facilitator, the team conducted the interactive workshop with over 20 students, introducing four innovative, cost-effective solar suitcase prototypes for students to experiment with. The workshop manifesto drew inspiration from the Māori narrative of Māui capturing the sun, guiding the commitment to harness solar energy for sustainable living. The hands-on experience allowed students to contribute their insights on functionality and opened a dialogue on broader applications of the programme. Emphasising the event’s objective, Sarah noted:

“We included four potential new versions of reduced-cost solar suitcase to test out, to give the students a chance to play with them, and get their ideas on what worked. We also really wanted to see what other ideas they had - where else could this programme go? So we’re not just limiting it to a solar education workshop, but exploring career pathways.”
Clockwise from left to right: Sarah Grant, Te Waiora Wanoa-Sundgren, Cheryl Neal, Huia Lambie, Barry Neal, Hal Aronson, and Keith Scoles during their visit to Taranaki

Beyond Technological Experimentation

The event was more than just technological experimentation; it served as a catalyst for innovative ideas on expanding the solar suitcase initiative's impact.

While the immediate focus of the pilot programme is on solar energy, Kia Kotahi Ako remains open to exploring alternative renewable energy solutions for future programmes. 

“We have explored some other potential renewable energy education programmes and partnerships, so it’s definitely an option to broaden out. The programme isn’t saying solar has all the answers, it’s more about how we can spark student’s curiosity and think differently, and develop their skills in the sector,” Sarah says.
Barry adds: 
“One of the wonderful benefits we have seen with this programme with almost 10 years of experience so far, is that the hands-on module can lead to broader and related discussions about all renewable energy solutions – not just solar – as well as climate change, energy poverty, and energy policies. If we can inspire a handful of students - and it doesn’t necessarily have to be just solar, but can be anything  related to the environment, climate, or sustainability more broadly - anything that has a positive impact on people, planet and their local communities  - that’s a success!”

Envisioning the Future

Kia Kotahi Ako is working on building robust relationships within the energy sector to adapt and respond to emerging opportunities in the energy sector. As part of this effort, Kia Kotahi Ako, with support from Te Aranga (a collective of the 8 Iwi of Taranaki), hosted an industry event during the visit of We Share Solar founder Hal Aronson to Taranaki. Sarah highlights the importance of these connections, stating: 

"Some of the conversations we’ve had with energy sector partners indicate that this is a big part of the jigsaw; they want to engage with kura and schools, and they know it’s important to do so - they know there is a need to diversify the energy sector. The positive feedback we received from the Taranaki industry event indicates the value of bringing together tertiary representatives, solar developers, educators, and iwi, to facilitate meaningful dialogue and collaboration."

Kia Kotahi Ako envisions the We Share Solar programme as more than a renewable energy education initiative; it aims to catalyse a student-led transformative movement to empower the next generation to lead the energy sector by blending innovative solutions with indigenous wisdom. Sarah concludes:

“Our hope for this programme, and the wider impact we’re creating, is to ignite student-led solutions. We hope to inspire students to design new solar power systems that could be installed in their kura (schools) or marae (meeting houses), and look at a whole-community power sharing set up and what that might mean for the future of the sector. We want rangatahi Māori (Māori young people) to see that they could be the ones who lead the sector in the future. This is the kind of transformative impact we aspire to achieve.”

To learn more and hear what rangatahi have to say about the programme, view the latest video from Kia Kotahi Ako.