African nonprofit leader is first recipient of Mott fellowship named after the late Sandra Smithey

A man looks off into the distance as he sits in front of the Flint sign.
Sisty Basil visited Mott staff in Flint during his time in the United States. Photo: Jenifer Veloso

Two years after the untimely passing of Sandra Smithey, a former and longtime program officer at the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, a fellowship established to continue her legacy is having an impact.

Over two decades, Smithey worked with Mott grantees worldwide to increase access to modern energy services and reform international development finance. To honor and continue her legacy, the Accountability Research Center at American University’s School of International Service established the Sandra N. Smithey Fellowship Fund for Equity and Accountability in International Development.

The fellowship was launched in 2023 with a $250,000 grant from the Mott Foundation. Other funders have contributed an additional $61,000. The fellowship supports frontline advocates, organizers, scholar-activists, and community leaders whose work advances the socially and environmentally sustainable development Smithey championed.

The first recipient of the fellowship was Sisty Basil, executive director of the E-LICO Foundation, a Mott grantee based in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. He worked with Smithey for several years to bring solar power to rural communities in Tanzania that lack access to electrical grids.

Basil used the Smithey Fellowship to spend six months in the United States. He visited community-owned solar systems in Minnesota and Georgia, toured a massive solar farm in Indiana, learned about innovative agricultural systems at Michigan State University and attended a World Bank meeting in Washington, D.C.

Basil said he gained a “wealth of knowledge” during his fellowship, which he will share with other frontline advocates working to increase energy access in developing countries. He said the experience will make him a more effective advocate for community-owned renewable energy systems.

“The concept of community ownership and decision-making authority through energy cooperatives left a lasting impression on me,” Basil said. “It’s clear that, when communities have a stake in their energy infrastructure, they not only benefit from direct involvement but also wield significant influence over service delivery.”

A man examines a water pipe filling a trough where many cows are drinking.
Basil is shown examining a solar-powered system that delivers water to livestock on a farm in Tanzania. The foundation he manages helps farmers purchase and install solar-powered irrigation pumps. Photo: Courtesy of the E-LICO Foundation

Prior to Smithey’s unexpected passing, Basil and other nonprofit leaders worked closely with her to give rural communities in Tanzania the knowledge, technology, and resources to install and maintain solar power systems and deploy them for productive uses — to power such things as agricultural irrigation pumps, freezers, refrigerators, streetlights, and lights in homes, schools and businesses.

Theodoros Chronopoulos, a program officer on Mott’s environment team who works on development finance issues, said Basil’s experience in the U.S. is what organizers of the Smithey Fellowship had in mind when they developed it.

“Those of us who knew Sandra remember her commitment to ensuring the global development community learns from and reflects on the experiences of advocates in frontline communities,” Chronopoulos said.

Pairs of women push mobile solar systems on wheels.
Portable, mobile solar systems give residents in rural Tanzania the ability to generate electricity at multiple sites that lack access to the power grid. Photo: Courtesy of the E-LICO Foundation

Globally, about 750 million people lack access to modern energy services, and 80% of those individuals — about 600 million people — reside in sub-Saharan Africa. Mott has supported efforts to increase access to energy in sub-Saharan Africa, with a focus on Tanzania, since 2015.

Less than 46% of all Tanzanians have access to modern energy services, which makes it one of the world’s least electrified countries, said Kelly Askew, founding director of the African Studies Center at the University of Michigan and chair of the university’s Department of Anthropology.

Askew hosted Basil’s fellowship at the University of Michigan’s Ann Arbor campus. With Mott’s support, Askew and her colleagues at St. John’s University in Tanzania also led a multidisciplinary research project to inform best practices for addressing energy poverty in rural areas of the country.

Askew said Smithey’s knowledge and foresight was critical to the energy access work in rural Tanzania. Smithey helped develop a clean energy ecosystem that includes training for solar technicians and clean energy entrepreneurs, and support for frontline advocates working to inform the government’s energy policies.

“Sandra created a clean energy ecosystem because she knew one solution wouldn’t work,” Askew said.

The E-LICO Foundation has been an integral part of that clean energy ecosystem. Since 2018, it has equipped and trained 645 farmers and entrepreneurs in Tanzania to install, maintain and repair solar power systems. E-LICO also provided rural communities and businesses with rooftop solar panels, solar-powered streetlights, refrigerators and freezers.

Bright streetlights guide a row of vehicles on a dark night.
The foundation Basil manages helped bring solar powered streetlights to a rural community in Tanzania. Photo: Courtesy of the E-LICO Foundation

Collectively, the E-LICO-supported projects have reduced emissions of climate-warming compounds by 16,378 tons. Those projects also are empowering women to become farmers, entrepreneurs and solar power technicians, Basil said.

He said solar-powered irrigation pumps could play a key role in expanding agricultural operations in rural Tanzania. The country has abundant sunshine and about 71 million acres of land that is suitable for irrigation. Just 5% of that land is currently irrigated.

Basil said the time he spent in the U.S. convinced him that community-owned solar systems are the best way for rural areas and small businesses to use solar power to create economic opportunities.

“Ultimately, community-owned cooperatives have the potential to drive positive change by promoting transparency, efficiency and responsiveness in service delivery,” he said. “This model serves as a testament to the power of grassroots initiatives in shaping the energy landscape for the better.”