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Happy family - pleased to enjoy solar lighting for the first time. Photo: SunneyMoney.
Happy family - pleased to enjoy solar lighting for the first time. Photo: SunneyMoney.
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1.5 million solar lamps brighten Africa's future

Paul Brown & Oliver Tickell

10th February 2015

The charity SolarAid has just celebrated 1.5 million small solar lighting installations in Africa, writes Paul Brown - an important milestone on its mission to get solar lighting into all of Africa's homes by 2020, and see out dangerous, polluting kerosene lamps.

One of our main objectives is to catalyse solar markets, so we welcome the competition - together we are all helping to make Africa's solar revolution happen - and eliminate dirty, dangerous, expensive kerosene lamps!

Many of the 600 million people who are still without electricity in Africa rely on home-made kerosene lamps for lighting - putting themselves in danger from fire, toxic black smoke, and eye damage.

But cheaper solar technology is being offered that can provide long-lasting light and additional power to charge telephones and other electric devices, without the need for an electricity grid connection.

The campaign to eliminate the kerosene lamp was begun by SolarAid, an international charity that seeks to combat poverty and climate change and whose declared goal is to "eradicate the kerosene lamp from Africa by 2020".

It set up an African network to sell these devices in 2006, with the aim that every kerosene lamp will be replaced with solar power by the end of the decade. So far, with over 1.5 million solar lights sold, about 9 million people have benefited from its scheme.

Saves up to 15% of family income, reduces emissions

The charity says that a solar lamp saves money because buying kerosene or candles uses 10-15% of family income, about $70 per year, whereas a solar kit bought for as little as $10 produces light for more than five years.

The risk of a kerosene fire is also removed, along with the indoor air pollution, and the lamps allow children to study at night. A typical family's use of kerosene lamps causes emissions of 300kg of carbon dioxide a year - now an easily avoided contribution to climate change.

In 2006 SolarAid set up SunnyMoney, a social enterprise that sells the lights via school networks and local businesses - and has grown to become Africa's biggest solar lights distributor, while also inspiring dozens of other solar businesses addressing domestic and commercial markets.

Selling the lights, rather than donating them, keeps money in local communities, provides employment, and allows the profits to be ploughed back into extending the scheme.

"One of our main objectives is to catalyse solar markets, so we welcome the competition", says Susie Wheeldon of Solar Aid. "Together we are all helping to make Africa's solar revolution happen - and eliminate dirty, dangerous, expensive kerosene lamps!"

In 2009 under 1% of Africa's population was using modern solar lighting with LEDs, and that figure has now risen to about 5%. SolarAid's own network grew by 81% from 2013-2014 - a near doubling.

"Our ambition is to develop partnerships, grow our network and ultimately get solar lighting to 100% of the African market. If the solar market doubles every year that will be achieved by 2030 - but we want to go even faster that that and hit the goal a decade earlier"

Currently, the organisation has East Africa networks in Kenya, Malawi, Tanzania, Zambia and Uganda, where over 80% of people have no access to electricity, and is expanding to adjoining countries.

There are a range of lights and chargers offered from a variety of manufacturers, each with a two-year replacement warranty and up to five years battery life.

The cheapest, at $10, is a study light that gives four hours of bright light after a day's charge, while the more expensive models offer light for up to 100 hours, charging for up to two phones at a time, and radio charging. The most expensive, which cost around $140, are designed for small businesses.

Even oil companies are selling solar lights now!

SolarAid began life in 2006 when the British company SolarCentury, one of Europe's leading solar companies, began donating 5% of its profits to the charity. SolarCentury's founder, Jeremy Leggett, says that the charity benefited by £28,000 in 2006, but the company's increased profits mean that the figure will be nearly £500,000 this year.

"We were the first in the field back then, but now there are many solar lights of all kinds on the market", Leggett says. "Most of them very good, although there are some ghastly cheap products that do not last, which can harm solar's reputation."

He says the company donations had been matched with other corporate and government aid. Ironically, even Total, the oil company, is now selling solar lights at its petrol stations.

Leggett believes that the market is growing so fast that there is a good chance of SolarAid reaching its goal of getting rid of all kerosene lighting in Africa by 2020.

He is hoping to build on his idea of donating 5% of corporate profits to climate change and poverty alleviation charities, and is launching a '5% club' of enlightened businesses prepared to do the same.

"Most companies would not miss 5% of their profits, and the gains are enormous", he says. "In my company, the programme is a great favourite with staff and gives everyone a feel good factor. Compared with other similar companies, we retain staff longer because they feel their work is more worthwhile."



Paul Brown writes for Climate News Network.

Oliver Tickell edits The Ecologist.


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