Solar lighting spells the end of kerosene in Africa

| 8th February 2010
A small solar panel framed in wood

photo: Andy Bodycombe

A simple but effective solar kit is helping to bring light to homes in the less-industrialised world without the choking side-effects of kerosene lamps

14 per cent of Kenya is electrified, Tanzania even less at 11 and Malawi a pitiful seven. These statistics correspond directly to poverty and development. The extensive off-grid rural areas of Africa are literally ‘burning what they earn’ on kerosene, the fuel dominates every household bringing expense and smoke.

As the world deliberates on its fossil fuel dependence, there is reason to have hope. Hope that renewable energy business will flourish where it’s needed most. In North West Kenya a solar energy revolution is starting and it’s not the western world that’s pocketing the profits but the locals. Mini solar power has become a must-have product.

Doing away with kerosene

Maize farmer and father of four, Bob, spends 70 per cent of his income on fuelling his three kerosene lamps: 60p per day for two litres.  Not only does this reduce cash for food, but has the potential to give his family bronchitis, presents a fire hazard and buying the fuel requires a half day trip. It is a story told by millions. 

The UK charity SolarAid aims to eliminate the need for kerosene, the energy backbone of rural Africa, and replace it with solar electricity. Until recently solar has been an expensive and unrealistic option here, inaccessible due to lack of innovation. What’s been missing is an affordable ‘mini’ or ‘micro’ solar kit for basic needs, such as light and phone charging. So SolarAid developed the ‘Ravi’: with a simple design and two to three month payback, it costs between £15 and £20, making it accessible to the average household with a bit of saving.

North Bungoma is a Kenyan province near the Ugandan boarder with a population of 1.8 million, where this mini solar is becoming popular. It’s just a matter of meeting demand.

The ‘Ravi’, named after an Indian Sun God, comes in a box similar to that of a mobile phone. It contains a 1.8 watt solar photovoltaic panel to convert daylight into electricity; a similar sized battery with a hangable light and mobile phone charge converter. Once charged the light will last six hours. It has been designed by locals to ensure needs are being met, but how it’s being sold is perhaps most promising.

Sustainable business

SolarAid is not giving the Ravi kits away, nor is it selling these products to make a profit. Instead it is supporting local sales reps as part of its ‘Sunny Money’ network.

The Sunny Money businessmen and women in North Bungoma, and Bagamoro, Tanzania are working hard. Others can be found in Muhuru Bay, Kenya, and later this year in Malawi and Zambia.

One Sunny Money member, Ramona Omukhobero, said:
‘We are maize and poultry farmers. Our income is very low and uncertain. When people buy this product, they will cut spending on kerosene, batteries and phone charging. They can buy more fertiliser and increase yield. People are so excited about it.’

Sunny Money salespeople who have been working for the last year sell on average one Ravi unit each day. The money they make is often put towards school fees - £50 a term. Socially - and this is particularly true of the women - is seems as though they are becoming role models for the community.

One million by 2012?

Breaking the tie with kerosene is leading to more cash all round. The introduction of the ‘Ravi’ has led to up to 70 percent more disposable income for many, as well as healthier families and more time to study and socialise. It’s no surprise that demand is high.

Business is thriving but sales people are still thin on the ground. Plans to ramp up and deliver over a million solar lights by 2012 will require a threefold increase in SolarAid staff across East Africa to support the Sunny Money sales network and oversee the delivery of physical spaces for reps. Currently sales people are roaming with no basic kiosk or shop, which is limiting their effectiveness.

Africa is looking for business and schemes like SolarAid are helping it turn to healthy, sustainable business. If every rural village in East Africa had a micro solar sales person, the lives of millions would be improved. There are challenges to rolling this out, but the appetite is huge. Sales reps just need support with basic business training and the provision of simple kiosk facilities to meet demand.  Whilst the western world deliberates over climate change policy, solar power is bringing so much more to Africa - distributed power in the most literal sense of the phrase. This leapfrog technology is bringing the twin benefits of light and development one home at a time.

Useful links

Charlotte Webster is public relations manager at Solarcentury, which founded SolarAid in 2006

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