From Kerosene to Solar: Off-Grid Lighting in Africa

“According to figures from the International Energy Agency, at least 20% of the planet’s inhabitants are still without the simple luxury of a light-switch.” (1)

Even in the modern world that we live in today, flourished with technology, there remains parts of the world — from sub-Saharan Africa to slums in India — where the electric grids do not reach. When night falls, these people are forced to resort to candles, kerosene lamps or pit fires for illumination. According to studies conducted by Dr. Evan Mills, founder of the Lumina Project, kerosene lamps cost “77 billion liters of fuel worldwide, costing its predominantly impoverished end-users a total of $38 billion annually”.

Mills also states that, “the combustion of fuel for lighting consequently results in 190 million metric tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions, equivalent to one-third the total emissions from the UK”. Kerosene is not only costly but also “dirty” to the environment. Patrick Avato, director of the Lighting Africa program, further adds that “indoor air pollution from kerosene wick lamps can cause fatal respiratory problems over time.”

While government aids are not sufficient to expand electricity grids to the shantytowns, a small group of investors are looking for alternatives to off-grid lighting to replace kerosene lamps for good. Previously, fluorescent bulbs have been too energy exhaustive for off-grid fuel-based lighting. Now, solar-powered LEDs are proving to be a viable solution to the lighting problem.

“Now, LEDs the size of a cherry can generate light 100 times brighter than a kerosene lamp at a very low wattage, while solar cells have become much more efficient.” — Mills

The combination of LEDs and more efficient solar batteries is leading the way for off-grid lighting in parts of India and sub-Saharan Africa. Amit Chugh, co-founder/developer of Mighty Light, a waterproof portable lamp, claims that current designs can run for “12 hours on a single solar charge and retails for just $25.”

In my opinion, this is a step in the right direction for lighting in parts of the world still without electricity supply. However, it is not a long-term solution. Electricity is not only important for lighting but also for infrastructures and perhaps most critical in hospitals and medical centers. The electricity grid will eventually have to be extended to these areas one way or another, and the portable LED lights may be what is needed to provide some buffer for time until the extension finally takes place.

Another concern is whether the lights are truly affordable for the impoverished slum residents. The article stated that “some night-fisherman [spent] up to a dollar a day on kerosene — a huge chunk of their income,” this makes me wonder if they have the financial flexibility to invest $25 in a solar lamp in one payment. Also, the article fails to discuss the average/expected lifetime of the batteries.




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2 responses to “From Kerosene to Solar: Off-Grid Lighting in Africa

  1. nprana

    The interesting takeaway that I found from the article and the comments on [1] is that, some people can’t think of capitalism to work for a social cause, but I think it is a good initiative and a win-win situation for everyone involved.

    I was wondering, most of these people in rural India and Africa, who use kerosene for lighting probably also use it as the fuel for cooking. So, if they use a lot of kerosene anyway for cooking, and the govt subsidizes kerosene heavily, people might be biased not to switch away from kerosene lamps. However, the report by Oil and Gas division of the Worldbank [3]- (page 50) seems to suggest that most of the rural people use kerosene only for lighting and not for cooking. So,that is probably an unintentional minor thing working in favor the switch to solar powered LED’s.

    Hopefully, the technology does not remain a conversation point among the privileged few like me commenting now, but I sincerely hope there are many people to actually take it to these villages and work at the grassroots level.

    Also, relating to the average battery life, I found it to be 24 months.[3].




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