By Daniel Karr
Let’s talk about solar lanterns in Africa – few people in Western countries really understand their impact. In Lyantonde District, Uganda, pilot site for the SEED project, there is only an estimated 1% electrification rate. Think about that for a second: only one household out of every hundred has even sporadic access to the power grid. Everyone else is on their own. Fossil fuels are the only real means for lighting.
In recent years, as the price of oil has spiked, people in developed countries seem to have coped by complaining about how much it costs to fill their cars. We blithely bemoan the inconvenience of having to carpool—or worse—take public transportation to economize.
Developing markets have until recently had no alternatives to paying the rising price for fuel. If work is to be done after sunset,kerosene or paraffin lamps must be lit. Shops that can’t afford kerosene close early and craftspeople lose hours of productivity they can’t afford. Students whose parents sacrifice to let them study at night feel intense guilt because they can see the immediate cost to their family.
Light, which makes this basic human productivity possible, is taken for granted by billions of people worldwide. But for the rest, it’s not just a necessity; it’s the most expensive thing they buy. In Uganda, where most families live on under $3 a day, the cost of fossil fuel is actually higher than in the United States. The rising costs of fuel can burn through as much as half of a family’s disposable income. But costs aren’t the only concern. There are serious health implications. Not even counting the difficult to measure long-term eye and lung problems from the smoke, countless children die each year when kerosene lanterns burn down their homes.
It is only now, as solar panel, battery and LED technologies have dramatically improved over the past decade, that prices have dropped low enough to put solar lanterns within reach of those living off the grid in developing markets. In Uganda’s sunny climate, a day’s charge can yield as much as 14 hours of light. Some models even charge mobile phones that would otherwise have to be transported hours away to be charged at an exorbitant cost. A solar lantern with a three year service life costs about as much as most families in Uganda pay for kerosene in six months. After that initial payback period, everything else is savings.
Actual customers of the SEED program report benefits ranging from being able to reallocate savings to food, clothing and school fees, to longer business hours and exponentially increased income. So what’s so important about solar lanterns? They’re not just replacing kerosene; they’re freeing people from an unaffordable and unsustainable way of life.