Solar lamps lighting up a billion lives

One plastic gadget fitting neatly in one hand has been phenomenal in quickly improving the lives of the world’s poorest people in the past decade. That gadget is the mobile phone (cell phone). There are now over 5.6 billion mobile phone users, 80% of the world’s population, and the number of subscribers continues to increase. In addition to the benefits of enabling easy communication and connections, the mobile phone has been a source of information and financial services to the poor that empower more efficient market and entrepreneurship.

About the same number of people today have access to electricity. This means that 20% of the world’s population, or some 1.4 billion people, still have no access to electricity. Of this number, 45 per cent live in Africa and 52 per cent in developing Asia. This is the situation despite the massive growth in China and other developing economies between 1990 and 2008 when an additional 2 billion people worldwide gained access to electricity.

Although it is projected that $14 billion will be invested annually in electrification between 2010 and 2030, this will be mainly on urban grid connections. Even in the best-case scenarios, the number of people without electricity will rise to 1.5 billion by 2030, as population growth outstrips electrification.

Something else needs to be done, while waiting for the traditional electricity grids to catch up with demand. Hope for a speedy improvement in the lives of the world’s poorest lies in another small plastic gadget. This new gadget is the solar-powered lamp.

Buying a lamp that charges in the sun during the day, and then produces light at night, can eliminate spending on kerosene that fuels conventional lamps. This will mean substantial savings for the poor. Studies in Sub-Sahara Africa have shown that expenditure on kerosene represents 10 -25 per cent of household income.  Globally, some $30 billion is spent on kerosene. The money saved could be used for other purposes e.g. education, healthcare, and entrepreneurial activities.

Kerosene lamps are dangerous and costly

But kerosene does not merely eat up household income, which could be spent on other things. It is also dangerous. Fuel lanterns are fire hazards – more than 1 million people a year die in fires started by fuel lamps and lighting materials. They are a health hazard – they emit fine particles in the fumes causing chronic pulmonary disease, which kills 2 million people each year, 44 per cent of them children. And they are a great pollutant to the environment – releasing 190 million tons of CO2 daily into the atmospheres, equivalent to 30 million cars.

A solar lamp is made up of a few light-emitting diodes (LEDs), a solar panel and a small battery, encased in a durable plastic shell. Although there is room for further development, the technology for solar lamps is already quite advanced. With greater competition, more product offerings and increasing number of users, the trend is for improvement in quality and falling prices. The payback for buying solar lamps is normally measured in months.

The future for solar lighting is bright as is the outlook for providing the deprived poor quickly with an alternative method of lighting that is safe, clean, and affordable.

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