The World Is Not Doing Enough To Bring Africa Out of The Darkness

Much of Africa still has no access to electricity. It’s time the continent came out of the darkness, writes John Keane, CEO of Solar Aid

It’s been an amazing few years for solar in Africa. If you follow the news you will have seen numerous announcements about the amount of renewables being installed across the continent.

Every new project seems to claim to be “the biggest” or have “the most megawatts” and to be covering huge areas of unproductive land with beautiful shiny solar PV.

But despite this success, hundreds of millions of people remain without access to electricity, trapped in a cycle of poverty. Large-scale solar projects typically do not help those most in need because the grid does not extend into the vast rural regions of Africa.

Even where the grid is available, the cost of a grid connection, which is often over $250, is unaffordable for low-income families who often live on just a few dollars a month. Mini-grids and Pay As You Go (PAYG) solar, which allow people to pay for small solar energy systems and lights in installments, have helped make solar more affordable, but not for the lowest income households. There are still vast numbers of people in Africa for whom these solutions remain prohibitively expensive.

Business as usual scenarios are projecting that, by 2030, over 600 million people across sub-saharan Africa will still be without access to modern forms of energy. 2030 is the same year SDG7 has targeted to ‘Ensure universal access to affordable, reliable and modern energy services.’ SDG7 is, therefore, heading for failure.

Candles in Mandevu

SolarAid was established in 2006 to help address energy poverty in Africa – and we’ve been working hard to make solar energy, especially lighting, more affordable. Since 2006, we’ve been continually innovating in order to create access to solar lighting and power, selling almost two million little solar lights in last-mile communities and kickstarting sustainable solar markets across east Africa.

We have also pioneered light libraries and Pay As You Go solar for people below the poverty line, and launched what was at the time, the world’s most affordable solar light as we seek to make solar affordable and accessible for all.

But we’re not reaching the poorest of the poor fast enough. No one is. There is a widening ‘gap’ between the ‘haves’ and ‘the have nots’. We need to do more to reach those in extreme poverty.

But we’re not reaching the poorest of the poor fast enough. No one is. There is a widening ‘gap’ between the ‘haves’ and ‘the have nots’. We need to do more to reach those in extreme poverty.

As a response, we’ve come up with a new idea which we are calling Project Switch, for which we are launching a pilot in Malawi.

Working with rural communities, we will provide lighting to homes throughout the community for free, in a bid to reach 100 per cent of households. The lights will be recharged at centralised solar charging stations at an affordable fee – no more than someone normally pays for candles or batteries that only last a few days.

Our objective is that the fees from each household, together with other energy services at the charging station, will pay for someone to run the charging station and contribute to creating a sustainable solution that ultimately doesn’t depend on aid.

Our objective is that the fees from each household, together with other energy services at the charging station, will pay for someone to run the charging station and contribute to creating a sustainable solution that ultimately doesn’t depend on aid.

This solution will be life changing. It will light up homes, enabling children to play and study safely. No more burns, or even worse, accidents from using candles.  No one in the village will need to buy candles or paraffin anymore, helping them save money and escape from poverty.

Project Switch aims to provide people that have never been able to afford solar before with access to solar lighting and power. We already know that a key challenge for us will be to charge fees that are low enough to be affordable while also bringing in sufficient revenue for the project to be sustainable. That is why we are committed to continually innovating as we implement the project. For us, innovation is practical research and ongoing development. If the fee is unaffordable for some, our job will be to find other ways to keep people’s lights on.

Mandevu village fire at night

My recent trip to Malawi confirmed the dire need for solar lighting. As I walked through Mandevu village in Kasungu, with the Chief of  the village, in almost pitch darkness, we saw the outline of a house with its door open. Inside was a faint light coming from the floor. I asked what was generating the faint light – it was almost like a firefly. We were then invited into the house by Gladys, who lives there with her children. On the mud floor of Gladys’ small home was an interesting sight: a ‘stick’, with a shoe lace wrapped and tied around it and an LED light fixed to the end of it with the help of a rubber band. On closer inspection, you could see a thin wire running along the side and the ‘stick torch’ was in fact thin strips of bamboo with four red AA batteries inside.

 

Homemade ‘stick torch’

 

Gladys explained that her nine-year-old son George has made the ‘stick torch’ himself, which is genuinely impressive. The light from the torch gave off less light than a candle, however, which is undoubtedly due to the fact that only one of the batteries had been bought. The remaining three batteries were picked out of the rubbish dump and simply being used to make up the voltage needed to light the LED.

This torch, made by a small boy who is part of a new generation growing up without light and power, should be in a museum, not actually being used to light a home.If ever there was a light which shows how much people want and value light, it’s this one. If ever there was a light which defines darkness it’s this one. It’s 2018 and each night, families are sitting around in darkness, or using toxic kerosene or candles to provide rudimentary lighting, or a homemade ‘stick torch’ which gives off less light than a candle. They’ll be doing this again tonight.

If we can raise the funds the pilot, Project Switch will start later this year, after which we will monitor it for 6-12 months to assess how things are working, with a view to replicating the model at further locations in Malawi and hopefully, across Africa.
Please see the Project Switch appeal page if you are interested in supporting our mission – we need all the help we can get.
John Keane is CEO of SolarAid, an international development charity which is working to create a sustainable market for solar lights in Africa. The organisation’s aim is to reduce global poverty and climate change.

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