Access to energy is vital for human and economic development. It impacts on health, education, poverty levels, and often, the environment. Light, in particular, is essential for allowing families to lead safe, productive, and happy lives, and this is ultimately what development is about: progress, well-being, and choice.
With 1.3 billion people across the globe living without access to electricity, accessing light after dark can be an everyday challenge for families. What’s more, families have to rely on dim, dangerous, and expensive methods such as kerosene lamps, candles and torches.
SolarAid is an international NGO tackling climate change and poverty. We believe that universal access to energy holds the key to a fairer and more just world. Clean, safe lighting is the first step towards that ambition for rural families in Africa. We are helping to catalyse a market for portable solar-powered lights to ensure they are available and affordable to people living without electricity. Having sold over 1.7 million solar lights in Africa, and having some of the most comprehensive data on energy access in rural Africa from our research, we know just what a difference light makes.
Safe, clean, bright light brings more than just light; it brings safety and opportunity.
Without light, productive hours are cut short which means that children are often forced to stop studying earlier than they’d like; reducing their ability at school and making it more likely they will drop-out, particularly girls. Christina Fenansi, a solar light user from Tanzania says, “The solar light helps my children to study more – that will make them have development in the future.”
Without light, the children’s teachers find it hard to plan and prepare their lessons and give quality education, in often already challenging circumstances. The flip side, Kipkoechi Konuche, a headteacher in Malawi explains, “Performance has improved and the children now have love for the books.”
Without light, income-earners in the household also struggle to light their shops or plan for the following day without light.
Without electricity, families often spend around 15% of their income on lighting alone. Without electricity, health workers are challenged when delivering babies at night, or reading drug prescriptions.
So, having access to a solar light, which charges through the free power of the sun, means that families are able to save money; in fact, they save around $70 a year. $70 might not sound like a lot, but for our customers, most of whom live below the poverty line, it’s around 10% of their income. Nixon Ketere in Kenya shares, “The solar light is cheap. It just uses the sun. It’s been a year and I’ve saved. Life has become cheaper.” Solar light users, like Nixon, tell our research teams that those savings are spent on food, education costs, and farming inputs or small business development.
Having safe, clean, bright light, means that families are reducing their use of kerosene lamps and experiencing better health; reducing respiratory illness from indoor air pollution which kills more people than malaria and HIV together each year. That in turn means that men, women and children are able to reduce spending on medical bills and have fewer days of missed work or school. “My family members are not coughing anymore because they are not inhaling the toxic flames produced by the kerosene lights,” Kibeneu in Kenya told our research team.
Reducing use of kerosene means that families are able to reduce the risk of fire and accidents in the home. There are many stories of homes burning down because of a knocked over lamp, as Lucy Jerome, a mother in Tanzania tells us, “When you use candles or kerosene lamp you are always in a risk of burning down especially when the children are not being careful.”
Reducing kerosene use averts thousands of tonnes of carbon dioxide and black carbon emissions, the top two climate warmers. As Professor Kirk Smith, Nobel Prize winner explains, “There are no magic bullets that will solve all of our greenhouse gas problems, but replacing kerosene lamps is a low-hanging fruit. We don’t have many examples of that in the climate world.”
Families tell us that with their solar light, they can spend time together as a family, husbands and wives can discuss and plan for their family, children can eat dinner and spend time with their fathers. “As a family, [the solar light] helps us to share experiences of the day,” says Frank Asiye from Malawi.
Light can empower women and their role in the home, but also keep women and girls safe and minimise the risk of rape and violence. Lack of safe, clean light increases the danger of sexual assault for women, particularly in refugee or displaced people camps.
Building a market for solar lights also brings opportunity for entrepreneurs to increase their income and their resilience. SolarAid research has found that our agents are increasing their incomes by a third thanks to the chance to offer solar lights to their communities. This income supports agents livelihoods and their family’s well-being, as Rebecca Manyiko, an agent in Tanzania says, “My life has been improved since I become a SunnyMoney agent, my income has been increased, my children now get a balanced diet because I can use the profit I get from these lights to buy them food.”
The new Sustainable Energy for All global tracking framework recognises access to light, and energy, on a more rights based approach. It also recognises that access to electricity is not binary, rather it is a sliding scale of access that determines what you are able to do with the energy you have. Everyone has a right to live a safe, happy life with access to clean, safe, affordable energy.
So, while we know just what an impact light has on development, it is just the start and that’s why it’s exciting. Access to light is a gateway to enabling and supporting families to have more of their energy needs met: power to charge a mobile and keep connected, power to run a fridge and keep vaccines safe, power to light up a shop and attract customers and income.
Many of you reading this blog probably grew up in a world where light was taken for granted. Often if something works well, you don’t even notice it. You’re probably reading this on a computer, using the internet, powered by electricity from the click of a switch. The UNESCO International Year of Light and Light-based Technologies 2015 is a great opportunity for us to focus on supporting those who live in the same world but aren’t able to benefit from the same access and for whom the future could be so much brighter.
For development progress, light is critical.
Kat Harrison is Director of Research & Impact at SolarAid. Kat has developed and manages the research and social impact measurement activities at SolarAid from research design and implementation to learning management and impact communication. Kat co-chairs the Impact Metrics working group at the industry’s association; Global Off-Grid Lighting Association, was recognised as Recharge 4040 Young New-energy Pioneer (a young leading professional changing the world), and was a finalist for the Red magazine Women of the Year award last year for her work with SolarAid. Kat launched the UK International Year of Light alongside HRH Duke of York in 2015.