There are currently almost 60 million refugees in the world, and unfortunately the number is rising still. When discussing the needs of refugees, there’s no question that food, water and shelter are essential needs in crisis situations. But what’s less known is that the need for light is just as fundamental, since it quickly becomes crucial to safety and security, especially for women and children who can be the most vulnerable in the dark. In many refugee camps and crisis situations, there is no access to electricity. Without light, life grinds to a halt at night, forcing families to stay in their shelters. This is a problem especially in the refugee camps on and around Syria’s border, where millions reside.
The alternatives for light when living without access to electricity are few and not without serious downsides. Kerosene lamps tend to be used most frequently. But kerosene comes at a high cost. It’s highly flammable, toxic, and associated with a whole host of health problems, including respiratory problems and neurological or kidney damage, as well as blood clots that damage the brain, heart or other organs.
The lack of power is also is a huge problem in the aftermath of a natural disaster. This is what we saw last april when the huge earthquake shook Nepal. Without electricity, aid workers couldn’t charge their mobile phones, so communication was hampered and aid delayed. Connectivity in disaster situations can save lives, and is essential for effective relief response. A similar need was felt in the Philippines in 2013. Only a few hours after Typhoon Haiyan devastated large regions, survivors managed to build a primitive wind turbine with debris wood, metal slates and cables. Desperately wanting to produce power to charge their mobile phones to connect with their loved ones, they climbed a tree and mounted their makeshift device on top of it.
So, is there a solution to these problems? Yes, our solution to these refugees’ energy crisis has been to turn to our single most abundant and reliable resource: the sun. And we harvest the sun’s energy via ‘‘pico solar’; handheld solar energy products. WakaWaka (‘Shine Bright’ in Swahili) develops high-tech low-cost solar powered lamps and chargers that are indispensable products both in the developing world and in developed markets. Using the latest in patented solar technology the WakaWaka Light and WakaWaka Power are true lifesavers for those without electricity. Currently there are over 100,000 WakaWakas in use in crisis areas in Syria, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Haiti, the Philippines and Nepal.
Not all humanitarian NGO’s are experienced with these handheld solar products. This is also because it is a relatively new type of product. Only few years ago the quality of LED light and solar power was poor and prohibitively expensive. But rapidly rising efficiency and equally fast dropping prices have brought us to the point that both LED and solar power can be deployed large scale, and increasingly to refugees eliminating the need for investing in extensive, traditional electricity grids in refugee camps.
But once an aid partner starts providing solar handheld lights and chargers, the recipients reactions are very positive and the impact on everyday life is huge. The WakaWaka Power is “among the most valued aid tools we distribute” according to Bob Kitchen, Director Emergency Preparedness and Response of the International Rescue Committee.
Only few years ago the quality of LED light and solar power was poor and prohibitively expensive. But rapidly rising efficiency and equally fast dropping prices have brought us to the point that both LED and solar power can be deployed large scale, and increasingly to refugees eliminating the need for investing in extensive, traditional electricity grids in refugee camps.
Now, hundreds of millions of refugee children will be able to study safely after the sun sets. They won’t have to flock around the limited light flickering off a toxic kerosene lamp. Girls will feel safer walking home and women will have more options to profit from working after dark (or simply go to the toilet in safety). The financial savings from eliminating kerosene fuel from family’s budgets will enable refugee families to start financially preparing for a new life. That is how solar can keep families safe, healthy and hopeful.
Maurits Groen is Co-Founder and CEO of WakaWaka and Vice President of the WakaWaka Foundation. As a ‘serial sustainable entrepreneur’ from the Netherlands, he has founded several sustainable companies while publishing books and organizing events on the same subject. Maurits is mainly responsible for building the WakaWaka brand. His media, political and commercial network, which he has built in the past 35 years are put to excellent use. Maurits about WakaWaka: “I feel my career so far was merely a preparation for my work for WakaWaka. I talk a lot about the environmental, social and economical challenges in the world. WakaWaka is a showcase of how a simple idea can have a profound impact on the world, comprising all those aspects.”