Life without lights

A battery-powered torch is the only reliable light source for these children in northern Ghana, but batteries are expensive for their families. Small scale solar-powered lights can provide better illumination at much lower cost and environmental impact 

Guest post by Caspar Henderson

A recent exhibition in London has helped focus attention on environmentally friendly solutions to one of the greatest development challenges facing 1.4 billion of the world’s poorest people: the provision of affordable, durable and non-polluting solar-powered lighting and electrical systems. Life Without Lights, a series of photographs by Peter DiCampo, a young American photographer and former Peace Corps volunteer, vividly portrayed night in a remote village in northern Ghana, where most inhabitants can not afford such services. Typically in such areas, light comes from the combustion of scarce wood, expensive kerosene and conventional battery-powered flashlights [torches], while an inadequate and sporadic electricity supply from expensive diesel generators reaches only a very few.

The exhibition was supported by Ashden, a UK-based charitable foundation that champions and promotes "practical, local energy solutions that cut carbon, protect the environment, reduce poverty and improve people’s lives." Enterprises recognized and awarded by Ashden have become path-finding, successful social renewable energy enterprises in the UK and worldwide. These include d.light, which is rapidly expanding in Ghana and elsewhere, and ToughStuff, whose ‘Business-in-a-Box’ scheme in rural Kenya was set up with 200 local entrepreneurs who sold solar products in rural villages and towns. These products enabled caused a 50% reduction in costs to charge mobile phones saving households US$75 a year. The entrepreneurs themselves increased their incomes by $200 dollars a year, while 85% of users told researchers they had seen an improvement in their living conditions as a result, with more disposable income for food, education, medication and clothing.

“We must adopt a business-like approach when delivering sustainable energy.” said Brain Dominic of the UK-based development organisation Christian Aid at the launch of Life Without Lights. “Only then can we achieve scale. This is not is not just about delivering energy, this is about delivering energy services really well, about harnessing sustainable energy and getting the poorest to use strong social enterprises models.” In Jarkhand State in India, Christian Aid has worked with 4,000 families of the Abedasi people and provided them with solar lanterns which they pay back in small instalments every month. In Malawi it partnered with several international agencies to work with 80,000 families on a programme that includes access to sustainable energy.