The Plan to Sell 250 Million Solar Lamps to Rid African Homes of Kerosene

Across Africa and Asia, millions of households that live without access to electricity are dependent on kerosene-fueled lanterns as a source of light, and the effects can be deadly.

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Jun 9 2014, 9:12pm
Image: SolarAid

There's a silent killer in many homes in the developing world. Across Africa and Asia, millions of households that live without access to electricity are dependent on kerosene-fueled lanterns as a source of light, and the effects can be deadly.

The most obvious danger is the lantern's open flame, but the combustion of kerosene also emits a disproportionate amount of black carbon—soot—a particulate matter with a range of nasty effects. It's estimated that an evening spent breathing kerosene fumes is equivalent to smoking 40 cigarettes a day. Exposure can cause tuberculosis, heart disease and lung cancer. Overall, indoor air pollution causes around 400,000 deaths per year in sub-Saharan Africa alone.

A cheaper, cleaner alternative is readily available in the form of solar powered lamps—technology that has existed for years. But social entrepreneurs have found that despite the evident benefits, solar lamps aren't always an easy sell. Among them is the London-based SolarAid, who have set themselves the ambitious target of freeing African households of kerosene lanterns by 2020.

"The problem wasn’t the technology. Actually getting it to the rural, off-grid communities in the remote corners of Africa is the challenge.”

Off-grid communities pay steep prices for their poison. Families can spend as much as 20 percent of their total budgets on kerosene, perpetuating a grim cycle that compounds poverty and shortens lives. Technological advancements and the falling cost of LED and photovoltaic technology could potentially break this cycle. 

“The technology is incredibly simple,” said Elly White, SolarAid’s communications and education coordinator. “From one small, compact solar product you can get four hours of clean, bright light. That might not seem a lot, but when you’re spending so much money on a kerosene lamp that gives you very little light, it’s a substantial amount.”

SolarAid has now distributed more than one million solar lamps throughout Africa, and is selling roughly 65,000 each month. Still, it's not a profitable organization.

While the market for solar lamps designed for wealthier consumers—as boutique items or novelty eco gifts for patio dining or upmarket camping—does turn a tidy profit, things aren't as simple in the developing world.

“We started off in 2006 just with the idea that solar is better than kerosene,” White explained. “It took us until 2010 to realize that the problem wasn’t the technology. Actually getting it to the rural, off-grid communities in the remote corners of Africa is the challenge.”

When families’ budgets are tight, unfamiliar technology can seem a risky investment; pushing a high-tech light source can be a hard sell. To build trust, SolarAid uses a community distribution model, working with local teachers and education authorities to promote the benefits of solar power.

The model has been successful; this year, for the first time, SolarAid’s enterprises in Kenya and Tanzania could become self-sustaining, with sales finally overtaking expenditure. White explained that any profit would be treated as surplus revenue, staying in the charity to fund efforts elsewhere.  

Increasing demand to build a sustainable market is now the priority. In order to achieve its 2020 goal alone, the firm would have to sell 250 million lights in 6 years. Scaling that fast will rely on other competitors in the market.  

Some efforts, like that of South Africa-based Consol's Solar Jar initiative, aims to combine philanthropy and consumer-facing products, and markets its lamps to people looking a boost in style for their backyard. Consol, which has the advantage of being one of South Africa's largest makers of preserves jars, has used that scale to help also develop a sponsorship and charity pipeline. 

Another is Berlin-based Little Sun. A relative newcomer to the scene, Little Sun has distributed over 165,000 of its lamps around the world. The majority have so far been snapped up by customers in the developed world, sold with a higher pricetag in Europe and the US so they can be sold more affordably where they're needed most.  

Little Sun’s model also depends on engagement with, and the recruitment of, local communities. But their unique selling point is the appealing aesthetics of their product, the brainchild of artist Olafur Eliasson and engineer Frederik Ottesen.

The sunflower-esque lamp, which can provide 10 hours of soft light or 4 hours of bright light from 5 hours of charging, is designed to be beautiful and pleasing, not just functional. Ottesen suggested that the slow growth of the solar lamp market might partly be due to underestimating good old-fashioned desirability—no matter the dangers of kerosene.  

“We were struck by the fact that nobody had done anything to make the lamps beautiful. Nobody had done anything to emphasize that this was something we should all aspire to buy,” he said. “You can’t go into a small village somewhere and say, ‘You should really buy this light, so you don’t die.’ It’s a frightening campaign.” 

“These people are just like you and me," he said. "They want fancy stuff; they want new stuff." 

To determine the design, the company asked customers, "How does beauty look? How does prosperity look?" said Ottesen. "And that understanding translated into a shape that turned out to be something in between a sun and a flower—a nice object, an interesting object—something that people would smile about.”

Right side image: SolarAid
Left side image: Little Sun