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A Better Way to Light Homes of People Off the Grid

  • Mariama Diallo

Some 1.4 billion people worldwide lack access to electricity. The World Bank says 600 million of them live in Africa. Efforts are underway to provide affordable and reliable energy for the hundreds of millions who live off the electrical grid.

Whether you are on or off the grid, access to sufficient energy is a huge challenge for millions of people in sub-Saharan Africa. There is a reason for that, says Vijay Iyer, director of the World Bank's department of sustainable energy.

“There have not been enough investments in the energy sector over a long period of time," said Iyer. "It has not been a very high priority for governments to develop.”

And there's an important reason for energy sources in Africa to be affordable, says Patrick Avato, a global energy specialist with the International Finance Corporation - or IFC. He spoke to us via Skype.

“Households in Africa spend four or five to $10 to $15 a month on kerosene just for lighting," said Avato. "This is a very sizable amount considering that these are some of the poorest people on the planet.”

Three years ago, the IFC and The World Bank launched a program called "Lighting Africa" to provide modern energy to people without access to the grid.

"We saw an opportunity there to leverage the money that they are already spending for kerosene to bring in better technologies, mostly solar lighting," he said.

This woman in Kenya used kerosene lamps until four years ago when she tried solar.

“This lamp is better than the one I had because it has more light," she said. "The flashlight is useful as well especially when I need to go outside at night, I don’t feel afraid."

Many products are being developed by local and sometimes foreign entrepreneurs. Whit Alexander, an American businessman, recently moved to Ghana and started a company called Burro.

”We tried to create a model that would let the savings from rechargeable get passed along to people who are buying throwaway batteries in the villages," said Alexander. "So it’s a rechargeable battery service.”

His batteries can run just about anything - lamps, radios, cell phones. Marketing to people off the grid is a new business opportunity and some companies are showing innovation. A good thing, says Vijay Iyer.

“Very remarkably, what has happen[ed] in countries like Ghana and Kenya, a lantern that used to cost $50, the price has come down to $20 to $23 because of competition and innovation," he said. "There is one that has come up with integrating both lighting and cell phone charging, attractive product right.”

In the last three years, companies supported by “Lighting Africa” have provided better access to energy to more than 3 million people in Africa with a primary focus on Kenya and Ghana.