Lighting Africa Featured In International Innovation’s Energy Focus Week

Courtesy of International Innovation – a leading scientific dissemination service

Since 2007, the World Bank Group’s Lighting Africa programme has enabled over 35 million people across the continent to access clean, safe and affordable lighting and energy. Communications Lead Jennifer Lynch describes how these renewable energy options are increasing savings and drastically improving living standards.

What circumstances are sub-Saharan populations currently facing with regard to lighting and energy? What solutions are available?

Close to 600 million people in sub-Saharan Africa – about two-thirds of the population – live without grid electricity. And despite ongoing efforts to expand the grid to reach more people, the reality is that this expansion is slow and expensive and, in some places, simply not technically or financially feasible. Due to these difficulties, the number of people living without access to the grid in sub-Saharan Africa is actually rising as population growth outpaces expansion.

Without the option of simply flipping a switch to turn on the lights, they largely turn to kerosene lamps, candles and torches, all of which, unfortunately, come with serious drawbacks. These lighting sources carry recurring fuel costs, necessitating repeated financial expenditure and time to fetch kerosene, new candles or disposable batteries. These expenditures can make up a significant portion of a household budget amongst those living in ‘energy poverty’.

Additionally, kerosene lamps (the most commonly used alternative) carry serious health risks in the form of respiratory diseases and accidental poisoning, as well as the risk of fires – a risk they share with candles. All of these products also carry a notable environmental toll, with disposable batteries ending up in landfills. Moreover, kerosene lamps contribute to global warming through black carbon and CO2 emissions. A typical kerosene-burning household in Africa emits 100 kg of CO2 per year – a significant amount, especially when you consider how many households are using these lamps.

To top it all off, these conventional lighting options offer just that – lighting. And poor quality lighting at that. Quality-verified solar lighting and energy products, in contrast, provide people with safe, affordable, reliable, better-quality light – and often the ability to charge mobile phones or even power smaller household appliances.

In short, these solar products have the power to transform lives. Instead of fruitlessly waiting for a grid expansion that may take years or may possibly never reach some rural areas where so many of these energy-poor live, modern, high-quality off-grid products can sustainably meet the lighting and – increasingly – the energy needs of people who aren’t connected to the grid.

Can you explain the role Lighting Africa plays in the development and implementation of these products?

Lighting Africa catalyses the development of markets for affordable, modern, reliable off-grid lighting and energy products in sub-Saharan Africa. Manufacturers, companies, and investors can benefit from Lighting Africa’s publicly available market research that details information on market size, the demands of end users and their ability to pay, as well as analysing distribution channels to ensure products reach even the ‘last mile’ consumers.

Another important contribution to product development is our quality assurance work. The purchase of an off-grid lighting product or solar home system can represent a significant investment for a family in sub-Saharan Africa, and consumers simply can’t afford to purchase something that doesn’t work well or won’t last.

In order to protect consumers and prevent the eroding of consumer confidence in off-grid products in the process, Lighting Africa developed a series of Quality Standards and testing methods. As our programme has been replicated in other continents, the coordination and testing of these Quality Standards has been moved to our affiliated programme, Lighting Global. Lighting Africa works exclusively with products that meet the Lighting Global Quality Standards.

The test methods used to assess the Quality Standards have been adopted by the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) as a reference point for quality assurance of off-grid lighting products (IEC Technical Specification 62257-9-5). Additionally, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) requires that solar lighting products meet this specification in order to qualify for carbon financing (CDM). African governments, including Kenya, Tanzania and Ethiopia, have adopted or are adopting national standards for off-grid solar products that are harmonised with the Lighting Global Quality Standards. Nigeria and other countries in the Economic Community of West African States are poised to adopt similar standards by the end of the year.

The evolution of these off-grid lighting – and now energy – products over the past few years has been remarkable. The costs have dropped significantly even as the level of services and the range of products offered have expanded exponentially. Just a few years ago, off-grid solar products could offer a single light point at a (now) relatively high cost. Today, the most affordable quality-verified products retail for as little as US $5. At the same time, the majority of the lanterns now have the capability to charge a mobile phone or other small item, such as a radio, through a USB port. At the other end of the spectrum, solar home systems can charge a mobile phone, power several lights and even, in some cases, a fan or a TV.

Taking into consideration the desire of consumers to move up the energy ladder to the extent possible, the Quality Standards and test methods have recently been expanded to also cover plug-and-play solar home system kits up to 100 W.

What are the main benefits of using off-grid lighting and energy products to support societal development?

The developmental benefits derived from people gaining access to quality-verified off-grid lighting and energy products are numerous, including improved health and healthcare provision, as well as increased savings and economic opportunities.

“The Lighting Africa programme has done an exceptional job in building the foundation of the off-grid market space and will help propel the African continent to achieve universal access for all.” CHARLES FEINSTEIN, Director of Energy and Extractives Global Practice, The World Bank

The negative health impacts of kerosene lamp usage are severe. Several studies have reported that accidental ingestion of kerosene is the primary cause of child poisoning in the developing world, while the use of kerosene lamps contributes to the indoor air pollution that causes about 400,000 deaths in sub-Saharan Africa annually. Furthermore, inadequate lighting in healthcare clinics poses barriers to the delivery of healthcare, which can be improved with proper lighting.

Secondly, quality-verified off-grid lighting and energy products increase savings. While the up-front purchasing cost of these products is a challenge for many of the end users, their life-cycle costs as compared to kerosene lamps and other commonly used alternatives are actually lower, as recurring purchases of fuel are eliminated.

A recent Bloomberg New Energy Finance/World Bank Group study found that consumers in sub-Saharan Africa save $3.15 for every $1 they invest in a solar product.

Additionally, economic opportunities improve when using off-grid solar lighting and energy by enabling longer or more efficient working hours, as well as creating new business opportunities, such as charging the mobile phones of others for a fee – or even by becoming a retailer of off-grid products.

Of course, solar home systems provide even more benefits as they offer better lighting, can charge multiple phones (perhaps as part of a business), or power an electric shaver for a barbershop. They can also improve a consumer’s knowledge of the outside world through TV and radio. And while these solar home systems are far more expensive than a simple lantern, they are put within reach of low-income consumers through pay-as-you-go (PAYG) technology, through which they can pay for their energy use in daily increments, usually through their mobile phones.

Quality-verified solar lighting and energy products provide people with safe, affordable, reliable, better-quality light

Finally, the non-quantifiable benefits to quality of life that these off-grid products provide should not be discounted. They allow children to study in the evenings – so that they can play during the day, and enable families and friends to spend time together – in the light, after dark, perhaps even by the cooling breeze of a fan.

How does Lighting Africa work with governments to provide lighting and energy?

Lighting Africa works all along the supply chain to catalyse the markets to help those living without access to grid electricity to gain access to quality-verified off-grid lighting and energy products. Activities include: market intelligence, quality assurance, access to finance, consumer education, business development support and work with governments.

Our work with governments is conducted through World Bank energy-access projects. When a national government reaches out to the World Bank seeking assistance to increase energy service provisions to their citizens, an assessment as to how this can best be achieved is conducted. Traditionally, the focus has been on grid expansion but, increasingly, off-grid products and mini grids are being recognised as viable components of energy access expansion.

In the case that an off-grid component is found to be a viable option for a country, Lighting Africa will form part of the team working on the wider energy-access project. The Lighting Africa team member(s) will then help to identify the best strategy for expanding the availability and use of these off-grid products, and provide technical assistance to the relevant government agency in implementing these strategies. Along with technical assistance, they can take many forms, and are always customised to the specific country. Some of the more common approaches include consumer education campaigns, increasing access to finance both along the supply chain, and to end users, and reducing barriers to importation. In the end, the governments themselves choose their approach and implement the activities, with Lighting Africa serving an advisory role and providing assistance as needed.

In the case of consumer education campaigns, Lighting Africa will share experiences and lessons learned on how to best conduct a consumer education campaign to raise awareness of, and trust in, off-grid products. Consumer education materials developed by Lighting Africa are also shared for adaptation and use.

For access to finance, Lighting Africa may share market research with financial institutions to demonstrate the financial viability of these markets, or facilitate business connections, or connections between financial institutions and NGOs, women’s groups and the like. In the case of import barriers, Lighting Africa may work with governments to identify duties and tariffs that are driving the end price too high for consumers and work to address these with the end-goal of improving access to only quality-verified products to avoid flooding the market with unreliable products that are prone to breaking or have poor-quality function.