Africa is in the midst of a technological revolution, and it's increasingly solar powered

As a fascinating piece in The Economist explained recently, 1.2 billion of the world's population are still without access to electricity. Even more — 2.5 billion — have the benefit of unreliable and intermittent power supplies. And a huge number of those people live in Africa. In the absence of reliable electricity, many families resort to kerosene lanterns. And those lanterns create unhealthy fumes, they cast inadequate light, they cost a relative fortune to run, and all too often they cause burns or fires that claim lives. 

But the days of the kerosene lantern are numbered. 

In fact, U.K.-based charity Solar Aid — which was founded by (and receives 5 percent of the profit of) solar developer Solarcentury — has set itself the ambitious target of essentially eradicating the kerosene lantern from Africa by the end of the decade. It's doing its part to achieve that goal by promoting a micro-entrepreneurship model in communities across the continent. Here's how it works: 

Solar Aid, and the social enterprise it set up called SunnyMoney, have already made significant progress toward its 2020 goal. In fact, the organization has distributed more than 1.7 million solar lanterns, reaching an estimated 10 million people with the benefits of solar power. (The charity estimates that families that go solar save $70 a year on lighting costs compared to kerosene.)

The poverty alleviation and public health angle is just one part of what makes Solar Aid attractive to donors. At a time when concern about climate change is rising, solar lanterns offer the tantalizing opportunity to both promote economic development and slash carbon emissions in the process. As Solar Aid chief fundraiser Richard Turner emphasized in an interview with Cleantechnica recently, each solar lantern can replace 0.5 tons of CO2 in its lifetime. U.S.-based company Sunfunder, which specializes in funding solar in emerging markets, has estimated that kerosene lamps alone are responsible for 3 percent of global black carbon emissions. (U.S. donations can be made via the Honnold Foundation SolarAid page.)

Of course, eradicating a technology so widely used — however outdated and inefficient it may be — is more than any one organization can achieve alone. But Solar Aid is just one of the many charities, government entities and private companies who are working on solar in Africa and other emerging markets. Solar Sister, for example, has focused on supporting women as clean energy microentrepreneurs. And Global BrightLight Foundation is promoting renewable energy solutions in Rwanda, as well as in Haiti and South America. Across Africa, the total number of people now benefiting from solar light is 50 million.

Even large for-profit corporations are getting in on the act, with French oil giant Total heavily marketing its solar lanterns which it sells through its gas station forecourts across Africa. Although Solar Aid couldn't help gloating a little when they beat Total in the number of lamps sold, the rapidly growing solar market appears to have plenty of room for both competition and cooperation among charities, big business and micro-entrepreneurs alike. In fact, as their press release on recent progress details, Solar Aid are actively encouraging others to join the push:

"Over the past year SolarAid has placed a greater emphasis on knowledge sharing and recently made a Clinton Global Initiative commitment to ‘build the alliance to eradicate the kerosene lamp.’ They are currently advising a number of organisations on how they can enter and support the off-grid lighting market and are a leading member of the Global Off-Grid Lighting Association." 

Loreen Mugha, a SunnyMoney agent, demonstrates the Sun Kind Pro lamp, which can also charge mobile devices.

Loreen Mugha, a SunnyMoney agent, demonstrates the Sun Kind Pro lamp, which can also charge mobile devices. (Photo: Solar Aid)

With such a huge market to reach, and such great benefits from reaching it, we can be hopeful that Solar Aid — together with the various other players in the market — will achieve their goal of making kerosene history by the end of the decade.

We'll all be able to breathe a little easier when they do.  

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