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Is Power Africa the right way?

When the sun sets across rural Africa many families reach for kerosene to light their home. Often burnt in a homemade tin lamp, the flame emits thick black smoke damaging a family’s health as well as the environment. It is expensive, accounting for around 20% of household income, and barely emits enough light for a child to study by.

As President Obama stated “a light where currently there is darkness; the energy needed to lift people out of poverty – that’s what opportunity looks like. But what is the best way to bring this opportunity to the 600 million people living off-grid in Africa?

Different approaches to powering Africa

During his recent trip to Africa, the President announced that the US government would invest US$7billion – leveraging a furtherUS$9 billion from the US private sector – into energy solutions over the next five years, the overwhelming majority in large scale projects. The outcome will be 10,000 megawatts of power to 20 million households, a huge step forward for those families living without electricity.
Yet the investment pledged only represents about 5% of the$300 billion the International Energy Agency estimates would need to be spent between now and 2030 to give energy access to the 110 million African households currently off-grid. To fully electrify Africa it would need a Power Africa initiative each year until that time (1).

Extending the grid to remote rural areas of the continent where little infrastructure exists is a difficult, costly task that will pose a huge energy access issue. We believe in the impact of a more immediate approach.

Our ‘bottom-up’ approach relies on building sustainable markets for compact, portable solar products. These lights don’t require infrastructure, maintenance or use costly fuel to run. Pico-solar lights are a combination of PV panel, battery and high power LED, made to suit the rigours of rural life. They are simply charged in the daytime to provide hours of clean, safe light at night.  After the initial cost – around $10 – a family then receives free light for up to five years, relying only on Africa’s most abundant resource: the sun.

The d.Light S2. 
One of the top selling solar lights in Africa


A 4 Hour Brightness Setting
Free 2-Year Replacement Warranty
> 5 Year Lifespan
No Battery Replacements


We estimate that creating and building a pico-solar light market across Africa will cost 0.015% of the amount required to provide universal access to energy on the continent. What’s more, we can make it happen NOW, not at some distant point in the future. SolarAid has ‘cracked the distribution code’ and our social enterprise, SunnyMoney, is selling thousands of lights each month. Their work has already benefited an estimated 3 million rural Africans and demand for pico-solar lights is growing further and faster each month.

While it may not provide the full energy access of a grid system, providing clean light is the first and most critical step on the energy pathway (2). Clean light is already providing opportunites for education, providing jobs and stimulating enterprise. We believe that with a sustainable solar market in place across rural Africa, other life-enhancing pico-solar products such as radios, laptops and fridges will soon follow.

Which method will work best?

Early research shows that the benefits of our approach for rural African communities are instant and do not rely on the slowcostly, maintenance-intensive development of grid supplies. Whilst all energy investment is valuable – and full energy access a key to industry and growth – the pico-solar market has the potential to follow the trend of mobile phones, which have reached every corner of the continent. There are now a staggering 52 mobile phones per 100 people in Africa, compared to landlines which – despite intensive investment – reach only three in 100. We are confident that the solar light will be the next device on every household’s wish list.

Is there a big enough focus on renewable energy?

Demand for solar products has the potential to kick-start a sustainable industry in Africa which does not rely on volatile fossil fuels. Again, like the ubiquitous mobile phone now used across Kenya for day-to-day banking and payments, Africa has an opportunity to leapfrog the systems we are tied to in the developed world and jump to a more sustainable solar future.

Kenya has already committed to completely switching to renewables by 2025. Writing in the Huffington Post, Scientist and Environmentalist, M Sanjyan suggests that; “President Obama might take a page from his father’s homeland and ensure that renewable energy systems are a big part of the mix. It will work better in the long run.” “It needs a system that puts a little power in the hands of many, not a lot of power in the hands of a few”

Sanjyan eloquently states; “Large-scale electricity production that relies on expensive imports of fossil fuels, maintenance-heavy grids and transmission lines are not likely to work for scattered villages and remote towns. Rural Africa needs a system where the source of energy is abundant and not reliant on foreign exchange reserves. It needs a system that puts a little power in the hands of many, not a lot of power in the hands of a few.”

Turning the lights on

President Obama recognises that opportunity cannot exist when people are imprisoned by sickness, or hunger, or darkness; all potential symptoms of a reliance on kerosene. Yet, despite all his investment intentions, 52% of Africans will remain without the energy needed to lift them from poverty. For Power Africa to give opportunity to the greatest number it is prudent to suggest it will require a balanced mix of energy sources – with a bigger emphasis on renewable energy than fossil fuels, and both top-down and bottom up supply.

Rural Africans may not have much say in the energy debate but on the ground we learn from them every day – and in the words of one of our customers: “we always have free sunshine”.


1)  (World Bank 2010: Addressing the Electricity Access Gap).

2) See Practical Action Pg 28 ‘The multi tiered approach to measuring access to energy’