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The sun is rising on a solar revolution in Africa

In an article published yesterday on BBC World News the question was posed, is the sun rising on an African solar revolution? The article went on to outline the many benefits of solar energy to rural African families but concluded that no, a revolution may still be some way off.

Well we have to disagree with the BBC. As our Head of Policy & Programme Funding, Charlie Millier, states “customers have already been voting with their wallets”. The 2014 figures from the Lighting Africa programme back this claim, highlighting how 28.5 million people across Africa now have access to solar lighting after switching from dangerous kerosene lanterns.

SolarAid alone have sold 1.5 million lights, benefitting over 9 million people, and demand is still growing. Over the last few years the market has been increasing at rates of 100% year on year with this trend set to continue well into the next decade. With the right support we’re hoping this figure will be 500%.

Susan Mwangi shows off her lights. Kawa General shop, Kericho, Kenya. Credit: Corrie Wingate Photography & Impact.

SNV baseline research on our work in the Lake Zone in NorthWest Tanzania shows that in 2012, 3% of households had access to solar. Their recent research shows solar adoption rates to be over 50%. Our own research shows that solar use in Kericho, Kenya, has exploded; growing from 20% in 2013 to 60% in 2015. With the right investment, planning and government support the entire continent could have access to solar lights by the end of the decade.

Our teams on the ground in Africa are reporting huge increases in demand in some areas, with the market being driven by peer to peer networks, community education programmes and word of mouth. In Kenya, 95% of SunnyMoney customers recommend solar lights to others, on average, to another 25 people each. The market is continuing to build momentum, but it still needs to be guided in the right direction.

Given the lack of communications infrastructure and finance for off-grid solar, this ‘quiet revolution’ is truly staggering. As noted in the Power for All white paper issued last year,“Renewable, distributed, and democratized energy is a critical part of providing universal energy access to billions of people— and it doesn’t have to wait.” And it isn’t.

The news item (below) in which Charlie Miller was interviewed yesterday suggested that solar was still too expensive and inefficient a solution for rural African families. The Today Programme on Radio 4 concluded the same thing (listen here: Min 46)

While solar lights may represent a significant outlay for some of the poorest people in the world, the $10 cost is recouped in 10 weeks through savings on other sources of light. Families will then continue to save around $70 per year (around 10% of their annual income) and make use of the extra time afforded by a source of light they can charge for free the following day. Even the most basic, entry level light like a d.light S2, is three times brighter than a kerosene lamp, gives four hours of light per night and lasts for around 5 years.

The revolution is not, as reported, a long way off. It is happening right now as millions of African families choose to invest in their future. Customers are voting with their wallets, we just need to ensure we can keep up with demand.