It was when I met 9-year-old Alinafe in Mandevu village, Malawi, that I truly understood the cost of a candle. Driven by determination to do well in her upcoming school exam, the little girl had gone to the village trading centre to purchase a candle after the family’s battery-torch had run out. 

This single candle would have devastating consequences for Alinafe and her little brother.

Many of the families in Mandevu have nothing to light their homes after dark, some even set fire to clumps of grass so they have just enough light to make their beds. Whilst others have candles, or poor-quality battery torches – these are expensive, and so light has to be rationed to a few hours each evening to complete chores and make the family meal.

Mandevu Village. Photo: Emily Bellis

The Chief had someone he wanted me to meet and led us into a small courtyard. Here I was introduced to Alinafe’s mother, and this is where we heard her story:

In December last year, Alinafe was preparing for a test at school. Her Mum allowed her to use the family’s battery-powered torch to study once the chores were all finished but it didn’t provide enough light and the batteries kept running out.

Motivated to achieve a good grade in her upcoming exam, Alinafe went to the village trading centre to buy a single candle to provide extra light for her to study on the night before the test.

She was using the candle to study in bed, but she later fell asleep.

The blanket that Alinafe and her little brother were sleeping under, and the straw mat beneath them, suddenly caught fire.

(As her mother got to this point in telling the story, a group of children walked into the yard. One of them was wearing a jumper, this was Alinafe)

Her mother found them in panic and managed to put out the fire, but Alinafe had been badly burnt and was rushed to the hospital.

At this moment, Alinafe came closer to us and slowly took off her jumper, revealing burns all along her right arm, one wound was taking a very long time to heal as it was across the veins on her wrist.

Alinafe, showing the burns she got when the mat caught fire. Photo: Emily Bellis

The candle that Alinafe bought the night before her exam cost 100MKW. The torch batteries Alinafe’s Mum allowed her to use cost 200MKW. The blanket and mat ruined in the fire cost 16,000 MKW. And the medical costs to treat her burns cost 2,500 MKW making the total financial cost of this incident 18,800MKW (£21) for Alinafe’s family.

But the real cost here could have easily been 9-year old Alinafe’s life.

Alinafe’s mother and the Senior Group Village Headman showing the blanket that caught fire while Alinafe was sleeping. Photo: Emily Bellis

In the 21st century, no child should have to rely on a light source that can endanger their lives simply to study for a school exam. SolarAid launched the first Project Switch in Alinafe’s village in April 2019. Families, including her’s, now have access to clean and safe solar lights through an affordable rental scheme.

We are excited to learn about the impact of Project Switch in Alinafe’s village. The programme is enabling families across Mandevu to switch from candles and battery-powered torches to solar lights for the first time. Preventing injuries like Alinafe’s, or even worse scenarios involving candles, from happening and enabling the poorest families to access clean, safe and affordable solar light.

Emily Bellis, Development Officer