Between now and February 5th 2015, all donations to SolarAid will be matched by the UK Government. Read about their powerful model to eradicate the kerosene lamp from Africa by 2020. 

There’s more to light than meets the eye

It would be easy to think ‘well, if I didn’t have electricity in my house Ii’d just light a few candles or use a torch. No big deal’. But what if you had to do this every day? What if you ran out of candles or batteries? What if you lived miles from the nearest shop? What if you couldn’t afford candles or batteries? Life would become very difficult. Everyday tasks we take for granted would grind to a halt after the sun goes down.

We’re SolarAid and through our social enterprise SunnyMoney, we’re helping to get a clean, affordable source of light to those not fortunate enough to be connected to a grid. What’s more, we’re doing this in a sustainable way that will enable all 600 million people in off-grid Africa to access light by the end of the decade. 

“As a family, the solar light helps us to share experiences of the day”  

- Frank Asiye, Malawi.

Image (c) SolarAid-Corrie Wingate

Light is time

Sounds a bit odd doesn’t it? But if you live below the poverty line, as 90%of our customers do, then you’re going to be quite sparing with your kerosene lamp, your candles and your batteries. Solar lights give you the gift of time. You get hours of clean light to play with in the evening, after all you’re just going to charge it for free the next day.

And what do you do with time?  Well, your kids can study for as long as they want for a start. There’s no need to tell them they only have until the kerosene runs out. There’s no need to stop some of them studying because your kerosene lamp isn’t bright enough. They can all study together, not just your eldest, and not just your boys. Our research shows that with a solar light, on average, children study for an hour extra each night.

Families feel a sense of empowerment over their lives. They call the shots, they make the choices, there’s more opportunity and more dignity. Families and friends can spend more quality time together, under the safe glow of a solar light. The day’s events can be chewed over, stories can be told and elder members of the family can pass on their wisdom and knowledge to the next generation. The solar generation. 

“I am very happy because the living standard of our family is more like one in town now”

- Mphatso Gondwe, Malawi

Image (c) SolarAid-Corrie Wingate

How many lightbulbs does it take to change a man? 

UN General Secretary Ban Ki Moon recently said "widespread energy poverty still condemns billions to darkness, ill health and missed opportunities for education and prosperity". A solar light changes everything. It enables children to study, it improves health and it allows families to save. On average each family will save around $70 per year, a sizeable chunk if you live below the poverty line of $1.25 per person per day.

Families now have the opportunity to invest in their future. They can use their savings to purchase farming outputs or equipment, they can start a business, they can develop and they can prosper. The lights allow families to work after dark, encouraging business and enterprise. 

Families can charge their phone (the Sun King Pro and Sun King Mobile have phone charging capabilities) improving communication channels and encouraging business links with other towns and villages. Many enterprising people have even started charging their neighbours’ phones or selling the lights, building their own livelihood, and thousands of others at the same time. 

When you sell lights at the scale we sell lights the financial impact begins to spread further than families, communities and towns. Using World Bank data for 2013 gross domestic product (GDP), SunnyMoney data for 2013 solar light sales and SolarAid research data for average household income saved, it can be estimated that the savings solar lights enable account for up to 0.05% of national GDP. Which isn’t bad for a little lamp. When you consider $10.5 billion dollars is spent on kerosene for lighting each year in Africa, imagine what would happen if that money was freed up and invested in food, education and business.

“A light where currently there is darkness; the energy needed to lift people out of poverty – that’s what opportunity looks like.” - President Obama

Image (c) SolarAid-Corrie Wingate

Cheap light, not free light

We firmly believe that a truly sustainable solution can only be achieved through enterprise rather than traditional aid. Imagine we didn’t sell our lights but instead we just gave them away.

Firstly we would not have been able to provide access to anywhere near the 1.4 million lights we’ve sold to date, we just wouldn’t have been able to afford it.

Secondly we would be perpetuating a donor/beneficiary relationship (we have customers not beneficiaries, we respond to their demands not the other way around).

Thirdly, if someone invests in something, they are far more likely to make use of it. Air lifting a thousand Sun King Pros into the Great Rift Valley is unlikely to encourage high adoption rates. That can only come through educating people about the benefits of solar, instilling trust through respected community members and creating demand through advocacy and word of mouth.    

“Charity money only has one life but if you transform it into social business money, then it becomes a life of eternity.”

- Muhammad Yunus, 2006 Nobel Peace Prize Winner

Image (c) SolarAid-Corrie Wingate

Light the way

So this model is actually working in practice. We’re selling lights fast and more and more organisations are entering the market. Momentum is building, demand is being created and a sustainable solar market is emerging. But 1.4 million lights is only a drop in the ocean when we’re talking about 600 million people. But of course, what is an ocean if not a collection of millions of little drops?

If we’re to achieve our goal of eradicating the kerosene lamp by the end of the decade then we need to pick up the pace considerably. On average 90% of our solar customers in Kenya, Tanzania and Zambia  are so happy with their lights that they recommend them to their neighbours and friends. In Kenya, each customer recommends their light to around 25 other people on average. That’s how demand is created and awareness spreads. Now imagine our supporters in the UK, Europe and the US did the same thing? If people who were interested in our enterprise not aid model, or the amazing impact of solar lights, told their friends and neighbours about us. Then we might just be in with a chance of hitting that goal.

So if you’re interested in sustainable development or alleviating poverty, make sure you Light the Way and get your friends involved too. Right now, the UK government are doubling all donations from the UK public so there’s no better time to get involved. It really is an investment that would keep giving.   

- By Tom Moore, the digital marketing and communications manager at SolarAid. You can follow SolarAid on Twitter, Facebook or Google plus.  from SolarAid

Image (c) SolarAid-Corrie Wingate

-This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details.

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