Modern Africa: Midwife Lights Delivery Room with Nokia Handset Due to no Electricity

Despite the 80% mobile penetration rate, slew of multi-nationals moving in and constant talk of ‘laptops for everyone’, 91% of sub-Saharan Africa is off the electricity grid and has no light past 7pm when the equatorial sun drops abruptly from the sky. Kathryn Cave visits SolarAid, one of four recipients of Google’s Global Impact Awards award 2013.

Despite the 80% mobile penetration rate, slew of multi-nationals moving in and constant talk of ‘laptops for everyone’, 91% of sub-Saharan Africa is off the electricity grid and has no light past 7pm when the equatorial sun drops abruptly from the sky. Kathryn Cave visits SolarAid, one of four recipients of Google’s Global Impact Awards award 2013. The aim of this charity is to eradicate the kerosene lamp and bring clean solar light to Africa by 2020. In the long term this should help facilitate technology on the ground, provide business opportunities for remote rural communities and build a long-term future for people that live right off the communication radar. Perhaps the biggest enabler for this continent does begin with a £5 solar light…

It is a hot, sunny day in London as I turn down a side road off Upper Street, am buzzed through a non-descript door and climb four narrow flights of stairs to the very top. On a cramped landing, I tap on a second door and burst into a light, bright sprawling hub of activity. Arranged over four banks of desks is the UK taskforce hell-bent on eradicating the kerosene lamp and bringing ‘clean light’ to the African continent.

Pippa Palmer, MD of SolarAid, is in a buoyant mood as she shows me round, introducing the team and explaining what they are up to; she is clearly delighted that last week the charity won one of four coveted Google Global Impact Awards. “The £500,000 to kick-start this [Tanzanian] project will bring light to millions… but what's really exciting for a charity like us is we're looking to challenge the status quo. We need to get ‘clean light’ onto the world's radar as an issue. And Google will help us to do that.”

The image of the huddled worker, sewing over her thin, candle beam; the black stream of smog rising up and staining the ceiling, is purely Dickensian. Yet across the African continent the situation is even more absurd.   “One story that struck me,” Palmer tells me “was about a woman [in Kenya] giving birth: the midwife literally had a Nokia phone between her teeth and was trying to light up the delivery room to see in the dark.” In modern Africa two worlds truly are colliding: technology and all the 21st Century opportunities that it brings, tacked onto a continent where the vast majority are still dealing with 19th century Western issues.

The World Bank shows that only 15% of households in the East African region are connected to national grids. Tanzania has the highest number of households without electricity at 7.2 million, followed by Kenya at 6.2 million. Yet Kenya is the flagship for technology and innovation. Tech is integral to the country’s Vision 2030, it was placed at the heart of its recent election, and is fundamental to the new Kenyatta regime.  However, the divine irony is that technology is worse than useless without power.

Of course this is a problem across the continent at every level of society. As IDC Analyst, Babatunde Afolayan explained to me recently from Lagos, “When I get home, I will open my door and the first thing I will do is switch on my [electricity] generator.  Nobody can rely on the national power supply here. It is the same for everyone.” Yet it is the people at grass roots that are truly affected. These are the people who are largely off the radar… and literally have no light in the evenings.

The Vicious Cycle of Kerosene-Poverty Stunting Progress

“Most people use one of these homemade kerosene lamps to light their homes,” says Palmer taking me over to a shelf at the far end of the far end of the office which is jam packed with old tin cans and aerosol canisters that have been adapted into make-shift lights. The way they work is that people buy as much kerosene as they can afford, push a wick into the spout and then set fire to them.

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The expense is phenomenal. Recent SolarAid research found that the average family spends 13% of their monthly income on kerosene for lighting. This is on a piecemeal basis and the meagre light produced must be eked out by the entire family, from mothers doing chores to children doing homework. These lights are extremely unsafe. They are flimsy, unstable, get hot and cause endless burns and fires. Whilst longer term, the World Health Organisation has calculated the fumes inhaled from a single kerosene lamp is the equivalent to smoking 40 cigarettes per day.

Environmental scientists have also recently concluded that the un-burnt black particulate from residential kerosene lighting is a huge contributor to global warming and that kerosene lamps account for as much as 3% of global black carbon emissions. On the closing remarks of Green Week 2013, Janez Potočnik European Commissioner for Environment Climate change said:  “Experts have underlined the need to address air pollution and climate change in parallel, giving priority to black carbon and methane emissions.”

“I had no idea of the scale of the problem myself,” explains Palmer “until one of the volunteers told me it was up there with malaria. It is not like-for-like, but it is in the same league of big world killers. There are respiratory illnesses, cancers and all the nastiness that comes out of inhaling soot from the day you are born. There is indoor air pollution, plus the burns and poisoning. And the cost of fuel takes up so much of the average income. It actually keeps most people in poverty.”

The Potential in Free Sunlight Delivered from a Hand-Sized Device

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The answer, of course, is solar lighting, but not as you imagine it. This is solar lighting that can be used by real people in their own homes. This is truly bringing light to the people. “I'm feeling that ‘clean light’ is the new water,” Palmer tells me. “Everybody understands intuitively why you need clean water, but nobody understands how imperative for life it is that you have light.”

There are a number of different companies delivering different solar solutions to the African continent at present. The Modi Research Group from the University of Columbia, for example recently launched SharedSolar a system where people can pay-as-you-go for power via mobile phone. Whilst Zimbabwean company Econet Solar has just introduced its small-scale ‘home power station’. However, the problem with these solutions is they usually need large up-front investment, which simply isn’t viable in these off grid African communities.

“Africa needed something which would scale and worked for the environment we were changing,” Palmer tells me: “This new generation of solar emerged. The time is exactly right.” SolarAid distributes several different pieces of kit to four countries in East Africa. The first is very small, costs around £5 and provides about four hours of bright light that can be shared by the whole family from an eight hour charge. These should last around five years, which means, “give a child one of these at 11 they'll graduate from school with the same study light.”

There are also two larger models, one of which can charge a mobile phone. These are great lights, instantly usable and would be eminently suitable for use in Britain: “I have a yurt in Cornwall and I use these!” exclaims Palmer “I have one by the door and one by my bed. They are absolutely wonderful. They are a world apart [from standard ideas about solar lighting]; they are very robust and really fit for purpose.” Ultimately these are instant solutions for people on the ground. They are cheap, reliable and durable and this could be a true revolution for the African continent.

The Long-Term Opportunities Facilitated by Google

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SolarAid was started in 2006 by Jeremy Legett, founder of Solar Century who wanted to put some of the company’s profits back into solar charity, and realising there wasn’t one, decided to set this up. And it has come a long way in seven years. In addition to the UK office, SolarAid has teams ranging from 10 to 30 on the ground in Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi and Zambia. It also has a local trading arm, SunnyMoney along with SunnyMoney Brains which Palmer explains: “looks at the innovations that are needed. We're about to do a crowdsourcing for a really innovative piece of work to get mobile phones to talk to solar lights. That will mean people can use their phone to transact.”

The initial aim of SolarAids is to eradicate the kerosene lamp from Africa by 2020. “It is a little bit like putting a man on the moon,” laughs Palmer, “but we're getting to the stage where it is looking eminently achievable.” The full plan however, is ambitious and you can instantly see why Google selected this organisation to win.

Delivering on-the-ground solar light is the first basic step to bring technology to the African continent. And the roll out plan provides far more than just solar power. It brings employment possibilities to a continent where around 60% of the population are under 24 and desperately in need of a future. As the press release summarises, the Global Impact Award is specifically to “get 144,000 solar lights to rural Tanzanian families and create jobs for over 400 solar entrepreneurs.” The Tanzanian project will act as a blueprint to be copied across the rest of the continent.

The funds provided by Google will allow SolarAid to work in Tanzanian schools to bring solar lighting to the remotest parts of the region. This will begin by getting trusted people, i.e., headmasters, to advocate solar power and lead on to recruiting school leavers to set up their own businesses to selling the lamps.  “People ask us why as a charity we sell the lights,” says Palmer: “If we sell them at a fair market price other people can join the market and earn a living form it. If we give lights away we will have skewed the market and completely mess it up. This is job creation, this is wealth creation, this is a solar future. The dignity of buying your own way out of poverty rather than having a hand-out it second to none. It is absolutely important for the world that we challenge some of those assumptions and do it this way.”

Impressively, SolarAid has already brought 500,000 lights into Africa: “Once we've discovered the optimum model for getting people where they need to be [in Tanzania] we cookie cutter that right across Africa, into markets we haven't yet been to.” Sengal is next on the radar, “[it] is a World Bank Programme and made perfect sense to go in there,” but after that, whilst there is a soft plan of which countries to move into, the organisation needs to be as market reactive as possible… and numerous factors come into play. “Sometimes governments will come and ask us to set things up and sometimes it’s driven by the fact it is a neighbouring country.”

“We have done wonders with the size we are and our ambitions are phenomenal, we have scaled phenomenally. We're the largest light distributor in Africa. We've changed the game. We want others to come in and join us to make this happen. We're building a market for the world. We want a solar future for Africa. If the world doesn't know this is an issue it is one of our biggest barriers in the Northern hemisphere.”

“And I really want people to know how transformative it is,” says Palmer, “one lady said ‘now I have a joyful life’. Just the idea that you can socialise after dark and that you can leave the house without worrying to visit a neighbour safe in the knowledge that your kids aren't going to tip over a kerosene light. It is amazing. There is a huge joy and dignity in it.”

The Innovative Workforce of Tomorrow

Many large companies are beginning to really stake a claim in the African market and are working to facilitate better tech communications across the continent. IBM built its first African R&D operation in Nairobi recently and is working with Accra in Ghana to help build a fully enabled tech infrastructure from the ground up. Whilst last month, Google announced plans to launch blimps delivering wireless connectivity across the board. Yet these changes can only go so far if the vast majority of the population have no light in the evening… let alone charge for mobile phones.

There are numerous innovations springing up across the continent. Many of which are truly astonishing ideas that offer real-life solutions to problems on the ground. Google’s own Eric Schmidt has publically praised the invention of Anthony Matua from Kenya who developed a ‘shoe charger’ that allowed the body’s own energy to charge a mobile phone. Yet even a well-funded product is nothing without a solid, strategic and - in reality – aggressive distribution model.

SolarAid is pushing the most fundamental thing to Africa. It is providing light… but beyond that, it is helping to unlock the potential in a huge, extremely youthful population, held back by kerosene poverty and unable to progress without power. Once people realise the true potential in free power from the sun they will inevitably adapt the idea to fit in with their own unique needs, but they need to see it for themselves… and ultimately, do it for themselves.

Giving young people a chance to realise the benefits of solar and to build their own businesses spreading that message, should help individuals to create their own future. As Johan Nel, CEO of Umuntu Media, a company which brings local information to local people in 17 African countries, told me recently: “places like Kenya, Ghana, Nigeria, Rwanda, Uganda are amazing, not only the entrepreneurialism, but the true passion of doing business and the openness for doing business.”

This could be the first step in a true communication revolution. With light, the African workforce of the future can do their homework. With power, rural communities can finally begin to take advantage of the possibilities of technology. With new business opportunities, school leavers can, at last, start to construct an independent life for themselves. Perhaps this small Islington charity is nurturing the innovators of the future… simply by giving them the chance to see after 7pm.

And so as I leave the office, make my way down four flights of stairs and break out into the bright, sunny London street I am struck by Palmer’s words: “This is the most fabulous charity – it is utterly poised to change everything…”