For the many millions of people in sub-Saharan Africa who lacks access to electric lighting, sunset brings an almost enveloping dark. But Light Libraries is one handy solar-powered program that brings an affordable end to darkness for school students. pv magazine sat down with Sofia Ollvid from SolarAid to discuss how these libraries work.
From ISSUE 07 – 2022.
For the more than 600 million people in sub-Saharan Africa without access to electricity and lighting, the day is cut short at sunset. Can solar Light Libraries begin to change that?
Yes, I believe so. Solar lights are an affordable, clean and safe solution for people who lack access to light after the sun sets. Our program, Light Libraries, is designed to increase access to solar lights in rural communities for students coming from households which struggle to purchase a light outright. The program is built on the idea of giving students the opportunity to access a solar light through their school. Students are already reporting improved grades.
We are encouraging more organizations to adopt and replicate this model to help reach more people. That is why we are excited to have just launched a new open source Solar Light Library toolkit, which is free to download. The toolkit enables schools and development actors to establish their own solar Light Library. As a sector, we need to step up our efforts if we are to reach universal access to power. Only through sharing, collaboration and partnership will we achieve our goals.
How do the Light Libraries work? Has there been any change on the technology side?
Solar lights have become more affordable over the past 15 years, with prices dropping from over $30 just $5. This has been made possible with increases in efficiency and a reduction in the cost of the key components – namely LEDs, solar panels, and rechargeable lithium batteries.
However, for the poorest families even the most affordable solar light remains out of reach. Many children are forced to use open flames or toxic kerosene just to study. It was with this in mind that we created Light Libraries in 2019. It works like a book library. For as little as one cent a day, which is much less than families spend on candles, kerosene or batteries, students can borrow a solar light. Each Light Library school is also equipped with a solar system to light up classrooms.
This gives students an immediate safe light to study by in the evening, but it also works as a “try before you buy” model for all, it builds trust in solar products, and ultimately gets solar customers on the first step of the energy ladder .
With more lighted hours in the day, teachers are reporting great improvement in student progress. But is cheap access to lighting a help to families across the board?
Yes. When we are speaking to students who have been borrowing a solar light, they tell us that after homework has been done, their parents are also using the light for household chores. Some students have told us their siblings, who may be attending schools which do not yet have a Light Library, are also using the light for their homework.
Access to solar lights benefits the whole family and it means they are suddenly spending less on other light sources that may be expensive and often dangerous, such as candles or toxic kerosene – which also contributes to indoor air pollution.
Affordability was the big obstacle for a long time. Has that pressure eased? What remains the biggest obstacles to the spread of solar lights?
While lights are more affordable than ever before, with millions of households now accessing solar lights, price is still a barrier for many low-income households. There is a limit to who the market can serve and who can still not afford it. Also, it’s not profitable for many businesses to operate at a scale in low income communities – which leads to an access and availability barrier.
This is where our social enterprise SunnyMoney comes in. Through our social enterprise, we are able to deliver lights to last mile, rural communities that the traditional market is not reaching. Through our programmes, we are working to ensure we are able to reach everyone within these communities.
The solar Light Librarians are teachers, students, or parent-teacher association members, they do not receive commission from the Light Libraries. However, a proportion of revenue from Light Libraries goes to the local school. Also, each Light Library is twinned with a ‘rent to own’-model which enables the student to own a light, this happens through our local solar entrepreneurs, who are earning income on it.
SolarAid is active in a number of countries. How big is your footprint today and will it expand?
We have sold over 2.2 million solar lights across Malawi, Zambia, Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya and Senegal. We are currently going deep into Malawi and Zambia, while developing partnerships in Senegal and exploring a partnership in Madagascar. We plan to focus on countries where the access to electricity challenge is the most acute and where we can add the greatest value to local partner NGOs and solar enterprises.
SolarAid is also developing a Powering Healthcare program, bringing plug-and-play solar systems to health care facilities lacking reliable electricity. How is this program progressing?
Over the past 12 months, we have powered over 30 health facilities with solar lighting and handheld medical equipment and we are already seeing great impact and improvement in the quality of care delivered. It’s been incredible hearing the testimonies from patients and healthcare professionals. Women who no longer have to worry about giving birth in complete darkness, or healthcare professionals forced to carry out life threatening procedures by candlelight. Early impact from our monitoring and evaluation work is showing that almost all (97%) health care staff and patients (93%) in the clinics in Zambia are saying the quality of care has improved because of the solar powered equipment – that is really fantastic . We are now continuing to work with health authorities in both Malawi and Zambia to scale access.
What kind of reception does solar power receive in the rural communities SolarAid works in?
Generally, people in the rural communities we work in have some knowledge that solar exists – but there is a lack of trust in the product and of understanding for how it works. Normally, when we are just starting to work in communities, we work with building trust in the product. Normally after a few months of working in the area, we notice a difference and we can start building strong connections between our social enterprise and the community.
How can people donate to SolarAid and where will that money go?
There are several ways to get involved with SolarAid and to be part of our mission to bring more safe and renewable light to sub-Saharan Africa. People can either get in touch with us on social media (@solaraid), visit our website (solar-aid.org), or get in touch with our Supporter Engagement team to learn how to donate.
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