13 year old Amina Ibrahim Abdallah of  the
UNHCR camp Doro Mabaan, South Sudan
holding her Luci solar LED lantern

photo by Sebastian Rich

In the United States, this Luci Inflatable Solar LED lantern is highly-rated as backup for emergencies, when our lights go out.  In most of the developing world, the lights have never gone ON.  Our emergency is just normal, non-electrified life for so many where light is typically provided by kerosene lanterns or candles. Kerosene is a fossil fuel which emits smoke and toxic fumes,  putting everyone in vicinity of burning lamps at high risk for burns and respiratory diseases. Breathing fumes from kerosene lamps have been shown to have the equivalent adverse health effects of smoking 2 packs of cigarettes.  Imagine how damaging that is for children, especially.
The industrialized world maintains power plants from which electricity is transmitted by wire to end users.  This will never be happen in low resource countries.  Much more sensible is generating electricity on site, called distributed energy.
Technological breakthroughs in solar panel and LED light design have combined to provide affordable lighting to the world poorest families.  Indeed, the price of entry level solar lanterns are often paid for out of the savings resulting from eliminating kerosene from the shopping list.  Not only do they light up families’ evenings, but they can be taken outside where they enhance safety.  You can see why Amina is smiling!

Amina does her homework under her bright LED Luci lantern

This night light dividend provides villagers many extra hours of high quality light with none of kerosene burning’s toxic pollution.  Increased literacy means more people reading.  More kids in school means more homework done at night, like Amina shown studying at the right.  Motivated women can work on income generating projects at night, (though hopefully this doesn’t just add more hours of hard labor for already overworked women.)  All without smoke and coughing.

Many solar lantern and hanging lamp products are coming to market in the $10-$20 range. Their basic components are similar: a high-efficiency, energy-sipping LED bulb, built-in battery, and solar charging panel. Typically after charging in sunlight for a few hours they provide enough light for 4-6 hours, and their batteries last several years. In a rush to bring these inexpensive lamps to market, some are manufactured without replaceable batteries,which means a lot of end-of-life techno-trash will be created;  design preference should be given to lamps with batteries which can be recharged or replaced.  Given that 1.3 billion people, a quarter of the earth’s population, have no grid electricity,  the potential demand is enormous. Many more are connected to balky electrical grids and experience daily outages, often for hours each day.  Distributed solar energy is actually more reliable, unless it is very cloudy or a forgetful owner neglects to charge the battery during daylight.

Little Sun Solar Light –  Olafur Eliasson

D-Light has a line of many products, and has reached over 10 million customers in its first five years.

D.light’s S2 entry level lamp

They offer different levels of solar lamps, the costliest of which provides cell-phone charging along with light, in response to the enormous power demand that mobile phones have created.

These inexpensive designs improve health and productivity at very affordable prices, but customers need access and familiarity.  Creating supply chains which reach local village vendors is an enormous challenge.  One very creative women’s empowerment entrant in the arena is Solar Sister.  This social business venture provides start-up loans and training for its vendors who in turn introduce solar products to their villages and regions, educating by demonstrating. Who knows better than local, connected women how many benefits these new-fangled lights offer?

They sell many different companies’ products, and are known by their very colorful branded uniforms.  Solar Sister’s “Business in a Bag” model is a version of microfinance.  Donors can help underwrite the cost of setting a Solar Sister up in business, and when she repays her loan (as microfinance borrowers are famous for doing!), the money is paid back to Solar Sister to expand and bring in another team member. This is a great way to help women support themselves and their families while they extend the benefits of clean solar lights to other women and their families.  And of course once the lights are paid for, they provide free light for a few years.

The Luci light shown above can be purchased, with a philanthropic touch: adding additional discounted Luci lanterns to your order to be distributed to end users by humanitarian organizations.

The portable solar lantern is another leapfrog technology, like cell phones.  Users are going straight from 19th Century lamps to 21st century clean, solar-generated light, skipping dirty, fossil-fueled, CO2 spewing power plants, leaky transmission lines, inefficient incandescent bulbs, and even unpopular CFL’s altogether.  This is win-win upward mobility.