Pay-As-You-Go Solar Lights Up Rural Communities
Rural households in low-income countries often use expensive, unsafe, inefficient, and smoky kerosene-burning lamps as their only source of light, but new solar powered technology is coming to the aid of at least some of the approximately 1.6 billion people (over one-fifth of the world population) who don’t have access to grid electricity.
The falling cost of LED (light emitting diode) lighting, batteries, and solar panels, together with innovative business plans, are allowing households in Africa and elsewhere to switch from kerosene lamps to cleaner and safer electric lighting, according to a recent article in MIT’s Technology Review.
MIT’s Kevin Bullis writes: “While in most parts of the world solar power typically costs far more than electricity from conventional power plants—especially when including battery costs—for some people, solar power makes economic sense because it costs half as much as lighting with kerosene.” High-quality LED systems, with a pair of lamps and enough battery storage for several hours of lighting, cost less than $50. The systems can pay for themselves in less than two years, but the upfront cost is still too steep for many people.
One solution to the relatively high cost of solar generating systems is an innovative “pay-as-you- go” plan from Eight19, a Cambridge, U.K.-based company. (Eight19 is named for the time it takes sunlight to reach the earth—8 minutes and 19 seconds.)
Eight19’s IndiGo system combines mobile phone technology with solar power to offer pay-as- you-go solar. Instead of paying $50-$60 for the system up front, the user pays an initial $5-$10 deposit for a 2.5 watt home lighting and charging system, sufficient to light two rooms for eight hours and to charge a mobile phone. The system includes:
- A solar panel and IngiGo box containing a charge controller and battery
- Two LED lamps
- An adapter lead for most popular mobile phones
- Connecting cables
- Two, one-day top-up cards
The pay-as-you-go system is similar to the method for activating mobile phones, which are becoming ubiquitous in many African countries and elsewhere. Each IndiGo power unit has a unique serial number. To add credit to the unit, the user purchases a scratch card from a local vendor for a day, a week, or a month. The weekly cost is around $1. The user then sends the scratch card number, along with the unit serial number, by SMS text message to the IndiGo server which validates the number and sends back a unique passcode to the user’s mobile phone. The user enters the passcode into the solar unit and the output is enabled for the period of the credit. After buying around $80 worth of scratch cards—which Eight19 expects would take the average family around 18 months—the user owns it and can then opt to continue to use it for free, or trade it in for a bigger system, perhaps driven by a 10-watt solar cell which would allow four lights, a mobile phone charger, and a radio.
IndiGo provides light for children to do their homework, enables stallholders to work after dark, and provides the energy to charge mobile phones or to power Internet connections. So far, remote towns in Kenya, Malawi, South Sudan and Zambia have adopted the IndiGo electrification scheme, according to a recent CNN report on IndiGo. In Kenya, IndiGo deployments are so cost-effective that users spend half as much on their IndiGo solutions than they previously did on kerosene and mobile phone charging.
“With kerosene I couldn’t read comfortably, always straining. But it was the children who suffered most; we used to run out of kerosene four or five times a month, and with no light they couldn’t complete their studies. Now we have clean permanent light, we are saving money, and I am so happy for me and my family,” according to Samuel Kimani who lives in a township in Kasarani Constituency on the outskirts of Nairobi, Kenya, and was the first Kenyan to own an IndiGo system.
But how soon can this new way of solar lighting replace the old smelly, polluting kerosene lamps? CNN quotes Dr. Simon Bransfield-Garth, CEO of Eight19, as saying: “We (Eight19) aim to eliminate the use of kerosene for lighting in Africa by the end of the decade." He hopes to make a considerable dent on global carbon emissions through IndiGo.
Nyungura James Ode, a rural farmer in Nimule, Southern Sudan—the latest IndiGo venture, explains the impact on his life since having IndiGo installed: “I used to have to go to a market 3km away to buy batteries for my family's battery-powered lanterns and had to charge our mobile phones at charging stations in town twice a week. Now with IndiGo I save about half of the money I would spend on batteries and kerosene and can spend more time at home now that I don’t have to walk to the village and wait for phones to charge. Also, I do not have to worry about the light running out of power when tending to my baby at night.”
It remains to be seen whether the solution to global pollution will be created in low-income countries, but if this technology and the pay-as-you-go method takes off, the cost of solar energy for everyone may well reach an economic breakthrough point. Stay tuned.
Note: The Health Innovations blog series highlights interesting new approaches and products that have the potential to make a difference to the lives of people in low-income countries. Due to their innovative nature, most of these approaches and products have not been extensively evaluated or tested, and much of the information is taken directly from the web sites of the inventors or developers, or from secondary sources. K4Health has no relationship with the developers and does not endorse or have an official opinion of their products or approaches.
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