Africa: German lighting firm
aims to build solar power hubs
May 8, 2008 - IPS/GIN
Lighting industry entrepreneurs are hoping
that alternative devices such as solar-powered
LED lights will eventually replace the smoky
kerosene lamps that keep the darkness at bay
in many of Africa's towns and villages.
Kerosene is a dangerous and increasingly expensive
source of light, and about three-quarters of
people living on the African continent do not
have access to electricity, according to the
"Africans spend more than $18 billion a year
purchasing kerosene," said Russell Sturm, who
heads the sustainable energy team at the International
Finance Corporation, a member of the World Bank
"And that estimate was done when oil was $35
a barrel, so there is an enormous market for
lighting," he said, adding that the prices of
LED devices and solar panels had dropped dramatically
over the past three years and are now competitive
with kerosene costs. The price of oil passed
the $120 per barrel mark for the first time
earlier this week.
It was against this backdrop that the World
Bank Group launched its Lighting Africa campaign
last September. The initiative aims to provide
lighting products and other energy services
that are not dependent on fossil fuels -- and
which are safe, reliable and affordable -- to
some 250 million people in sub-Saharan Africa
by 2030. Presently, Africans are estimated to
spend about $40 billion annually on lighting
products powered by fossil fuels.
Under the auspices of the campaign, the Lighting
Africa 2008 summit -- dubbed the "first global
business conference" for off-grid lighting on
the continent -- took place this week in the
Ghanaian capital of Accra. The May 5-8 gathering
was aimed at attracting investment to the African
lighting sector, and drew representatives from
governments, industry and nongovernmental organizations.
Few solar-powered LED devices have been designed
for Africa, and companies need to conduct market
research to find out how such lights could be
used. "We do know that they must be rugged,
simple and affordable," Strum said.
LEDs or light emitting diodes are illuminated
by the movement of electrons in material that
is able to conduct electricity, rather than
by heated filaments. The devices are more energy
efficient and last longer than conventional
incandescent bulbs, although the upfront costs
of installing them can be higher.
Pilot market research in certain countries
to gain a better understanding of what is needed
has been sponsored by the International Finance
Corporation, which supports the private sector
in developing nations. A vast number of businesses
"are off the grid in Kenya," Melissa Baker of
Research International, a global market research
firm, told delegates.
Many of those businesses indicate they would
stay open three or four hours longer if they
had better lighting, she added.
Families report that they are forced to use
buckets in their homes as toilets at night because
they do not have a portable light to go to the
more sanitary pit latrines.
Lighting industry giant Osram GmbH of Munich,
Germany, has also done market research and envisages
supplying solar energy to Africans at rates
that are competitive thanks to economies of
The company wants to build what it calls "O-HUBs":
centers where rural residents can buy solar
energy in small, affordable quantities. "People
will come to the O-HUB and pay to have their
mobile phone charged for example," said Rodd
Eddy Senior, the company's director for off-grid
Osram would also lease certain products, including
LED lights and the "O-BOX" -- a large battery
with electronic components to power lights,
radios and other devices. "We manufacture everything
and want to be responsible for maintenance and
recycling of products at the end of their life
cycle," Eddy added.
In addition, the O-HUBs would sell purified
drinking water; "We think that will be a good
way to bring people in," Eddy said. Originally,
Osram had planned to supply the water free of
charge but was advised against doing so by NGOs,
The company doesn't plan to operate the O-HUBs;
instead, it would like to lease them to local
authorities, NGOs or entrepreneurs.
The first pilot O-HUB opened last April in
the village of Mibta, Kenya, where night fishing
on Lake Victoria is the main source of food
and income. "Fisherfolk used kerosene lanterns,
and there is hardly anyone who doesn't have
kerosene burns," said Eddy, noting that while
Mibta had power lines, few people could afford
the connection fee of approximately $460.
Three more O-HUBs are planned for Kenya. Osram
plans to take the concept to India, where there
are also vast numbers of people without electricity.
Improved energy sources are key to helping
countries achieve the eight millennium development
goals agreed on by global leaders in 2000. The
goals seek in part to halve the number of people
living on less than $1 a day.
"Proper lighting is key to improving livelihoods
of the poor," said Christine Peterson, executive
director of the Freeplay Foundation, an NGO
based in South Africa and the United States
that is best known for distributing hundreds
of thousands of wind-up radios in East and Southern
The foundation was set up a decade ago by the
Freeplay Energy Group, a London-based firm that
designs, manufactures and markets a range of
portable products -- including flashlights and
mobile phone chargers -- that make use of solar
and other clean energy sources.
News Provided By