About Us

The Power of the Sun: Solar Lanterns Transform Lives in Malawi, Africa

Photo Credit: Any Bodycombe/SolarAid
May 7, 2008 - Nick Sireau, SolarAid Director - renewableenergyworld.com

Mirriam is 18 years old and lives in Malawi. She has two children, one brother and one sister. Her father died of AIDS and her mother is now also sick with HIV AIDS. Every day is a struggle: finding food for her children, caring for her mother, looking after her other sick relatives all this with next to no income.

Yet she's now found hope in a ground-breaking project carried out by non-profit SolarAid with funding another non-profit, TRAID. SolarAid is training young Malawians to become solar entrepreneurs so that they can build and sell small solar products such as solar lanterns and solar chargers for mobile phones and radios. The project is aiming particularly at young people affected by HIV/AIDS in order to provide them with more income.

The average African household uses 55 or so liters of kerosene per year, at an approximate cost of 80 [US $158]. This contributes to health problems as the burning of kerosene inside houses is a major cause of respiratory illness, fires, burns, accidental poisonings, eyesight problems and death in the developing world. Kerosene is far more expensive and far less efficient than electric lighting: the cost of useful light energy ($/lumen hour of light) for kerosene is 325 times higher than the inefficient incandescent bulb and 1,625 times higher than compact fluorescent light bulbs.

In rural areas, the high cost of kerosene can consume much of a family's income. One lamp consumes 0.07 liters per hour with daily usage of around two hours burn time, amounting to around 4 liters per month. In the developing world, a family's lighting costs, because of kerosene fuel costs, are equal to those of a family in the developed world. Even with government subsidies, kerosene requires 10% to 25% of a villager's annual income.

The training that SolarAid is doing involves teaching your Malawians to convert a standard, medium sized kerosene "hurricane" lanterns (not pressurized or "tilly" lanterns) into LED solar lanterns. Conversion of the lanterns involves putting rechargeable AA batteries into the chimney and using 3.3V, 25mA LEDs (wired in parallel) to direct light down onto an improvised cone reflector, which sits over the top of the old wick. The reflector is constructed from locally collected materials such as aluminium foil, gift wrap, or the inside of a cigarette packet, and is configured in a conical shape to provide uniform reflection.

The torches are guaranteed for three years. Batteries are designed to be recharged up to 1000 times without "memory effect." SolarAid tests have shown a solar LED lantern can go for up to 10 days non-stop on a single battery charge, meaning the batteries could last 20 years or more if only used once a week. The batteries are recharged with one-watt solar panels, which are made locally with imported amorphous silicon and wooden frames. The PV panels do not degrade over time and are sold in the West with at least a 10-year warranty. All other components can be replaced when needed as they are sourced locally.

 

LED Solar Lantern Image Credit: Andy Bodycombe/ SolarAid

 

SolarAid is working with a number of local organizations in Mzuzu, in the north of Malawi. These partners include the Center for Appropriate Technology, which specializes in alternative approaches to technology for development, the St John of God Vocational Training Center, which has an excellent carpentry workshop for building wooden frames for the solar panels, and the Mzuzu Technical College, which will train solar entrepreneurs in sales and marketing. Charles is one of the microsolar staff at the Center for Appropriate Technology. "It's great working on these solar panels," he says. "They're easy to build and they can provide power to villages with no electricity."

Barely 2 percent of the rural population in Malawi has access to electricity. The other 98 percent relies on expensive kerosene for lighting, single-use batteries for radios and the occasional charging of their mobile phones amounting to 20 percent of their monthly income. One microsolar panel can answer all these needs, leading to major energy savings for rural households.

There's also a climate change angle. According to market research carried out by SolarAid in Malawi with TRAID funding, the average kerosene lamp creates around a ton of carbon over 10-14 years. There are probably around 1 -1.5 million kerosene lamps in Malawi, so replacing them with solar lanterns will lead to significant reductions in carbon emissions.

Dave and Carl are two volunteers working on this microsolar project. Just a few days ago they organized a meeting with all the key players in Mzuzu who are interested in being involved in microsolar. The feedback about their first visits to villages to demonstrate the panels was overwhelming: the villagers are really interested in buying the panels and lanterns as they can all see the energy savings, the health benefits and the educational benefits from having them.

Maxon Chitawo, from Mzuzu University's Department of Energy, is a specialist in renewable energy. He said that he thought the microsolar concept would soon take off across Mzuzu and the surrounding areas, so great is the need for safe and affordable energy.

Fiskani is SolarAid's local project coordinator. He's come up with a potential name for the microsolar panel: Mphamvu Ya Dzuma, which, in Chichewa, means "Power of the Sun" a fitting name for a pioneering new concept.

Nick Sireau is the Director of SolarAid, a non-profit organization that has set out to enable the world's poorest people to have clean, renewable power. Solar power leads to better education, health, safety and income by allowing poor communities to cook, pump water, run fridges, store vaccines, light homes, schools, clinics and businesses, and power computers, homes and farms more effectively. SolarAid is carrying out a large microsolar program in the northern region of Malawi. To learn more about SolarAid or to make a donation in support of one or all of these projects, visit the website at www.solar-aid.org.



OVER VIEW

Updated: 2003/07/28