Science in Society Archive

Lighting Africa

Solar power is making rapid headway in many African countries and women are the leading light Dr. Mae-Wan Ho

Women solar engineers in Malawi

Women solar engineers in Malawi

Seven solar engineers from remote villages of Malawi in Africa have won the Best Electrification Africa Award in 2010 [1]. The Centre for Community Organisation and Development (CCODE) working in rural Malawi selected seven semi-literate women from Chimonjo and Chitala villages in Salima district; Kaphuka village in Dedza district; and Makunganya village in Zomba district, and sent them to the Barefoot College in India (see Box), where they were trained as “solar engineers” for six months [2].

On returning to their villages, they

  • Installed 316 standalone household solar energy systems in village households and continue offering technical support to these households
  • Facilitated the establishment and construction of four rural electronic workshops, one in each of the four villages, which were also installed with standalone solar energy systems
  • Established a fund in each of the four villages for the maintenance of the solar energy systems

The story of these seven women is not unique. It is happening in other parts of Africa, and the lives of the rural poor are being rapidly transformed as a result.

Light after dark in Kenya

The villagers of Olando and Got Kaliech in rural south-western Kenya are experiencing light after dark without having to light their oil lamps, thanks to Phoebe Jondiko, Joyce Matunga and Phoebe Akinyi, the three solar “women engineers” who have switched on their solar lights and are aiming to lighting up more villages in the remote Gwassi Division of Suba District [3].

Solar energy has is plentiful, but has remained untapped in Kenya mainly because solar kits have been too expensive. But the Kenyan government has lowered the import tariffs on solar kits, making it more affordable.  In June 2010, the import tariffs were completely eliminated and the VAT reduced from 26 to 16 percent; by November 2010 the government issued a new directive requiring solar panels to be installed in new homes [4].

Victor Ndiege is the project manager of Green Forest Social Investment Trust (GFSIT), a Kisumu-based non-governmental organization (NGO) with a mission to empower women in rural areas through the provision of renewable energy, easing domestic chores, especially when night falls, and helping village women develop income generating activities.

Research conducted by GFSIT found that women spend between Kenya Shillings (Kes) 850 and 1 200 (US $10 to $15) every month on lighting alone. The women use various sources such as paraffin and firewood to light up their homes after dark and to cook food.

“This has negative effects on the environment as they have to cut down trees for firewood, while paraffin poses health risks to the women and their families on inhalation of the harmful fumes from paraffin lamps,” said Ndiege.

They identified solar energy as the most appropriate replacement, and partnered with the Barefoot College in India, which trains illiterate and semi-illiterate rural people to fabricate, install and maintain solar lighting systems in the villages.

 The women did indeed acquired vital solar engineering skills that they are currently applying in Olando and Got Kaliech. The Village Solar Committees (VSCs) see to it that villagers will contribute between Kes 500 and 800 (US $7 to 10) in monthly subscriptions from each household to keep the programme running.

The village women have also installed a posho mill powered by solar energy to generate some income for the women groups and a small workshop where local youth can gain skills and earn some money while supporting the village solar programme.

The GFSIT is importing a new batch of solar kits from India to be installed in other villages within Gwassi Division.

The Barefoot College [2]

The Barefoot College based in Tilonian of Ajmer District
in Rajasthan, India, has been pioneering solar electrification in rural, remote
villages, since 1989

The Barefoot College based in Tilonian of Ajmer District in Rajasthan, India, has been pioneering solar electrification in rural, remote villages, since 1989. Its mission is to “demystify” and “decentralize” solar technology by making it available to poor and neglected communities, by placing the fabrication, installation, usage, repair and maintenance of sophisticated solar lighting units in the hands of rural, illiterate and semi-literate men and women.

Only villages that are inaccessible, remote and non-electrified are considered for solar electrification. In the initial meeting, members of the community are told about solar lighting and its benefits. If villagers decide they want solar lighting, a Village Environment Energy Committee (VEEC) is formed, consisting of elders, both men and women. The VEEC consults with the entire village community and identifies households that are interested in acquiring solar lighting units. Every household that wants to obtain solar lighting must pay a contribution each month, irrespective of how poor they are, so even the poorest can feel a sense of ownership towards their unit and take care of it. The monthly fee to be paid by each electrified household is determined by how much each family spends on kerosene, candles, torch batteries and wood for lighting every month. The VEEC is also responsible for making sure that the Barefoot Solar Engineers (see below) install, repair and maintain all the solar units properly and are paid their stipend on time.

As part of the decentralization and demystification process, the College trains a few members of the community to be ‘barefoot solar engineers’ (BSEs), who will install, repair and maintain solar lighting units for a period of five years at least, as well as set up a ‘Rural Electronic Workshop’ where components and equipment needed for the repair and maintenance of solar units will be stored.

The village must agree, in writing, to build or donate a building for the Rural Electronic Workshop (REW), select the BSEs and allow them to go to India for six months for training. The village must also identify the individuals who will be responsible for collecting the monthly household subscriptions. This way the entire rural community can take part in solar electrification and control and manage it together.

A percentage of the total contribution pays for a monthly stipend to every BSE; the rest covers the costs of components and spare parts used during repair. The batteries used in solar lighting units need to be replaced every five to ten years. Households that wish to replace their battery through the organization need to pay an amount in advance which will be collectively deposited in a bank, where it will gain interest for five to ten years. Once the fixed deposit matures, the amount is used to buy new batteries. However, if this amount falls short for the purchase of all the batteries needed then the villagers need to pay the balance.

The Barefoot College first embraced solar technology at Tilonia in 1984. What began as a small experimental project to electrify a community health centre with a mini-plant of 145W, has grown to become the first and only fully solar electrified campus in rural India.
With 45 kilowatt of solar modules and 5 battery banks, power is provided for the 500 lights, fans, a photocopying machine, more than 20 computers and printers, that work in a hospital and pathology lab, a library, a marketing centre for selling handicrafts, a centre for training illiterate rural men and women to solar electrify their own villages, a traditional media centre holding puppet shows, and a communication centre including screen printing, film editing and audio-visual facilities, a phone booth, and a milk booth. What makes this unique is that the installation of all these modules and applications were carried out by barefoot solar engineers who have never been through more than 10 years of rural schooling.

In a span of 25 years, the College has helped to generate solar energy with a total capacity of 819.88KWp (Kilowatt peak), electrifying villages across 16 states of India and 17 countries in Asia, Africa and South America. The College aims to provide sustainable sources of alternative energy at the grassroot level for cooking (parabolic solar cookers), lighting (solar lighting), heating (solar water heaters) and motive power (biomass gasifiers and micro-hydroelectric).

Lighting up Africa

Phoebe Jondiko said that the solar project is a welcome relief for the rural folks in her village because its remote location and hilly terrain make it difficult to access energy from the national grid system under the Kenyan government-led rural electrification program (REP) [4].

Currently, only 20 percent of Kenyan households are connected to the national grid. Patrick Nyoike, the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Energy, said it is virtually impossible to connect every Kenyan household to the national grid system by 2030 due to the huge capital investments needed. The Rural Electrification Authority (REA), the government agency mandated to connect rural areas to the national grid, has so far spent more than $552 million over the last four decades in the programme. The scattered nature of rural settlements makes grid connection unattainable in the near future.

Zachary Ayieko, the CEO of REA, said solar energy offers a huge power potential for the nation as solar energy in Kenya could potentially generate up to three times the current daily national grid requirements. The REA has entered into a partnership with the International Finance Corporation to spearhead a new initiative called “Lighting Africa” (see Box). This ambitious project is currently running on a pilot basis in Kenya and Ghana, with a view to lighting up more than 2.5 million households in the next two years and an estimated 250 million households across Africa.

Though the initial costs of a solar kit are high compared to kerosene lamps, the overall cost of the solar kits is lower because there are no operational costs.

“Prices range between $10 and $93 for the solar kits depending on their capacity as compared to the monthly average of $10 spent by each household on kerosene,” said Arthur Itote, the project manager at the Lighting Africa Private Enterprise Partnership for Africa (LAPEPA).

In order to make the solar kits readily available and affordable to the rural poor, LAPEPA is working on starting a microfinance business model that will allow poor village folks make small payments over time until they have fully paid off the kits.

Joyce Matunga said that the solar energy kits can also be used to power irrigation pumps, which would be a big step forward as the farm produce would then generate income for poor households and the ripple effects across the villages will be poverty alleviation as a long-term benefit.

Solar power is set to explode in Kenya. Kenya is the regional International Communication Technology hub [4]; the Kenya Data Networks (KDN), a Nairobi-based internet service provider, has plans to build the first ever solar powered data centre in Nairobi, the only one of its kind in Africa. Building costs are estimated around Kes 600 million (US$ 7.5 million). According to CEO Kai Wulff, KDN is also planning to use solar energy to power most of its digital villages spread in remote parts of the country under the Green Solar Power initiative. Wulff said that the initiative will be a two-pronged project that will take technology closer to the village folks through the provision of fast and cheap internet connections, while at the same time, providing cheap power to power the rural ICT centres.

Lighting Africa [6]

Lighting Africa (LA) is a joint World Bank and International Finance Corporation (private arm of World Bank) programme that aims to help develop commercial off-grid lighting markets in Sub-Saharan Africa as part of the World Bank Group’s wider efforts to improve access to energy. Lighting Africa is mobilizing the private sector to build sustainable markets to provide safe, affordable, and modern off-grid lighting to 2.5 million people in Africa by 2012 and to 250 million people by 2030.

Lighting Africa has piloted its approach in Kenya and Ghana and is now expanding its activities to Tanzania, Ethiopia, Senegal and Mali

It lowers market entry barriers of the off-grid lighting market at every step, from the design of lighting products, to their commercial production and distribution. The programme works with manufacturers of lighting products, distributors, consumers, financial institutions and governments to build a lasting market for reliable, practical and affordablelighting products.

Lighting Africa developed a quality assurance programme that supports market development, provides technical advisory services to quality oriented companies, and protects the interests of low-income consumers. It provides product testing and performance verification.

LA provides market information and carries out market research for industry, and helps obtain finance and investments for manufacturers.

LA is active in consumer education. Its education campaign currently targets 13.5 million people in rural Kenya, both households and small businesses, and teaches them how switching from fuel-based lighting to modern solar lighting can improve their health, reduce spending on expensive fuels, and provide better illumination and more productive time in their homes, schools and businesses. The campaign also helps consumers become discerning buyers and be able to distinguish between substandard products and good quality lamps. It has organized 66 forums to date in small rural towns to help rural populations improve the ways they light their homes and businesses. The road-shows attract crowds of 300-500 people every evening, and are “packed with trivia, dance shows and a chance to see and test out the solar lights.” A similar consumer education campaign is set to start soon in Ghana.

LA also provides advice to governments and policy-makers and has run national, regional and pan-African workshops.

Will Africa Light Up?

According to Daniel Kammen, Chief Technical Specialist for Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency at the World Bank, lighting is often the most expensive item in the household budget of Africa’s poorest families, typically accounting for 10–15 percent of total household income. Fishermen on Lake Victoria in Kenya, for example, often spend half their income for the kerosene they use to fish at night. The energy poor in Africa spend about US$17 billion a year on fuel-based lighting. Worldwide spending on fuel-based lighting in developing countries is $38 billion a year [7].

Kenya has one of the largest and most dynamic per capita solar PV markets among developing countries, Kammen said, with over 300 000 households having installed solar PV systems since the mid-1980s. Since 2000, annual sales for these systems have regularly topped 15 percent, and account for roughly 75 percent of all solar equipment sales in the country.

“The rapid spread of this off-grid green energy solution in a low-income country is all the more remarkable as it is propelled by unsubsidized market demand.” Kammen said. “With Kenya’s electricity grid largely dependent on expensive hydropower, only 5.2 percent of rural households use electricity, and most of these are relatively well-to-do.”

It is clear that the potential market for off grid solar energy is huge, not to mention the associated storage batteries, and electronic lighting and communication devices.

Grassroots non-government organisations have taken much of the initiative in getting off grid solar energy systems to rural communities that essentially runs on a cooperative subscription devised by the Barefoot College in India, which also offered crucial training. The Kenyan government has acted promptly to ease financial barriers, while the investment banks are set to provide added momentum, and hopefully other missing ingredients, such as microfinance, quality assurance, and support for the private sector.

The tipping point for solar lanterns

According to Lighting Africa, the African market for off-grid lighting products is projected to grow at 40 to 50 percent annually, with 5-6 million African households owning portable lights (primarily solar) by 2015 [8]. In 2010 alone, the sales of solar portable lanterns that have passed Lighting Africa’s quality tests grew by 70 percent in Africa, resulting in more than 672 000 people with cleaner, safer, reliable lighting and improved energy access.

The market for off-grid lighting was initially supported by donor-led initiatives, characterized by high unit costs and products that were not suited to the needs of African consumers. Today, the market is driven by the private sector with innovative business models, unique marketing strategies, and products tailored to meet consumer demand.

The new-generation lamps offer features that consumers are demanding, such as cell phone chargers. The prices of light-emitting diodes (LEDs), solar components, and batteries have also fallen sharply over the five past years. As a result, off-grid products are more affordable for low-income households.

For African consumers, the up-front cost of solar portable lanterns can be prohibitive. A rural, off-grid household in Kenya typically spends between 20 and 50 Kenyan shillings (US$0.25-0.63) a day on kerosene – but would be hard put to find the 2 000 Kenyan shillings ($24.60) needed for a quality portable solar lantern. In several African countries, distributors are partnering with savings and credit cooperative societies to provide loans to consumers for purchasing a solar portable lamp. The project: “Developing a Delivery Model to Support Consumer Financing Schemes for Solar Powered Lighting Systems”, implemented in Kenya from November 2008 to June 2010, was a winner of the Lighting Africa Development Marketplace Competition, which provides seed funding for innovation in off-grid lighting product development.

African governments are looking at clean, off-grid lighting as an interim measure for rural communities not yet connected to power grids. Lighting Africa has signed memoranda of understanding with the governments of Mali, Senegal, and Ethiopia to support their work in increasing access to lightning for rural populations.

Microfinance institutions and banks are starting to see the potential of the clean, off-grid lighting market in Africa. Lighting Africa predicts that by 2015, some 65 million in Africa could have portable solar lighting. It is working with banks to develop a risk-sharing facility for distributors. Over the past six months, Faulu - a leading Kenyan microfinance institution working with Lighting Africa - has begun to provide loans to rural households to buy solar portable lanterns.

Article first published 06/04/11


  1. “Malawi: Barefoot solar engineers win Best African Electrification award”, Victor Kaonga, 18 May 2010,
  2. “Women “solar engineers” in Malawi villages”, Clement Nyirena blogworld, 26 February 2010,
  3. “Kenyan women light up villages with solar power”, Denis Gathanju, 13 July 2010,
  4. “Kenya requires solar panels in new homes”, Gitonga Njeru, AlertNet, 3 November 2010,
  5. The Barefoot College,
  6. Lighting Africa,
  7. “Kenya steps ahead into solar future”, Daniel Kammen,, 17 Janurary 2011,
  8. The tipping point – how the African market for off-grid lighting products is taking off. Light Africa, accessed 3 April 2011,

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There are 9 comments on this article so far. Add your comment above.

Margaret Mbogoh Comment left 9th April 2011 19:07:18
We, the Kenya Women's Chamber of Commerce, are greatly encouraged by the development of new lighting systems in the Third World and are looking forward to getting involved in lighting projects in Eastern and North Eastern Provinces of Kenya. How can we get the solar kits and training for pioneers?

Mae-Wan Ho Comment left 9th April 2011 20:08:34
Margaret Mbogoh, please contact the Barefoot college in India. Their website address:

Todd Millions Comment left 13th April 2011 18:06:09
Do these Imf efforts include recycle deposits for the batteries?An oft overlooked part of being on the far end of the supply pole is how easy it is too pocket the recycling fees or depsots and toss the easily recycled/reused lead or cadium batteries in a ditch.When this is spread over a wide enough area,its very easy for this too be ignored.So relying on the bush techs too collect and insure(as in watch)this being done-despite it being a much bigger deal for them to do this than the urban idiot cousins(with the MBA's) hired too do this job is vital. How much understanding are these engineers given with load shift strategies as in reduce battery draw as much as possible by a proirty strategy on loads?ei-1st-charge batteries,2nd-loads that can wait till batteris are charged and panel power alone is available(ei-water pumping with storage tanks,fans frezzers ect.).These approaches can cut both capital and operating expences in more than half in my experince-but all power when I want(not need)it,is a compelling status symbol.Not just to men it may shock you too know.

jacob mwangi w Comment left 27th July 2011 19:07:22
how can i get into your shop in Nairobi

Mae-Wan Ho Comment left 27th July 2011 20:08:08
Jacob Mwangi, if you mean Lighting Africa, here is the contact:Lighting Africa IFC, CBA building, 4th Floor, Upper Hill, Mara/Ragati Road P.O. Box 30577-00100 Nairobi, Kenya Tel: +254 20 275 92 00 If you mean ISIS, we do not have a shop in Nairobi. You can obtain our books and other publications via our online bookstore here: If you really cannot afford to pay for subscription, you can apply to us for a free membership, which would allow you electronic access to hundreds of referenced papers plus the magazine Science in Society.

Oltukai Ogecha Comment left 4th September 2011 02:02:34
Solar energy is a welcome idea in Africa, especially this time when the continent is experiencing a myriad of problems like power blackouts amid expansion of ICT, unemployment, thuggery at night, inflation and night runners among others.

Gavin Ma Comment left 28th November 2011 22:10:56
Our goal is win-to-win. My company focus on developing and manufacturing solar lantern, solar panel, solar power system etc. Recently, my company, Qingdao Sunflare New Energy CO,. Ltd., China, set a new product line, which can make the product under higher quality production system and let price low to $4.5/unit to achieve the goal to protect the environment and make our win-to-win better. If you are interested in any solar products, please let me know. Msn: Email: Many thanks Gavin Ma

Mitiku Comment left 2nd September 2013 21:09:46
Hi sir or madm how are you ? I am from ethiopia I never heard about LA (lighting africa). How can I get certificate of lighting africa it is top irgent

Victor Ndiege Comment left 29th March 2014 17:05:25
Great revolution to light Kenya and other parts of Africa and support households reduce expenses on lighting and health risks associated with use of paraffin for lighting, more so is to model the revolution to offer self employment to village women just like the women para engineers in God Liech and Olando Villages in Homa bay County Kenya. At this point up to 490 households have benefit from this programme and more households still demand the product. There is limited capital to isnvest in adjacent villages, this should be a wake call to the various County Government to support women and entire households through such initiatives. Looking forward for a brighter Africa.