For the millions of people in sub-Saharan Africa who lack access to electric lighting, sunset brings almost enveloping darkness. But Light Libraries is a hands-on, solar-powered program that ends the darkness at a price students can afford. photo magazine sat down with Sofia Ollvid of SolarAid to discuss how these libraries work.

From ISSUE 07 – 2022.

For the more than 600 million people in sub-Saharan Africa who lack access to electricity and lighting, the day is cut short when the sun goes down. Can sunlight libraries start to change that?

Yes I think so. Solar lights are an affordable, clean, and safe solution for people who don’t have access to light after the sun goes down. Our program, Light Libraries, is designed to increase access to solar lights in rural communities for students from households that struggle to afford a light. The program is built on the idea of ​​giving students the ability to access solar light through their school. Students are already reporting better grades.

We encourage more organizations to adopt and replicate this model to help reach more people. That’s why we’re excited to release a new open-source Solar Light Library toolkit, free to download. The toolkit allows schools and development actors to create their own solar light library. As a sector, we must step up our efforts if we are to achieve universal access to electricity. It is only through sharing, collaboration and partnership that we will achieve our goals.

How do light libraries work? Have there been any changes on the technology side?

Solar lights have become increasingly affordable over the past 15 years, with prices dropping from over $30 to just $5. This was made possible by increased efficiency and reduced cost of key components, namely LEDs, solar panels and rechargeable lithium batteries.

However, for the poorest families, even the most affordable solar lamp remains out of reach. Many children are forced to use open flames or poisonous kerosene just to study. With this in mind, we created Light Libraries in 2019. It works like a library of books. For as little as a penny a day, far less than families spend on candles, kerosene or batteries, students can borrow a solar lamp. Each Light Library school is also equipped with a solar system to light up the classrooms.

This gives students an immediate safe light for studying in the evening, but it also works as a “try before you buy” model for everyone, it builds trust in solar products and ultimately puts solar customers on the top step of the market. energy scale. .

With more light hours in the day, teachers report a great improvement in student progress. But does cheap access to lighting help families at all levels?

Yes. When we talk to students who have borrowed a solar lamp, they tell us that after they do their homework, their parents also use the light for household chores. Some students told us that their siblings, who may attend schools that don’t yet have a lighted library, also use the light for their homework.

Access to solar lights benefits the whole family and it means they suddenly spend less on other sources of light which can be expensive and often dangerous, such as candles or toxic kerosene – which also contributes to the pollution of indoor air.

Affordability has long been the main obstacle. Has this pressure eased? What are the main obstacles to the diffusion of solar lamps?

While lights are more affordable than ever, with millions of households now having access to solar lights, price remains a barrier for many low-income households. There is a limit to whom the market can serve and who still cannot afford it. Additionally, it is not profitable for many businesses to operate at scale in low-income communities, resulting in a barrier to access and availability.

This is where our social enterprise SunnyMoney comes in. Through our social enterprise, we are able to provide lights to last mile rural communities that the traditional market does not reach. Through our programs, we strive to ensure that we are able to reach everyone within these communities.

Sunlight Librarians are teachers, students, or parent-teacher association members, they do not receive commission from Sunlight Libraries. However, a portion of the revenue from Light Libraries goes to the local school. Additionally, each light library is paired with a “rent-to-own” model that allows the student to own a light, this happens through our local solar contractors, who earn income from it.

SolarAid is active in several countries. What is your footprint today and will it expand?

We have sold over 2.2 million solar lights in Malawi, Zambia, Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya and Senegal. We are currently penetrating deep into Malawi and Zambia, while developing partnerships in Senegal and exploring a partnership in Madagascar. We plan to focus on countries where the challenge of access to electricity is most acute and where we can add the greatest value to local partner NGOs and solar companies.

SolarAid is also developing a Powering Healthcare program, bringing plug-and-play solar systems to healthcare facilities without reliable electricity. How is this program going?

Over the past 12 months, we have powered more than 30 healthcare facilities with solar lighting and portable medical equipment and we are already seeing a big impact and improvement in the quality of care delivered. It was amazing to hear the testimonials from patients and healthcare professionals. Women who no longer have to worry about giving birth in total darkness, or medical professionals forced to perform life-threatening procedures by candlelight. The early impact of our monitoring and evaluation work shows that almost all (97%) health staff and patients (93%) in clinics in Zambia say the quality of care has improved as a result of the solar-powered equipment – it’s really fantastic. We are now continuing to work with health authorities in Malawi and Zambia to expand access.

What type of reception does solar energy receive in the rural communities in which SolarAid works?

In general, people in the rural communities in which we work have some knowledge of the existence of solar energy, but there is a lack of trust in the product and understanding of how it works. Normally, when we are just starting to work in communities, we work to build trust in the product. Normally, after a few months of working in the region, we notice a difference and we can start to establish strong links between our social enterprise and the community.

How can people donate to SolarAid and where will the money go?

There are many ways to get involved with SolarAid and be part of our mission to bring more safe and renewable light to sub-Saharan Africa. People can either contact us on social media (@solaraid), visit our website (solar-aid.org) or get in touch with our supporter engagement team to find out how to donate.

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