In March this year SolarAid celebrated one million solar lights in Africa and whilst there is still much to do, I used this milestone to take a moment to look back and reflect. 13 years ago I was living in rural Tanzania. Uhomini village was my first experience of Africa and I lived next door to a family of six, who lived in a very basic, two roomed house which was always full of children. One of those children was a small boy called Festo, who came to visit me every day for months on end – you can see him pictured with his cousin opposite.
Festo (left) wearing my hiking boots in Uhomini village, rural Tanzania in 2001
It was in Festo’s home that I became all too familiar with the kerosene lamp, the dangers of burning these lights in small houses with children around and the poor quality of lighting they provided. Not to mention the distance villagers had to travel each time they needed to buy another litre – for it wasn’t sold in the village itself.
When I left Uhomini, Festo was a small boy of 4. As I walked away from the village it struck me that while the rest of the world was changing quickly, the kerosene lamp in his house would remain. When I returned to visit his family a few years later, it was just as I had suspected. Festo was growing up and now at school, but the kerosene lamp was still burning. I asked myself, would this be any different if I came back in another few years? What about in ten, or fifty years?
It was the answer to that question that spurred the beginnings of SolarAid, and it was an answer that I couldn’t accept. With the belief that no one should have to risk their life or drain their income to light their home at night we got to work. This belief has driven us to where we are and it is still what motivates me today. Our social enterprise SunnyMoney is building a sustainable solution to eradicating the kerosene lamp, by making solar lights available and affordable in rural communities across Africa.
It took over six years to sell our first million solar lights, but we intend to achieve the next million in just 12 months. It’s important to me that we do not let these numbers lose their meaning and I can’t help but think back and wonder: what is lighting Festo’s home today? I haven’t visited Uhomini since 2009 so I don’t know the answer, but I know there’s still work to be done, with over 110 million households living without electricity across Africa. That translates to alot of children just like Festo.
Revisiting Festo and Uhomini village in 2009
If we want to achieve our goal we need to grow, and fast. So my job over the coming years is to take our work into new countries, and next on the list is Uganda. Known as the Pearl of Africa, it is a beautiful country with plenty of sunshine ready to be harnessed into clean energy. Currently, only 4% of the rural population have access to electricity, with many families spending up to 25% of their income just to light their home.
Breaking this cycle of poverty is a huge challenge but our solar customers save $70 a year on average. Our research shows that they mostly invest this in better food, costs of education and improving their livelihoods. So it is easy to see how one little light could have a phenomenal impact on the lives of families in rural Uganda.
As I look back on my time in the village of Uhomini and wonder what Festo uses to light his homework at night, I am also looking ahead to a time when no family in Africa has to depend on kerosene. It is, afterall, the 21st century.
You can find out more about our work at www.solar-aid.org