Already acquainted with the community of Nambeg in Ghana’s Upper West region, we sought their help with evolution of the lighting system. In June 2007, we stood with them under a mango tree and watched, exalted and humbled, as everyone exuberantly voted to collaborate with us. With the delivery of three very rudimentary LED lanterns supported by an equally rudimentary shared charging station, comprising a solar panel and a car battery, we took our first steps towards a solar-powered community lighting service. Users drop off their lanterns in the morning and pick them up charged in the afternoon.
So started the long journey of what it really means to light up the middle of nowhere—a much more difficult path than we ever envisaged. We asked the Nambeg community to use the lanterns, provide feedback and pass them on to their neighbors. We imagined control of the light intensity would be appreciated—the men liked twiddling the knob, the women said keep it simple—a high and a low setting—we took the women’s advice. Nambeg, a community of potters, built lantern housings from clay, more durable than our sustainable bamboo—a valuable lesson in materials usage.
How does the financing work? Someone somewhere needs to purchase the components and the end-user has to pay the real price—with perhaps a subsidized rate of interest. Homer Atkins, in The Ugly American, said “whenever you give a man something for nothing the first person he comes to dislike is you.” (W. J. Lederer and E. Burdick (1958), The Ugly American, New York, Norton) Users pay an initial deposit of approximately 4USD followed by a monthly charging fee of about 2USD to clear the capital cost. Without the advantages of bulk purchase, the cost of an installed eighty lantern system is 30USD per lantern—allowing compensation for those who assemble, install and operate the system.
In the less-industrialized world, ventures such as SociaLite traditionally start in the capital city, home to the NGOs and international agencies, diffusing outwards through a slow and expensive process with uncertain outcomes. Our intention is to reverse the flow—start in the middle of nowhere and propagate to the cities where intermittent electricity supplies create a large demand for rechargeable lanterns. With seven lighting systems in six communities in northern Ghana and Rwanda—we have sat transfixed listening to stories that perfectly illustrate the social meaning of light. Stories about finding lost goats, tending sick kids, avoiding snakes and extending the day for kids to read and do homework. We have learned that the acquisition of light is transformational in ways which those of us with light cannot begin to imagine.
The technological and operational aspects of SociaLite have been proven—an engineering methodology and a philosophy for a robust lighting service created to address specifically the needs of the extreme rural poor: a self-sustaining system designed for manufacture close to the point of use, affordable at real cost, and easily operated and maintained. SociaLite systems have been built, installed and operated by people with no prior exposure to this type of technology; community interaction, including a sense of ownership and shared responsibility, has increased through the delivery and collection of lanterns. Charging stations are operated correctly, deposits and charging fees have been collected.
We thought the lessons to be learned would be straightforward and comprehensible but a successful philosophy is one thing and full cultural adoption another. We continue to encounter situations that are incomprehensible to us. We have learnt that making something work in remote, rural communities is very hard, that there is more to learn than we ever imagined.
Bringing light to the poorest of the poor is almost on the global radar. In passing H.R. 2548, the Electrify Africa Act of 2014, the US Congress acknowledged that women are disproportionately affected by a lack of access to electricity and that improved lighting options greatly contribute to better educational outcomes. International organizations, local and state governments are now beginning to accept that access to a clean light source should be a human right in the 21st century. With this acceptance comes an acknowledgement that carefully considered subsidies are needed to provide affordable lighting systems.
The social change that accompanies the acquisition of a good, clean light source is transformational—it enables the poorest of the poor to comprehend that they can be self-deterministic, that their children can be educated and that they have the means to break the intergenerational cycle of poverty. With light there is less incentive to leave the rural areas, the breadbaskets of the world. The simple impact of light is perhaps best summarized by an old lady in Baayiri, Ghana, who told us that ever since acquiring her lantern she sleeps peacefully at night. When she goes to bed, she puts the lantern on the low setting. If she wakes up she can easily scan the surroundings and, knowing that all is well, go back to sleep.