Alleviating Light Poverty One Solar Light at a Time

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TACOMA, Washington — Today, 1.3 billion people still live without electric light. Light poverty is defined as one’s limited access to artificial light. Those in light poverty seek non-electric lighting methods, including kerosene, candles and flashlights with disposable batteries. These alternatives present alarming drawbacks apart from inconvenience. The open flame and soot from kerosene lamps cause 1.5 million deaths annually. Light poverty is an imperative issue in need of global action.

Let There Be Light International and Unite to Light are two organizations using an innovative approach to alleviate global poverty. These two companies bring solar lights to underserved communities to combat light poverty. The Borgen Project spoke with Sara Baird, Executive Director of Let There Be Light International, and Megan Birney, President and CEO of Unite to Light.

Combatting Kerosene

Let There Be Light International’s works sites in Africa are a focus for Sara Baird. In these areas, people face the damaging repercussions of using open-flame light sources, such as kerosene lamps. “Where malaria is endemic, people don’t use bed nets when they’re using open flame lighting sources,” Baird said. “There’s about 20 to 30% of people in these communities who won’t use a bed net. Frequently, we hear from people who say, ‘Well, I’d much rather have malaria again than a house fire.’” With the distribution of solar lights, Let There Be Light International has reduced the risks of fires and burns. Only 10% of households where the nonprofit works have had a house fire due to open flame.

Additionally, burning kerosene has further environmental consequences, such as black carbon. Black carbon produces as much global warming in one month that 700 kilograms of carbon dioxide does in a century. Around 7% to 9% of the kerosene in wick lamps converts to black carbon in comparison to a 1% black carbon emission from burning wood.

Where Light Needs to Shine

Kerosene is an issue of poverty as it’s a costly endeavor. Those in off-grid areas make up only 0.1% of the illumination in the world. However, these areas account for 20% of spending for lighting — equaling $40 billion — due to inefficient energy sources. Without electric light, impoverished families spend half of their income to fuel these lamps. “[The solar lights] cost about $15 for us to purchase the light in bulk,” Baird said. “It will save a typical family about $150 in kerosene costs over the three-year life span of the light. We like to say there’s a 10 times return on charitable investment.”

The adverse effects of kerosene lamps disproportionately affect women and children. Widespread use of solar lights would improve living conditions for women and children as well as other marginalized groups. “We’re now tracking [if women are]able to make more decisions in the household around food purchases and school fees,” Baird said. “When they’re saving all this money, which the woman is directly responsible for, … it’s almost always going to food, medicine and school fees. So, there’s a whole lot of impact that goes beyond health and safety. [It goes] to education, economic stability and women’s empowerment, which is pretty exciting.”

Electrifying Help

Let There Be Light International has brought solar energy to the homes and clinics of more than 725,000 people in off-grid areas in Uganda, Malawi and Kenya. To date, the organization has distributed 17,125 solar lights with the help of nine partners in each of the African communities.

The organization also launched Safe Births and Safety Homes in 2019 after a district health minister stated that 70% of births in the community occurred without a trained midwife. “Their numbers of maternal mortality … were incredibly high,” Baird said. “The idea behind Safe Births and Healthy Homes is to electrify the clinics and teach the health workers in the community about the importance of delivering at the clinic. And we incentivize the women to go to clinics by giving them a safe solar light to take home.” The program has now expanded to four clinics and was recognized this summer in the U.N.’s high-level political forum.

When the pandemic hit, the organization shifted focus to only electrifying clinics, as per the request of health ministers. “We pivoted from 5,000 lights we were expecting to donate this year to 3,800. But, instead of eight clinics, we’re doing 12, and possibly 13,” Baird said. “COVID has given us the opportunity to amplify our health clinic electrifications. [It has also helped] ramp up Safe Births and Healthy Homes.”

Unite to Light

Unite to Light is another organization with a similar goal and strategy. It uses solar lights to tackle poverty while focusing primarily on three areas: education, health and disaster response. The health program is broken into two. The first strategy is working with nurses and midwives to advance maternal health. The second is working locally to help those experiencing homelessness.

Since 2011, the first year that Unite to Light began distributing, it has distributed 130,000 lights and chargers, according to Birney. The organization works with organizations in 78 different countries. Birney said that most solar lights are available around the world for around $10. These lights can have a strong impact on the families using them “between graduating from high school or having a safe birth or even getting some hope in times of disaster.”

The organization distributes both solar lights and solar power banks to communities in need. The power banks greatly assist in providing healthcare by charging small electronics, such as blood pressure monitors. “We see our little light as a very small piece of a bigger picture,” Birney said. “We like to say that it’s one of the tools that people use to pull themselves out of poverty.”

Lighting Up the Future

“When I started out in 2014, there were 1.2 billion people without access to electricity. And today, only six years later, there’s 860 million,” Baird said. “Some of the really poor people in the really remote areas are the hardest to reach, so that’s where we’re committed to staying as long as we need to.” Let There Be Light International and Unite To Light have made steady strides in the fight to end global poverty through the avenue of tackling light poverty. These organizations are truly bringing light to the world.

Mizuki Kai
Photo: Flickr

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