Solar Home Systems in Africa Power Lights, Radios, Phones and Dignity

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On my recent trip to Africa, Jacqueline Novogratz, the CEO of the anti-poverty organization, Acumen,  shared something she’d heard from a woman in Pakistan…

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Off-grid solar home systems (SHS) consist of small boxes attached to a mini solar panel and a handful of lights at the end of long, thin wires. These boxes light up rooms, recharge phones, and recent models come with rechargeable flashlights and radios. And, as of mid-2017, some even include televisions. But describing these systems in terms of their functionality is like describing Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony in terms of frequencies and sound waves – a functional description entirely misses the deeper impact on people and their lives.

To understand what these devices really mean, we left the cities and ventured into remote, rural areas – places where the roads are more suitable for walking than driving. We visited people in their homes and were honored to learn about their lives. I’d like to share the stories of three people we met, Sarah, and two men both named Francis.

Sarah, a mother moving homes and taking her solar lights with her

As we walked towards Sarah’s house, I noticed some electric power poles a few hundred feet away. Little wires coming from tiny transformers the size of tissue boxes stretched out to nearby houses but Sarah’s home and most of her neighbors weren’t connected. We learned that only homes immediately next to power lines have the option of connecting to the grid.

Sarah welcomed us into her home. We sat on benches placed along the walls of a tiny, dirt-floor room. Sarah’s young daughter hovered nearby as we talked.

Sarah explained she didn’t own this house. It belonged to a friend and she and her children were staying here until their new home became available. Her previous home had grid access but she missed it less than she expected because her solar lighting system worked so well. In fact, she had been concerned how she’d pay the US$1,000+ connection fee to get her new home wired to the grid. But, now that she owned a solar home system, she’d simply take it with her and install it in her new house. 

While our visit was focused on lighting, it was Sarah’s perspectives and enthusiasm for her rechargeable solar radio that surprised me the most. She said the radio was her connection to the community outside of the small group of homes nearby. It was how she kept up with elections, weather reports, sports scores and everything else. It was her connection to the world. Those of us in the Western world are so connected all the time, we have the opposite problem – we get overloaded with information. But, for Sarah, the world outside her village was only reachable by hours of walking, expensive one-on-one mobile calls or a small box with a speaker and antenna.

Francis, a man rebuilding his life one mobile phone charge at a time

With tattered pants and shirt, Francis seemed like a man whose life had been even harder than the hard place he lived. As he invited us to sit on the chairs inside his house, he began his story by explaining that he hadn’t always been like this. He told us he’d made some mistakes and his family no longer lived with him. He said that he was getting his life back together and that the solar home system was helping.

You could see the soot on his ceiling from the kerosene lamp he’d used for years. He said that when his children lived with him, the smoke caused some breathing issues for them. It sounded like he hoped to have children in his house again one day and he hoped it would be a better place for them without the kerosene light. Francis told us that he used to walk for hours to get his phone charged but only those times when he could afford the 10 cent fee.

The solar home system had not only replaced his kerosene lantern but it also let him charge his phone in his own house. It was clear that this was a big source of pride for him. But life was still hard. He said he is usually able to afford the daily payments on his solar light but there were times he had to go without. He knows that if he can make enough payments, he’ll eventually own it outright and then his light and charging will be free.

We asked him what he wanted next. His answer was definitive. Francis wants a television to add to his solar home system. These days, if he wants to watch a game, he has to invite himself to a neighbor’s house. You could see the discomfort of this in his face. He told us that if he had a TV, then he could invite his neighbors to his house. He said that would make him a proud man.

Francis said that the lady friend of his lives nearby and that she sometimes visits him to get her phone charged. He never asks her to pay for it. I think he fancies her.

 

Francis, a farmer helping his children make the most of their education

Yes, we met a second man named Francis. When we walked into his yard, Francis was waiting for us, standing tall. As we approached, he covered his head with a baseball cap and reached out a hand to welcome us. As I shook it, I couldn’t help but notice his fingers were bent at different angles. He struck me as a man that had spent his life working very hard.

His story was like so many others. An affordable and safe sourece of light had changed the opportunities for his family. He explained that many times during the year, the farm required all of his family, including the children, to help out. After a day of school and farming, the light meant the children could study into the night and avoid falling behind on their school work.

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The families we visited were incredibly gracious to bring us into their homes. We left each family with a solar lantern and some tea to say thank you for telling us their stories.

Solar means dignity

Our visits with Sarah, Francis, and Francis (as well as others I’ll describe in future blogs) taught us some powerful lessons about solar home systems: lighting really means education, phone chargers mean fewer hours of walking, and radios mean connecting with broader communities and the world. Off-grid electric systems aren’t about electricity – they are about better lives.

After I reflected on all the people we met, I realized off-grid solar home systems are ultimately about dignity.

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