On a continent where more than half the population lives off-the-grid, many African villagers can neither afford nor acquire simple solar lamps. Instead, they have to rely on dangerous kerosene products to light their homes. Five young men behind a new social enterprise hope their modular solar lamp can offer this remote clientele an affordable and healthy alternative.
"When I talk to people about solar, when I show people solar lamps, they get so excited that it's unreal," says 25-year-old Adam Camenzuli, an Ontarian and one of five behind KARIBU Solar Power. "I can really see the amount of impact that we can have by giving people the choice ... the opportunity to choose between kerosene and solar, because right now that choice doesn't exist in an affordable way."
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About 590 million Africans live without an electrical connection, according to the International Energy Agency's most recent numbers.
The problem with kerosene
The majority of these people rely on kerosene lamps to light their homes or businesses.
Most Tanzanians, Kenyans and Ghanians own kerosene lamps, according to a 2011 study on off-grid lighting in sub-Saharan Africa by Lighting Africa, a program run by the World Bank and the International Finance Corporation to improve access to energy.
A Tanzanian villager will walk to a store and buy a small amount of kerosene to run their lamp that day, explains Sameer Gulamani, another Ontarian and a director of KARIBU. The next day, when their kerosene supply runs out, they will return and buy more.
It's a simple model, but with major problems for consumers. Kerosene lamps hardly provide enough light to fill a space, and often this means that some activities, like children doing their homework, are limited after darkness sets in.
Health and safety are two additional major concerns. The use of kerosene, according to Lighting Africa, can result in:
- Child poisoning, if accidentally consumed.
- Poor visual health, because lamps provide low lighting.
- Indoor air pollution.
"It's bad quality of life. They can't charge their phone with it. It hurts their eyes. It causes fires, smoke inhalation — all these negative effects, including the environmental factors," says Camenzuli.
'Can't afford' $20 solar lamps
Recently, an upsurge in businesses peddling solar lamps in Africa has provided an alternative for buyers. But, it's an alternative many can't afford.
"People just can't afford a $20 solar lamp," explains Camenzuli, who now lives in Tanzania and has tested the affordability of solar lamps for villagers there.
Off-grid living around the world
Around the world, 1.6 billion people live without access to electricity. Of these:
- 1.265 million live in developing countries.
- More than 95 per cent live in developing countries in Asia or sub-Saharan Africa.
- More than eight out of 10 live in rural areas.
— Lighting Africa, International Energy Agency
He recalls walking to dinner one night and stopping at a stand where women were selling peanuts, gum, cigarettes and other knicknacks. The solar lantern he carried intrigued them, so he offered to sell it — first for $20, then $15 and finally $10.
"There was no way they were going to spend the money for it," he remembers.
Camenzuli's experience is supported by Lighting Africa's research, which found that most consumers are concerned with affordability. Their low incomes usually make it impossible to pay a high price up front.
Their study found that about 40 per cent of African households contain four or five people, which generally include between one and three children. From the five countries studied — Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Tanzania and Zambia — each household's average monthly income ranges from $90 US to $154 US.
"So people that really need these products aren't the ones using them," says Camenzuli. "That's a problem."
A modular lamp
But the recent university graduates behind KARIBU think they have found the solution to these problems with their company's new modular solar lamp.
The lamp breaks down into three components:
- Solar panel.
- Rechargeable battery and mobile phone charger.
To make the lamp affordable, KARIBU plans to use a "franchised business model of rent-to-own solar solutions," says Gulamani, mimicking how villagers currently purchase kerosene but eliminating the need for the toxic substance.
"If you could spend that dollar instead on a nice, clean LED light, you'd readily do that," Gulamani explains.
Small shop owners will purchase whole lamps. They will rent out the rechargeable batteries and lights to local villagers for a daily fee.
"They take it home. Their kids study at night. They can charge their mobile phone. They have a light in their house. It's great," Camenzuli says, adding the solar lamp is about five times brighter and lasts slightly longer than the kerosene alternative.
Renters will return to the shopkeepers once their battery is out of power to recharge using the store's solar panel.
Every time a villager purchases a recharged battery, they will be making an investment towards the solar panel. Once they have paid enough into the system, the shopkeeper will give them the panel, and the household will become "solar independent."
'My way of giving back'
It is a working business model because the men don't expect to profit from this business venture. As a social enterprise, any profits would be funnelled back into the business to purchase more stock, pay staff a living wage, and expand their market.
The five have already contributed a lot of their own money to the project, says Camenzuli. He quit a high-paying commercial banking job in Toronto to move to Tanzania and commit to KARIBU full-time.
"We want to see that the solution reaches millions of people in Africa," says Gulamani.
Gulamani, now a first-year law student at York University, has family roots in Tanzania, a country his parents left behind to come to Canada.
"They didn't have all of the privileges that I've been able, fortunate enough to have in my life," he recalls. "This project in particular [is] my way of giving back."
Crowdsourcing funding for pilot
KARIBU has already received a lot of recognition for its innovative prototype and socially responsible thinking. The United Nations Environment Programme recently lauded KARIBU with a 2013 SEED award, which celebrates "social and environmental start-up enterprises [tackling] key sustainable development challenges."
'There's great ambition to expand this way beyond the borders of Tanzania' - Sameer Gulamani, KARIBU Solar Power director
With its prototype designed and business plan ready, KARIBU has managed to secure some funding from investors. A so-called angel investor that has been supportive of the team from the start gave KARIBU $25,000.
Next month, Camenzuli and Gulamani will launch an online funding campaign, hoping to raise an additional $50,000. The company will use the money to run a pilot project of the rent-to-own system in northern Tanzania.
If it is successful and they generate more investor interest, they hope to expand beyond Tanzania's north.
"Geographically, you have to start somewhere, and that place happens to be Tanzania for us," says Gulamani. "[But] there's great ambition to expand this way beyond the borders of Tanzania."
A previous version of this story said Sameer Gulamani attends law school at the University of Toronto. In fact, he is a first-year law student at York University.Dec 07, 2013 1:05 PM ET