Solar lighting – making a difference to the world’s poorest people.

In many developing countries kerosene is a common source of fuel. It’s been estimated that 500 million households use fuels for lighting, especially kerosene, and each household uses one to ten liters of kerosene a month. It’s commonly used for lighting, heating and cooking. But there are a lot of problems with using kerosene.

Kerosene and solid fuels such as wood are often burned indoors without enough ventilation. The toxic fumes cause health problems, for example lung and eye infections. Kerosene is a non-renewable resource. It costs hundreds of times more to produce light from kerosene than it does to produce the same amount of light by electricity. These lamps are used by the world’s poorest people. It’s also dangerous.

Nicholas Lam from the Department of Environmental Health Sciences at the University of California, Berkely, led two studies that were published last year, that focus on the harmful effects of kerosene.

The well-known hazards of burning kerosene are fire, explosion and poisoning. But many other potential health risks have been identified – such as cancer, lung disease, cataracts, low birth weight, and a higher risk of getting an infectious disease. People often think of kerosene as a cleaner burning fuel than the alternatives. But burning kerosene can emit harmful chemicals like carbon monoxide, other poisonous gases, and fine particulate matter. The type of kerosene lamp with a wick that’s typically used in developing countries produces the most particulate matter (“soot”). The study showed that people who use these lamps have this soot in some of their lung cells. Because the light these lamps produce is weak, people using them tend to get close to the lamp, which increases the amount of exposure to these poisons. For example people – often children – studying by these lamps can be up close to them for hours. (Lam et al. 2012a)

The wick kerosene lamp produces a lot of black carbon – Dr Lam found that it produces 20 times as much black carbon as was though. Black carbon is produced when the fuel is not completely burnt, and can absorb light, so it heats the atmosphere. Reducing black carbon emissions from burning kerosene could dramatically reduce the earth’s warming (Lam 2012b). Replacing kerosene lamps with solar lighting is something that can readily be done to potentially limit temperature increases. It will have many other immediate benefits including improved health and safety and saving money.

Fiona Oates returned to Australia early this year after spending ten years in Iringa, Tanzania. One of her projects, started with the help of a grant from the Australian High Commission in Nairobi, was to help install solar lights in schools.

Students in Tanzania take study very seriously because it creates opportunities for a better standard of living. With 12 hours of darkness a day, a light means that Tanzanian students can study more effectively. If a school has solar lighting students return to school at night to study. The Solar for Schools Program started after a 2010 fire in the dormitory of a girls’ school near Iringa killed twelve students when a candle was left unattended.

When people saw the benefits of the solar lighting that was going into schools they asked if they could buy solar kits too. Fiona set up Watu na Nuru (Light for the People) to help bring solar lighting to the wider community. The project was set up with a loan which was paid back within the first year of operation. The loan paid for a container-load of solar lights. The project is now self-sustaining, and has four full-time employees. A mobile shop visits the rural markets, and entrepreneurs are helped to set up business selling lamps. Watu na Nuru also manages the Solar for Life program, which gives the top ten students at each primary school are given a solar lamp to help them realise their potential. These lamps are funded by donations.

solar for schools
The top ten students in each school were given donated solar lamps to help them get the marks they need to go further in school.

I had the opportunity to visit Fiona, her husband Ian and their daughter Sarah last year in Tanzania. I was privileged to visit a rural village and market with Fiona and Ian, where Fiona and her team sold solar lights to the villagers. It was sobering to see the bare bones existence, the grace and warmth of the people, and the difference a solar light can make. It was also amazing to see the reach of mobile phones into these remote parts of Tanzania. The region was in drought and life is basic and tough for these subsistence farmers. The gradual spread of solar technology will no doubt improve their lives.

The Watu na Nuru mobile shop visits a remote village.


Fiona selling a Firefly solar lamp.
Fiona selling a Firefly solar lamp.

“The need for environmentally friendly, safe and affordable solar lighting continues. I have seen parents weep in gratitude and faces of students literally light up with the gift of a lamp. To be able to give a student the opportunity to study is potentially giving them a future – a life – which can in turn also help their family into the future”, Fiona said.

“As well as providing a light in the home, lamps can help financially. After the cost of the lamp has been made up, a family can use the money that would otherwise be spent on fuel for other necessities.”

Watu na Nuru mobile shop at the village market.
Watu na Nuru mobile shop at the village market.

Watu na Nuru sells solar lights made by Barefoot Power, an Australian company. The solar panels can also charge a mobile phone. In Tanzania mobile phone calls are very cheap, which means that mobile phones are now common even in remote rural villages. People who own a solar light can earn money charging phones, and save their customers a long trip to find electricity.

Barefoot Power in Australia is one of over 50 companies whose solar lights are being introduced to developing countries. In 2010 inventors Sam and Harry Andrews won the People’s Choice award on the Australian Broadcasting Commission’s “The New Inventors” television program, for the compact “Firefly” desklamp. The lamps are robust, fully guaranteed, and have a detachable solar panel which can also charge a phone. Larger lights can charge a radio. I brought one of the Firefly lamps back from Tanzania. I love it, it’s very light and bright. Fiona now travels in the Asia-Pacific region promoting the benefits of these solar lamps. Barefoot Power itself is “on a mission to … help eradicate energy poverty.”

Different organizations like the World Bank, the Lumina Project, Lighting Africa, and of course the companies that produce the lights, are helping to bring solar lighting technology to the developing world, from Mongolia to Fiji. Micro solar technology using the efficient light emitting diode (LED) is a safer, renewable, and ultimately cheaper alternative to kerosene, and it’s gradually finding its way into these communities. There’s an initial cost but the light soon pays for itself and frees up money for other essentials. Many of these lights are being distributed by encouraging entrepreneurship rather than by direct aid. Investors are gradually realizing there’s a huge market there.

Solar lighting has a lot going for it in the developing world – reducing pollution, improving health and saving money. Not to mention an abundance of sunlight in most of these countries.

A resident giraffe in the Ruaha National Park (which is renowned for its elephants).



Financial assistance for the solar lighting projects in the Diocese of Ruaha, Anglican Church of Tanzania has been provided through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Finland, the Austrian Development Cooperation, the Australian High Commission in Nairobi, Medical Mission Aid and Anglican Relief and Development Fund Australia.


NL Lam et al. 2012a. Kerosene: a review of household uses and their hazards in low- and middle-income countries. J Toxicol Environ Health B Crit Rev 15:396-432. PMC Public access author manuscript

Barefoot Power Lamp – The New Inventors, Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

J Stumpf, Climate impacts of kerosene lamps used in developing countries. Environmental Factor, Jan 2013 – online news source from the National Institutes of Environmental Health Sciences (a story on the second Lam paper).

The Lumina Project

G Webster for CNN: Solar lamps replace toxic kerosene in poorest countries.


NL Lam et al. 2012b. Household Light Makes Global Heat: High Black Carbon Emissions From Kerosene Wick Lamps. Environ. Sci. Technol., 2012, 46:13531–8