Providing electric lighting to some of the 1.3 billion people worldwide who lack access to electricity has been one of the chief goals of the development community in recent years. The World Bank, for example, wants to hook up 2.5 million Africans this year, by encouraging development of low-cost solar lamps. The goal is to lower costs, improve health, and cut carbon emissions. Kerosene lamps, a mainstay in the off-grid world, cost $38 billion annually—or about 1,000 times more than for the equivalent energy in fully gridded countries.
The problem with some low-cost solar lighting units, according to Simon Bransfield-Garth, is that they are not very low-cost, or, at least, not that affordable. The CEO of a new British startup called Eight19 estimates the average cost of solar systems that can light two rooms and charge a mobile phone at $70 to $80, not easily in reach for many. He also believes that simply giving away solar units creates problems. Charitable programs can stifle more sustainable services, he says, citing the work of Paul Polak, a leading inventor of low-cost products for the world’s poor.
Bransfield-Garth’s solution is a pay-as-you-go model for solar power that effectively self-subsidizes the introduction of electricity into people’s homes. Users pay between $5 to $10 up front for a solar cell, lamp, and control module, then buy additional power when they need it through a scratch-card system, much as with a cell phone. He says the service halves the cost of lighting and phone charging in Kenya, which he estimates at $9 to $12 a month, based on the price of kerosene, and what it costs to re-power a phone at a public charging station.
“The problem with solar power in [off-grid] markets is not that there is anything fundamentally wrong with the technology," he says. "The problem is that individuals who are earning $3 or $4 a day don’t have $80. By offering it as a service, we are able to offer it at a lower cost than they are currently spending." The added bonus with Eight19's service is that it saves users from having to travel to charge their phone, and wasting time doing so.
The service, called IndiGo, is already available in Kenya, Zambia, and Malawi, and is being rolled out with the help of SolarAid, the NGO arm of one the U.K.’s largest solar companies, SolarCentury. It is currently using conventional solar panels, but plans to offer a more flexible printed plastic technology soon. Bransfield-Garth says that will further drive down the cost, though at the moment he doesn’t know how much.
Eight19, which gets its name from the time (8 minutes 19 seconds) it takes light to reach light from the Sun to reach Earth, is similar to Simpa Networks, another pay-as-you-go solar project we wrote about last year. The difference is that with Simpa users pay in installments for the unit as they use the service.