Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Green light for health, wealth.... and the environment

Selling green sources of light to the under-developed world is not just an environmental issue it is also a health, and financial issue. The poor spend more than they need to for the fuel for lighting. On top of the cost, the people also breathe in the fumes from the burnt off kerosene or indoor wood fires.

The New York Times cites a statistic that says that 40 billion dollars is spent by those on the "bottom billion" of the wealth pyramid on kerosene. To help save the poor money and improve their health in the long run some entrepreneurs are offering to sell the green solar or LED lamps. Writer Lisa Friedman introduces us to their efforts.

"If you compare what the poor spend on kerosene, it's 10,000 times more than what we pay when we use basic electricity from the grid. It's crazy when you think that the poorest people spend the most, and get so much poor light and poor health in return" said Patrick Avato, an energy specialist in Kenya with the International Finance Corp. (IFC).

Avato manages a 3-year-old program called Lighting Africa, based in Kenya, that tries to help the private sector provide clean and affordable lighting on the electricity-starved continent. The organization -- like the Lumina Project, which is based out of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory -- is part of a small but growing field of market-based initiatives targeting what economists call the "bottom of the pyramid" consumers.

Ned Tozun, president and co-founder of the portable solar lighting company D.Light, said nonprofit groups have done tremendous work bringing solar lighting to poor villages. But he also argued that the charity route can't sustain the infrastructure communities need -- like maintenance education or supplies of new batteries -- if they are going to stick with the clean lighting.

"It's inherently non-scalable," Tozun said. He described visiting villages where people had been given free solar lamps, only to return to kerosene when the batteries ran out and no one in the village sold new ones.

"What we're seeking to do is to create a sustainable, long-scale solution to the problem," he said. "This is a very high-tech product for people living in rural areas, so it requires a lot of education and monitoring."

Tozun said he his partner Sam Goldman have delivered solar lamps to about 1.7 million customers at an average price of $20 apiece. The company's goal is lighting the homes of 50 million people by 2015.

Avato said he's convinced it can happen. Companies already are well on their way to helping Lighting Africa meet its short-term goal of delivering 500,000 high-quality lanterns by 2012. World Bank officials note that just two years ago, there were only a handful of products available for the African market, most costing more than $50. Today, there are 79 products, a growing number of them costing less than $25.

According to a marketing trends report issued this year, the World Bank estimates that the African market for off-grid renewable lighting will double by 2015, and as many as 6 million households on the continent will own solar portable lights.

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