Bringing Affordable, Renewable Lighting to Sierra Leone

With limited access to the grid, most of Sierra Leone relies on polluting kerosene lanterns. (Courtesy of Azimuth Solar)

The West Africa nation of Sierra Leone has one of the lowest electrification rates on the planet. When night falls, most of the country turns to battery-powered flashlights or kerosene lamps to cook and read.

Amid these challenging conditions, social entrepreneurs at Columbia Univesrity see opportunity. A team of students is developing plans to bring low-cost, solar-powered energy to Sierra Leone. Through their startup, Azimuth Solar, they hope to offer solar-powered lamps, payable in installments on a mobile phone, to millions of people with no access to credit or a conventional grid.

“We take lighting for granted, but it’s the bottom rung of the energy ladder that frees up productive time for education and other activities,” said Nthabiseng Mosia, a native of South Africa studying for a master’s at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA).

Picked as a regional finalist for the $1 million Hult Prize, team Azimuth Solar will present its project on March 12 in Dubai, one of 60 teams competing for a chance at the finals. With seed funding from the D-Prize and the SIPA Dean’s Public Policy Challenge, the team plans to launch a pilot project reaching 500 homes this spring.

The cost of kerosene, to fuel the lamp pictured here, can consume as much as a third of a household's income. (Courtesy of Azimuth Solar)

They will test two lamps made by Chicago-based Greenlight Planet – the no frills, $13 Eco lamp, paid off in weekly installments over four months, and the $30 Pro lamp, which doubles as a phone charger, paid off over six to seven months. Connected to Bluetooth, the lamps are switched on for a specified period – usually a week - once payments are received.

Led by Alexandre Tourre, a master’s student at SIPA, and Amir Imani, a master’s student at the Data Science Institute, the team is currently developing software for processing payments via mobile phone so Azimuth can maintain control over user data. In the meantime, they'll use a system developed by Angaza, a San Francisco-based startup. 

Solar-powered lamps that double as phone chargers have given Sub-Saharan Africans access to low-cost clean energy. (Courtesy of Greenlight Planet)

An estimated 1.4 billion people have no access to electricity, including much of Sub-Saharan Africa. Collectively, they spend about $300 billion each year on kerosene, a fuel that’s polluting and harmful to human health. Providing an equivalent amount of lighting with solar equipment would cost just $2.7 billion, the Global Off-Grid Lighting Association estimates, freeing up $297 billion for the global poor to spend elsewhere.

In Sierra Leone, more than 90 percent of the country’s 6 million people live without electricity. As much as a third of a household’s income goes to kerosene—a number that the team confirmed in a 1,500-home survey earlier this year. Team member Eric Silverman witnessed the hardship of living with expensive and inadequate access to energy as a Peace Corps volunteer in rural Sierra Leone.

He and another SIPA student, Manuel Ludwig-Dehm, came up with the idea for Azimuth Solar after taking a class, Energy, Business and Economic Development, at SIPA last year.  “We’re hoping to provide better options that will save money, improve health, and increase economic activity,” he said.

— Kim Martineau

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