Technology moves fast. But often the impetus to make it work for social ends lags behind. In an attempt to relate how far technology can come in a short time, I often tell my children the story of when my father first experienced the power of electric light.
Born in 1936 in Kentucky, USA, my father knew first-hand the pressures of growing up in poverty. His family, like others in the area, burned wood for heating and lit their home using a kerosene lantern. At age 11, my father moved to a farm in southern Indiana. He clearly remembers walking into the new farmhouse and spending five minutes, awestruck, flicking the electric light on and off. Having clean, bright light, literally changed his life. Homework at night, after he had done his chores, was no longer a battle with the unsafe, inefficient light of the kerosene lantern. He worked hard and went on to become a well-respected doctor, spending most of his working life improving the lives of families and children.
My father's experiences in the US are too rare in today's Africa. The "New Deal" attitude that drove the technological changes that transformed his life in post-Depression America is not present. Simply put, there will be no New Deal for Africa. There will be no large infrastructure development to light peoples' homes. The funding just isn't there and the scale of the problem is too great.
The World Bank reports 590 million Africans live without access to electricity. There are 800 million without electricity in Asia. Consequently, according to the United Nations Environment Program,1.6 million women die each year in Africa alone, inhaling the equivalent of two packs of cigarettes per day in kerosene fumes. The health effects are so dire that poisoning from kerosene is now thought to kill more children in Africa than tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS combined. It is, then, little wonder that absence of clean affordable lighting is recognized globally as a key factor trapping people in poverty by inhibiting quality of life, study or work.
Governments, notably the US, UK, France, Germany and China, continue to invest heavily in Africa, providing an enormous amount of relief aid. The UN and well-meaning charities and NGOs have spent billions devising aid and relief programs. Yet, poverty, war, and famine on a biblical scale, are still a part of everyday life in many parts of Africa.
In 2008, the World Bank and International Finance Corporation started the Lighting Africa initiative, using a market-based approach to solve the lighting challenges of Africa. Their goal was, and still is, to replace kerosene with off-grid lighting solutions using LED/solar technology. They invited companies, investors, NGOs and governments to work together to create a new lighting market.
This month in Dakar, Lighting Africa held its annual conference. Delegates heard of the many successes in bringing market-driven lighting solutions to areas of Africa. But, we must ensure these successes don't justify complacency. We must work hard to guarantee greater success.
Addressing challenges, such as lighting the continent of Africa, requires investment from governments, input and support from the NGO community but, most importantly, it requires the private sector to innovate new technologies and be willing to take a risk on the African market. In short, it requires a market-driven approach.
From its humble beginnings, Lighting Africa, and the industry participants who have become involved in the issue, have achieved a great deal. But, in too many cases, lighting prices are too high and quality is often poor. Issues like the disposal of old products and recycling, and the empowering of local economies are not well thought through. There is hope. There is progress. But there are also excuses.
As an industry, we can do better. It is time to step up and build on the foundations that have been set. It's time to move beyond the platitudes. There's simply too much at stake for those in Africa who have no access to proper lighting.
I still have my father's kerosene lantern and show it to my children when I tell them the stories of his childhood. The goal we all should have is to ensure that there are children in Africa today who will tell their children and grandchildren of the time they first turned on the light and it changed their lives.