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In February, The Economist published a story entitled Electricity does not change poor lives as much as was thought. The author raised the possibility that delivering light to the poor does little to improve their lives.

This article first appeared in ESI Africa Edition 2, 2019. You can read the magazine's articles here or subscribe here to receive a print copy.

The industry reacted strongly to The Economist article, which concluded that to “spend a lot of scarce cash doing so now in the hope that benefits will turn up, hardly seems enlightened”. Here follows an edited version of SolarAid CEO John Keane’s response.

The title of this article should be an obvious, non-contentious, statement. However, in the article published in The Economist on 7 February there are a number of fairly sweeping assertions, which question the value of access to electricity and clean, safe lighting. The article includes statements such as “Rushing to illuminate the world is a bad idea” and “there is little evidence of ... electricity and light truly transform(ing) people’s lives”.

On reading the article, you get the sense that the author is looking at the issue with a limited lens and is actually questioning the importance of electricity in fighting poverty. This is a dangerous takeaway. It is certainly not consistent with what customers across Africa have been telling us for years at SolarAid and SunnyMoney.

Poverty is not just about money

Well, poverty is about money ... but it’s also about living standards, limited opportunity, lack of choice and ‘darkness’ – not having your day cut short at 6pm every day when the sun goes down. If you have to burn candles or kerosene for lighting you are not exactly living the high life. Indeed, these sub-standard forms of lighting are aspects of poverty in themselves, which force people to waste their limited money on poor value, poor quality, lighting solutions.

Providing people with the choice to access better, brighter, cleaner, solar powered alternatives immediately removes these aspects of poverty. Put simply, a solar powered light or system improves the power situation within rural off-grid households. That is why people choose to buy them.

Our research, which is based on over 30,000 interactions, shows that even a simple solar light enables households to save circa 10% of their income and that people spend these savings on important things such as schooling, food and livelihoods. These are significant impacts in themselves and should not be ignored by an article, which uses a peculiar lens with which to analyse and interpret impact.

There are many more additional benefits which come with access to solar powered electricity and lighting but let’s talk about kerosene and candles. The author mentions that kerosene use for lighting is falling. While this is true, many households do still use kerosene, as well as candles, which are arguably even more dangerous.

You can read about many recent fires and deaths caused by candles simply by Googling ‘Candle Fire Zambia’. The fact that their use is falling is a good thing … but not reason to ignore the problem. It still exists. ‘Rushing to illuminate the world’ and fully eradicate this form of lighting is not ‘a bad idea’.

The problem with ‘disposable’ batteries

The author rightly mentions the rise of cheap, battery powered torches across Africa. Unfortunately, however, it’s a similar story with batteries. The cheap, Chinese made batteries popular across the continent do not last long. This means people have to buy new batteries every few days – with the costs adding up. Many people therefore choose to ration the use of these batteries to save money or to save on the cost and inconvenience of having to travel, often significant distances, to the closest shop. Not every village, remember, has a shop. This means people often go without light, cutting short their days or rationing the use of a radio – an important source of news, information and entertainment.

There is a further problem with reliance on disposable batteries to power lighting and radios. Across rural Africa, there is nowhere to actually dispose of the batteries once they have been used up. The author points out that some choose to “throw batteries in their latrines” which is “hardly ideal”.

Hardly ideal indeed. Pretty undignified actually. It’s potentially a lot worse than that, however, as this actually means throwing batteries in the ground. Pit latrines are typically simple holes in the ground, which means the contents of batteries will leach into the soil. Many batteries do not even go into these latrines. A walk around villages across the continent will reveal countless batteries leaching into the soil. This means there is a real risk of harmful metals contaminating both land used for agriculture, upon which the local economies survive, and also local water supplies. “Hardly ideal” is an understatement. This is another face of poverty which needs to change.

All of the above situations change completely once a solar light or solar home system is introduced. Even the author of The Economist article recognises this, citing research which showed that children studied “for more hours each day” and people lit “their households more brightly for more hours each day”. This impact should not be undervalued. Solar light and power means people no longer have to waste money on candles, kerosene or batteries.

It also means people are no longer forced to ration their use of lighting and radios or litter their environments needlessly. We have heard from thousands of customers such as Filisa Likatu, in Malawi, who simply explained that, “[with a solar light] we gather at night to listen to folktales from grandfather”. One word can be used to usefully summarise the impact of solar lighting and power: Opportunity. It brings an opportunity to study and read, to spend time together as a family, and to generate an income, to save money, to invest in safer, cleaner homes and communities, and to lead the way towards a greener planet.

Light and electricity will not solve poverty alone

The Economist author repeatedly claims light and electricity have limited impact on poverty. A small solar light, or indeed, full electricity access are not enough by themselves to eradicate poverty. But no one is claiming that. What people are saying is that access to light and electricity are important ingredients in this fight. Without it, it’s not a fair fight.

Perhaps the best way to demonstrate this is to ask the author to consider what the impact would be on key economies around the world if the situation were reversed? What would the impact be on the US or British economies if, say, only 10% of their respective populations had access to electricity? Brexit would be the least of the UK’s concerns. Trump’s wall certainly wouldn’t be in the headlines.

The bottom line is that access to electricity is a fundamental part of modern economy and society. Without it, everything comes tumbling down. Without it, you are actually tying your hands behind your back when trying to achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. We’ve calculated that SolarAid’s work alone, which focuses on increasing access to light and electricity, contributes to 12 of the UN’s 17 SDGs. You can pretty much forget achieving universal access to modern healthcare, education and eradication of poverty without it. That’s why we actually subsidise electricity generation in the UK and the US.

Subsidy has a role to play

The author of The Economist article writes that “If electricity and light truly transformed people’s lives, it might make sense to offer large subsidies for solar systems and grid connections…”. Given that it is abundantly clear that access to light and electricity are fundamentally important ingredients for modern economies and societies to develop, then there certainly is a strong case to be made for more investment and subsidy in electricity generation and access, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa.

As climate change is truly upon us and is hitting fragile agricultural economies across rural Africa harder than many others, we are all paying the price for all the fossil fuels we have burned in exchange for energy. The case for subsidised generation of electricity through renewables could not, therefore, be any clearer or stronger.

Subsidy does not mean, however, that solar lighting and access to electricity have to be given away for free. People value electricity and lighting – as proven by the over 130 million solar lights and devices which have been bought since 2010 (Off-Grid Solar Market Trends Report, Dalberg, IFC, 2018). What the author of The Economist article does point out is that the world is “sadly ... unlikely to achieve” the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal number 7: Universal access to affordable, reliable and modern energy by 2030. It is hard to disagree with this conclusion.

While there is a growing market across Africa for affordable solar powered energy solutions and energy efficient appliances, the poorest households are still being left behind. There is, therefore, a strong case to be made for the use of subsidy to ensure universal access for all – particularly in favour of 1) the poorest, who the market will struggle to reach and 2) the challenge of ensuring basic access to electricity to power important infrastructure such as rural healthcare.

Looking at the issue with ‘the Right Lens’

The issue and importance of energy access deserves more focus and careful analysis by the global community. Cross Boundary and GOGLA have published good, evidence-based articles which counter The Economist’s piece. In conclusion, I simply ask both the author of The Economist article and the reader, to think about the lens through which they consider these issues.

Perhaps the best place to start is by asking yourself a few, simple, ‘closer to home’ questions: “What could I not have done today, this week, without access to electricity? What impact would that have on me?” If you don’t like the answer, I encourage you to become enlightened and join the movement for change. The truth is that today, 600 million people across Africa live without access to electricity. They don’t have to ask themselves those questions. They know. In Zambia, where I live, only 4% of the rural population is connected to the electricity grid. That’s not acceptable. ESI

This article first appeared in ESI Africa Edition 2, 2019. You can read the magazine's articles here or subscribe here to receive a print copy.