As many as 120 million households in Africa will be living off-grid by 2015, creating one of the world's largest markets for portable solar lighting in the next five years, according to a report.
'Solar Lighting for the Base of the Pyramid — Overview of an Emerging Market' was published by Lighting Africa, a joint International Finance Corporation (IFC) and the World Bank initiative that is developing continent-wide programmes for solar lighting.
The report projects an up to 65 per cent growth rate in sales of portable solar lights, comparable to the recent explosion in mobile phone sales on the continent. Currently, only 0.5 per cent of some 140 million African people living without regular or reliable access to electricity have such lights.
The growth will be fuelled by entrepreneurs using the latest technologies and designing products to suit consumers' tastes, the report says. But the market could grow even faster if distribution and financing were scaled up, it says.
Arthur Itotia, Lighting Africa programme manager, told SciDev.Net that the initiative does not just aim to light households but also to save people money and reduce the health risks associated with fuel lamps.
'By converting from kerosene to clean energy millions of consumers can improve their health, reduce their spending on expensive fuels and, ultimately, benefit from better illumination and more productive time in their homes, schools and businesses.'
The report also found that an average African household could spend US$225 less a year on kerosene by using solar lighting.
Lighting Africa is helping to build the market for off-grid lighting across Sub-Saharan Africa by investing in consumer education, improving access to financing and looking at new ways to distribute the lighting.
Dana Rysankova, senior energy specialist in the Africa Energy Unit at the World Bank, said that Africa's high population growth and low levels of access to the grid mean that it will soon surpass Asia in the number of people without electricity.
The lessons learned from Africa, she said, are being used to give advice to other areas.
'For example, Lighting Africa advised another World Bank project in Haiti that was disseminating solar lanterns after the devastating earthquake there,' said Rysankova.
But other experts warn that such noble ideas risk being overridden by market forces — especially if left solely in the hands of private sector players.
'Much as the idea is great and tenable, the implementers need to shape the market to allow poor households to buy the lights,' said Simon Mugambi, an independent energy market consultant.