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January 19, 2019

Lighting up Kenya, one solar lantern at a time

GLEA MING: Students using a solar lantern to study. It is twice as bright as a typical kerosene lantern.
GLEA MING: Students using a solar lantern to study. It is twice as bright as a typical kerosene lantern.

AS a head teacher in a school in Bomet, Stanley Rugut has been aggressively advocating for parents to buy solar lamps to enable their children study longer and in cleaner conditions.

Little did Rugut know that what started as a noble concern would turn into his retirement plan and improve the performance of his school-Kembu Primary- as well as so many livelihoods in Longisa, Bomet.

The head teacher aged 60 who says he is nearly retiring, is one of the biggest sales agents of solar lights, a social business that has earned him the name Stanley Solar in his home area.

Since 2010 over 40,000 solar lights have been sold in Bomet county alone, out of these, Stanley has sold 7,000 mostly through school campaigns.

“The solar lights have lifted the marks of our school performance KCPE from a mean score of 227 to 247.  They have really come up," says Stanley.

Stanley is part of a growing network of school heads working together with social enterprise Sunny Money to advance the use of green energy in rural and poor urban areas not covered by the national grid. He plans to fully take on selling the lamps upon his retirement as their demand has generated decent commissions for him.

Working in a number of African countries like Kenya, Senegal, Zambia and Uganda, the company in a joint mission with UK charity SolarAid aims to eradicate use of kerosene lamps in the continent by 2020.

This year Sunny Money is targeting to sell over one million solar lamps across Africa which will approximatley serve 6.4 million people and save rural households spending on expensive kerosene.

Most of the distributed solar lights are priced at Sh1,000 and have a life span of at least five years. They are reachable via an exposure of about four to five hours in the sun.

"A family saves about 20 per cent of their monthly earnings when they stop using kerosene," says Sunny Money's global marketing director Cindy Kerr.

Unfortunately, Cindy adds, that most people have a wrong perception about anything solar which they think is expensive.

"People think of solar as the big panels that cost Sh40,000," notes the marketing director.

Sunny Money distributes products such as the S20 solar light which is weather resistant in either sun or rain and hence can be used outside; SunKing Solo light which according to the firm offers five times more brightness than a kerosene lit tin lamp; S300 which is a lighting unit that consists four lights that can be used for multi-roomed home and a SunKing Pro light that can also be used to charge a mobile phone, among others.

While the social business tries to woo more people to move away from kerosene usage into use of solar lights through lower costs, Cindy says even with reduced prices many homes still find these items out of reach.

To address this, the company says its suppliers are testing new technology that will allow families to pay per usage and could see households spend a minimum of Sh130 per week on solar lighting by using gadgets fitted with a chip. Here, the payment is made via mobile money transfer with units loaded onto the chip to make the lights work.

"Also the lights would be more affordable if solar items were exempt from tax," adds Cindy.

Until last year, solar equipment was not charged VAT as the government moved to promote use of green energy in the country.

With such a humble project, Sunny Money's through its solar products is helping to uplift the livelihoods of homesteads and improve the economic profile of some villages.

Other than offering a source of employment to over 300 agents who distribute the lights in rural areas, savings made by families who previously used kerosene have been invested in better use among them as capital for small businesses or to educate children, says Cindy.

For instance, she says, in Nairobi's Lunga Lunga slum, a youth group comprising of seven has bought a solar unit that they have been using to charge mobile phones of residents at a fee.

In many villages in Bungoma, Bomet, Elegeyo Marakwet, Kericho, Nandi, Kisii and Uasin Gishu where solar lights and units have been sold to date; Cindy adds that shops and other businesses are now opening for longer  as previously the usage of kerosene lamps had forced most of them to close early and save on lighting costs.

The uptake of the solar lights has been good, says Cindy. So much so that while four years back the company was selling about 1000 lights monthly, it is now at 50,000 and the demand keeps growing, says Sunny Money.

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