Solar Sisters Doing it for Themselves: Tackling African Light Famine

By David SouthDevelopment Challenges, South-South Solutions


A social enterprise is seeking to capture the power of the sun to bring light and economic opportunity to women in Africa. Using a direct-marketing distribution system, it sells solar lamps and lanterns to some of Africa’s remotest communities. Solar Sister (, launched in Uganda in 2010, is hoping to do for power generation what mobile phones have done for communication in Africa: make a technological leap to a model of grassroots power generation, rather than waiting for large-scale power schemes to eventually reach the poor and rural.

More than 1.7 billion people around the world have no domestic electricity supply, of which more than 500 million live in sub-Saharan Africa (World Bank).

Solar power is being creatively used in many countries to tackle energy poverty and give women, in particular, viable sources of income. In India, whole villages are already using solar energy and improving their standard of living. Various companies and projects are selling inexpensive solar appliances – from cooking stoves to lanterns and power generators – across the country.

A billion Africans use just four percent of the world’s electricity (The Economist). Energy poverty is already harming further economic growth and development gains. With Africa’s population expected to double to 2 billion by 2050, the gap between people’s needs and the power available is stark: in Nigeria, out of 79 power stations, only 17 are working (The Economist).

A report by the International Finance Corporation called the sub-Saharan solar market the largest in the world – a market of 65 million would-be customers, who could access off-grid lighting over the next five years (IFC). The report anticipated high growth rates of 40 to 50 percent for anyone entering the market, with less than one percent of the market currently being served.

Being able to see at night unleashes a vast range of possibilities, such as being able to work or study later. But for the very poor, lighting is often the most expensive household expense.

As Solar Sister founder Katherine Lucey points out, households “rely on kerosene lanterns and candles for light. They spend up to 40 percent of their family income on energy that is inefficient, insufficient and hazardous. Widespread use of kerosene has an adverse impact on local air quality as well as on global climate change.

“Poor lighting, smoke and rudimentary lanterns are responsible for a large number of infections and burn injuries. Within the household, women are responsible for kerosene purchases and use – in order for new clean energy technology to be adopted at the household level, women have to ‘buy in’ to the technology.”

And this is the challenge: to find an affordable – and sustainable – way to bring electricity and energy to people living in remote and rural areas. These are places that face stark options: to remain off-grid and energy poor, or to abandon their communities and join the many millions across the global South on the march to urban and semi-urban areas in search of income and opportunity.

Lucey says that could be “a recipe for disaster”.

“In a country like Uganda, with a population of 32 million people, it is not possible to have them all move to Kampala to access electricity,” she said. “It would overburden already stretched infrastructure and services and disrupt the social and economic structures of an entire population. In the end, it can challenge the stability of entire nations.”

The Solar Sister direct-marketing model works like this: micro-investment capital of US $500 is invested in one Solar Sister Entrepreneur and she receives a ‘business in a bag’: a start-up kit of inventory, training and marketing resources. As her own boss, she has a strong incentive to succeed. She uses the money to purchase a consignment of lamps or lanterns, which she then sells, encouraging people to replace kerosene lamps with solar lamps: healthier, safer and better for the environment. She is encouraged to use her existing networks of family, friends and neighbours to reach rural and hard-to-reach customers.

The Solar Sister, after succeeding in selling the first consignment of lamps, then receives training in marketing and inventory and business skills. She can then move on to be a team leader and recruit other Solar Sisters. She earns a commission from the lamp sales, which help to improve her ability to pay for healthcare, education and food for her family. She then repays the cash for the lamps and the cycle starts all over again with a new consignment.

The model will sound familiar to many: it is what has built successful marketing machines like the famous all-women’s make-up and beauty products seller Avon ( Or the other famous direct marketing behemoth, Amway (

The Solar Sister model is heavily dependent on the success of word-of-mouth to grow:

“What we have found is that the women are the best distribution system for bringing new technology to rural households since they sell through their trusted networks of family, friends and neighbours,” Lucey said. “They use the lamps themselves, and then talk passionately about the benefits: the better light, the money they save by not having to buy kerosene, the amount of time their children are able to study, the cleaner air and safer environment for their kids.”

According to Lucey, the business model “brings solar technology right to the women’s doorstep. The Solar Sister business model developed as a grass-roots solution to the gender-based technology gap. Women make up 70 percent of the rural poor, but are often left out ‘in the dark’ when it comes to technology solutions.”

It is still early days for Solar Sister, which has been in operation for just over a year and now has 107 Solar Sister Entrepreneurs working in 10 teams reaching 34 communities in three countries – Uganda, Rwanda and Sudan. Lucey says the goal is to build a network of 1,500 female entrepreneurs in Africa over the next two years, benefiting over 1 million people.

Apart from the business model and the new technology, there is a radical concept at the heart of Solar Sister: to replicate for electricity generation the distributed and rapid growth that has been seen with mobile phones. In just five years, the availability of mobile phones in Africa increased by 550 percent.

“Distributed energy, such as solar, puts the investment in energy generation rather than transmission, and breaks the problem into smaller, achievable, components that do not have to wait for political processes for implementation,” explains Lucey. “It allows for the possibility that people can solve their own problems rather than wait for government or NGOs to come solve their energy problems for them. Distributed solar has the potential to leap-frog the 20th century grid-based solution, much like mobile phones have done in the telecom industry.”

One of the solar lanterns for sale is manufactured by D.Light Design. Their newest lantern model is called Kiran ( It sells for US $10 and provides up to eight hours of light on a full battery, its manufacturers say. D.Light Design calls it the “$10 Kerosene Killer” because it believes it has the right mix of price and technology to trump the need to use kerosene lanterns. The lantern gives off a white light powerful enough so people can read, study or do domestic tasks. A solar panel sits on top of the lantern, which is shaped like a drinking thermos with a large carry handle on top.

Other solar lamps/lanterns have been burdened by cost, ranging in price from US $15 to US $30: a prohibitive price for many poor people.

The ubiquity of mobile phone payments in Africa has made it much easier to transfer funds back and forth between the entrepreneurs and Solar Sister. And since its launch, Solar Sister has learned how to change and adapt to local conditions.

“These women are the experts in their local communities of what works and what doesn’t,” Lucey said. “Solar Sister Voila ( decided to visit the roadside market stalls at night when shopkeepers were burning kerosene lamps for light. She got their instant attention with the high brightness of her solar powered lamps.

“Solar Sister’s mission is to bring more and more women from the veils of smoke, darkness and anonymity to the forefront of a clean energy revolution.”

Published: April 2011


1) D.light Design: Their lights use LEDs (light emitting diodes) ( and are four times brighter than a kerosene lantern according to D.Light Design. Website:

2) Lighting Africa: Lighting Africa, a joint IFC and World Bank program, is helping develop commercial off-grid lighting markets in Sub-Saharan Africa as part of the World Bank Group’s wider efforts to improve access to energy. Lighting Africa is mobilizing the private sector to build sustainable markets to provide safe, affordable, and modern off-grid lighting to 2.5 million people in Africa by 2012 and to 250 million people by 2030. Website:

3) Solar Lighting for the Base of the Pyramid – Overview of an Emerging Market, a report by the International Finance Corporation finding Africa will be the world’s largest market for solar portable lights by 2015. The report addresses market trends and statistics at a global level with more detailed analysis for the African market. Website:

4) How We Made It Africa: A website detailing success stories on businesses investing in Africa and how people are making the most of opportunities on the continent. Website:

5) Barefoot College: The College is training women to be solar engineers, developing both useful skills and a new income source. So far, Barefoot College itself has solar electrified some 350 villages across India and dozens more in sub-Saharan Africa and even war-torn Afghanistan. Website:

6) Solar Power Answers is a one-stop-shop for everything to do with solar power. It has a design manual and guides to the complex world of solar power equipment. Website:

7) Sun King solar lantern: The lantern provides 16 hours of light for a day’s charge. Website:

8) ToughStuff has developed a modular range of affordable solar powered energy solutions to the three main power needs of poor consumers in the developing world – lighting, mobile phones and radios. Website:

Development Challenges, South-South Solutions was launched as an e-newsletter in 2006 by UNDP’s South-South Cooperation Unit (now the United Nations Office for South-South Cooperation) based in New York, USA. It led on profiling the rise of the global South as an economic powerhouse and was one of the first regular publications to champion the global South’s innovators, entrepreneurs, and pioneers. It tracked the key trends that are now so profoundly reshaping how development is seen and done. This includes the rapid take-up of mobile phones and information technology in the global South (as profiled in the first issue of magazine Southern Innovator), the move to becoming a majority urban world, a growing global innovator culture, and the plethora of solutions being developed in the global South to tackle its problems and improve living conditions and boost human development. The success of the e-newsletter led to the launch of the magazine Southern Innovator.  

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Solar Bottle Bulbs Light Up Dark Homes

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

New UNOSSC banner Dev Cha 2013


Finding ways to generate low-cost or free light has captured the imagination of innovators across the global South. The desire for light is strong: Light gives an immediate boost to income-making opportunities and quality of life when the sun goes down or in dark homes with few windows.

More than 1.7 billion people around the world have no domestic electricity supply, of whom more than 500 million live in sub-Saharan Africa (World Bank). Without a source of electricity, it is difficult to use conventional technology to switch the lights on.

While it is possible to run lights using batteries or diesel generators, these are expensive options that are not possible for many poor people. The more of a slim income that is spent on light, heat or cooking fuel, the less there is left for better-quality food, clothing, transport or education and skills development.

Low-cost light is great, but free light is even better – and one Brazilian solution is offering this.

Brazilian innovator and mechanic Alfredo Moser has taken the common plastic water bottle and created a low-cost lighting solution for dark spaces. Often makeshift homes lack decent lighting or a good design that lets the light in during the day. This means it may be a bright, sunny day outside, but inside the home or workplace, it is very dark and reading or working is difficult.

Moser came upon the idea during regular blackouts in his home city of Uberaba ( in southern Brazil during 2002. During the blackouts, only factories were able to get electricity, leaving the rest of the population in the dark.

The “Moser Light” involves taking plastic bottles, which are usually just thrown away or recycled, and filling them with water and bleach to draw on a basic physical phenomenon: the refraction of sunlight when it passes through a water-based medium.

It is a simple idea: Holes are drilled in the ceiling of a room and the bottles placed in the holes. The liquid-filled bottle amplifies the existing sunlight (or even moonlight) and projects it into the dark room. This turns the plastic bottle into a very bright lightbulb that does not require any electricity.

Moser uses a solution of two capfuls of bleach added to the water to prevent anything growing in the water such as algae because of the exposure to sunlight.

“The cleaner the bottle, the better,” he said.

Polyester resin is used to seal the hole around the plastic bottle and make it watertight from rain.

Moser claims his bottle innovation can produce between 40 and 60 watts of light.

Moser uses recycled plastic bottles, so the carbon footprint is minimal compared to the manufacture of one incandescent bulb, which takes 0.45 kilograms of CO2 (UN). Running a 50 Watt incandescent light bulb for 14 hours a day for a year, around the same light as produced by the bottle bulb, produces a carbon footprint of nearly 200 kilograms of CO2.

“There was one man who installed the lights and within a month he had saved enough to pay for the essential things for his child, who was about to be born. Can you imagine?” Moser told the BBC.

The plan is to try and get as many as a million homes fitted with the lighting system by the end of 2013.

In many poor areas, it is common to live in makeshift or rudimentary dwellings. These are often built to crude designs and, in order to keep costs down and boost security, will have few or no windows. These dwellings will consequently be very dark inside, even on the brightest days. This leaves people having to turn to a source of artificial light if they want to do something indoors like read or work. And this costs money. Be it electricity from a mains, or battery-powered lamps or gas-powered lanterns, the cost will eat into a person’s tight income. This is where Moser’s simple solution saves the day and saves pennies: it is free light once the bottle lamp system is installed.

Placing the bottle lights in the ceiling transforms the ceiling into something akin to the night sky, with many points of light shining down into the room like stars. It also means the occupant of the room does not just have to strain to see with the use of a single light but now has many lights illuminating the room from all angles.

“It’s a divine light,” Moser told the BBC World Service. “God gave the sun to everyone, and light is for everyone. Whoever wants it saves money. You can’t get an electric shock from it, and it doesn’t cost a penny.”

It has not been a road to riches for Moser. He has made some money installing the system in a local supermarket and nearby homes, and he has inspired a charity to install the lighting system and to train people to do the installation and make an income from it.

The MyShelter Foundation in the Philippines was inspired by Moser’s invention and has installed the system in some 140,000 homes there, the BBC reported.

“We want him to know that there are a great number of people who admire what he is doing,” MyShelter Executive Director Illac Angelo Diaz said of Moser.

Using bottle bulbs instead of electricity or generators means families can save US $6 per month, according to Diaz (CNN). The Philippines is reported to have the most expensive electricity in Asia and slum homes usually do not have electricity.

It is estimated 15 other countries also have homes using the Moser system. The MyShelter Foundation believes 1 million homes worldwide have used the Moser system as of 2013.

Liter of Light (, run by the MyShelter Foundation, offers instructions on how to install the lighting system on its website.


1) D-Lab: MIT: Development through Dialogue, Design and Dissemination: D-Lab is building a global network of innovators to design and disseminate technologies that meaningfully improve the lives of people living in poverty. The program’s mission is pursued through interdisciplinary courses, technology development, and community initiatives, all of which emphasize experiential learning, real-world projects, community-led development, and scalability. Website:

2) d.light Solar: d.light is a for-profit social enterprise whose purpose is to create new freedoms for customers without access to reliable power so they can enjoy a brighter future. d.light design manufacture and distribute solar light and power products throughout the developing world. Website:

3) Liter of Light:  It brings the eco-friendly bottle light to communities living without electricity. Website:

4) Solar Sister: Solar Sister eradicates energy poverty by empowering women with economic opportunity.  They combine the breakthrough potential of solar technology with a deliberately woman-centered direct sales network to bring light, hope and opportunity to even the most remote communities in rural Africa. Website:

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© David South Consulting 2022