Switching on to solar - goodbye kerosene

September 2011

Mukuri Primary School students
benefit from solar lanterns to do
their homework without smoke
and the risk of fire hazards. After
just a few weeks, the performance
of the students increased significantly.
(Photo: Renewable Energy Ventures)

An estimated 1.6 billion people in the developing world depend on kerosene lamps for lighting. Resource poor households spend a significant proportion of their income on fuel for this low-level lighting source which exposes them to serious health and safety hazards. The long-term financial, health and safety and environmental costs of kerosene lamps are considerable. A smarter, cleaner, more affordable and efficient alternative in the form of solar-powered lanterns offers hope for a brighter future. Joseph Nganga, CEO of Kenya-based Renewable Energy Ventures (REV), met with WIPO Magazine on the sidelines of the WIPO Conference on Innovation and Climate Change in Geneva in July 2011 and explained what his company is doing to light up rural and peri-urban communities in Kenya.

REV is in the business of delivering “clean, efficient and affordable energy to Kenyans through innovative energy generation, distribution and financing solutions,” Mr. Nganga explained.

The company works “closely with [its] clients to help reduce their current energy consumption, recommend alternative energy sources, identify technology partners and structure and source funding for the implementation” of alternative energy projects, and ensuring “the right solution, for the right client at an attractive return on investment1.”

REV focuses on:
  • distributing household-level energy solutions, such as solar-powered lanterns;
  • working, as an independent power provider (IPP), on grid-tied renewable energy projects generating energy from wind and biogas for Kenya’s national grid. In 2008 Kenya passed a feeding tariff law allowing private companies to generate electricity for the grid;
  • offering consultancy services, including to the World Bank .


Household energy solutions

Some 30 million Kenyans (around 77 percent2 of the country’s population of 39 million) are without electricity, relying on kerosene for their lighting needs. Realizing that a sizeable segment of Kenya’s population “will not have access to the grid in their lifetime,” REV launched its Solanterns Initiative. The company provides poor households in rural and peri-urban areas of Kenya with clean and affordable lighting by giving “access to solar lanterns” which, unlike kerosene lamps, don’t “cause indoor pollution and the consequent respiratory illnesses, are not a fire hazard, are relatively affordable and provide better illumination,” Mr. Nganga explained.

1.) Smoky, dim, keroseen light; 2.) Sun King's bright, clean light - Solar lanterns are 20 times brighter than
kerosene lamps and offer a safe and more stable source of light.

Sun King™ solar lanterns

Under the initiative, REV partners with U.S. company Greenlight Planet, Inc. which designs and produces the Sun King™ solar lanterns. Mr. Nganga explained that, as the materials and manufacturing capacity to make the lanterns are not readily available in Kenya, it makes more economic sense to “access great quality finished products that can be used locally from abroad.”

Greenlight Planet’s CEO, Patrick Walsh, told WIPO Magazine that the inspiration for the Sun King™ solar lantern was the “quest to provide better lighting for rural households.” While working in India in 2005, he recognized a clear need for “a consumer product that people could buy to solve their problems.” Consumers, he said, are already solving lighting problems by purchasing candles and kerosene; “we are just providing a better technology and letting people decide if they want to buy it.”

The Sun King™ solar lantern marries LED, lithium ion battery and solar panel technologies. “We use off-the-shelf components that are put together in a clever way,” Mr. Walsh noted. “The design is what really matters,” Joseph Nganga commented, “the ability to put these three components together in a package that is cost-effective, durable, attractive and designed for a rural household.”

While Greenlight Planet Inc. holds design rights over the lantern and various trade secrets, Mr. Walsh noted that, in the context of a rural household in a developing country, “licensing the technology is not really going to work.” He said that the company’s emphasis was on delivering “quality technology through innovative distribution.” Getting solar lights “into the consumer’s hands requires an innovative and adaptable network,” he noted. The company specializes in “rural distribution and works closely with partners to create awareness and deliver products directly into the interior villages where they are needed most.” While the company has its own broad distribution network in India, it works with partners such as REV to leverage local networks in other countries.


In a little under two years Joseph Nganga and his team have distributed over 5,000 solar lanterns to rural households in Kenya. Once consumers are comfortable with the lanterns, “they love them,” Mr. Nganga said.

Using these lanterns, rural households can make significant savings of between US$110 and US$114 over a three-year period. “That’s a lot of money for a rural household,” Mr. Nganga noted. “The economics are very clear; you buy a lantern for 25 dollars, it works for 3 years, and there are no out-of-pocket expenses over that period compared to kerosene lamps,” he explained.

The environmental benefits of solar lanterns are also significant. Each lantern will reduce CO2 emissions by 135 kilograms and save 52 liters of kerosene over its lifetime, enabling governments to both reduce their carbon footprint and make savings in government-funded kerosene subsidy programs.

While Mr. Nganga is optimistic about REV’s ability to scale-up the initiative – with an estimated 32 million kerosene lantern users to reach out to - uptake has been relatively slow. He attributes this to three factors:

  • the income structure of rural households;
  • low levels of consumer awareness; and
  • quality assurance.

Income structure

Solar lanterns can be used anywhere without a grid connection.
(Photo: Greenlight Planet, Inc.)

Mr. Nganga explained that most rural households receive a daily income from which their daily kerosene ration, some 18 US cents, is drawn. As many of these households do not have savings or access to credit, an outlay of US$25 to buy a solar lantern is beyond their reach. To overcome this, the company has adopted “an innovative model that, in addition to making our lanterns accessible to the market, also provides jobs to the youth in the community,” Mr. Nganga explained.

REV engages microentrepreneurs to rent solar lanterns to families who would not otherwise be able to afford them. “We help a young person get a loan from a local microfinance institution to buy about 20 lanterns. They charge these up throughout the day by plugging them into a solar panel and then distribute them to different households charging the same amount that the household would spend on kerosene that night. The entrepreneur then collects the lamps the next morning for re-charging,” he explained. “This means that the consumer can still use their budget structure to pay for their lighting needs while accessing the benefits of solar energy. It’s a very, very simple solution but it works brilliantly,” Mr. Nganga said. REV anticipates that some 500 microenterprises will have been established by the end of 2012.

Building awareness

As solar lamps are a relatively new technology for rural households, “there needs to be a lot of work done on raising consumer awareness,” Mr. Nganga noted. He pointed out that “there’s a growing interest, but like everything it takes time to round that up.” To this end, REV is leveraging programs, such as the joint IFC and World Bank Lighting Africa initiative (particularly its public outreach components). The Lighting Africa program 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 20306.


Delivering a high-quality product is a priority for both Greenlight Planet and REV. “There is a history of solar products that have not worked which has led to a very negative view of solar in general,” Mr. Nganga explained. Rural households are reluctant to invest their limited resources in a product and “then have it fail,” he said. “There is a lot of confusion about which are the quality offerings,” he noted, “many products are packaged in a similar way but are actually very different and often of poor quality.”

Making a difference

Solar lanterns allow school
children to continue studying
after dark in households that
have no electricity.
Greenlight Planet, Inc.)

The ingenious design of the Sun King™ solar lanterns and the Solantern Initiative are already making a positive impact. A recent survey by REV showed significant improvements in air quality, health, economic situation, safety and educational performance in 500 rural and peri-urban households in Nairobi4. With over 95 percent of respondents stating “they would buy [a solar lantern] when they have the money to afford it,” prospects are good.

As one of the world’s most solar-rich countries, the potential to scale-up the adoption of solar lanterns as a relatively cheap, clean and efficient alternative lighting source offers great promise to the millions of Kenyan households that still depend on kerosene for their lighting needs.

Advantages of Sun King™ solar lanterns
  • No recurring costs
  • Three-year battery life
  • Provides 16 hours of light on a single day’s charge
  • Generates twice as much light as a kerosene lamp
  • Highly durable in tough environments
  • Safe, economical and easy to use


GRID-tied projects

In line with its mission to “develop and distribute clean, efficient and smart energy in Kenya,” REV is working on a number of projects using wind, biomass and biogas to generate electricity for Kenya’s national electricity grid. Using innovative technologies, biogas-to-energy projects, for example, offer agricultural producers an extremely “cost- efficient way to generate power while managing waste,” enabling them to transform a liability into an income-generating asset.

In an attempt to facilitate innovation in climate-related technologies, Mr. Nganga is working with the IFC and the World Bank’s infoDEV project to establish a global network of climate innovation centers (CIC). National CICs, established in 30 countries to date, provide a portfolio of services and financing to enterprises working on climate technology. The aim is to improve technical capacity, boost early stage funding for entrepreneurs operating in the renewable energy market, improve consumer awareness and facilitate access to information. These national centers form part of a global network that seeks to create opportunities for collaboration, technology transfer and access to export markets. What role for intellectual property (IP) in this mix?

Mr. Nganga notes that, while “people are thinking about how to make sure they retain ownership of their technology and how they can get the economics out of it,” they often don’t think of this in terms of IP, “which of course it is”, he said. He underlined the importance of raising awareness of IP among business and investment communities, noting that one of the key means of attracting investors and leveraging existing resources was to “show value, and one of the ways to show value is to have IP.” This is one area, he submitted, in which “WIPO would be a key partner in ensuring that IP is front and center in discussions.”



2  According to the Lighting Africa Program of the World Bank and the International Finance Corporation (IFC)
4  In November 2010, 500 lanterns were purchased by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) under its AIDS, Population and Health Integrated Assistance (APHIA II) Project.

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