LED Technology for Off-Grid Lighting in Africa

Article written by Arne Jacobson

Testing off grid lighting projects

Graduate Students Ranjit Deshmukh and Stephen Kullmann and Professor Arne Jacobson measuring LED lighting performance at SERC. (Photo Credit Kellie Brown)

Battery powered lanterns that use white LED technology are emerging as a potential substitute for kerosene lighting in unelectrified areas of Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Dozens of LED-based off-grid lighting products are now available, with most selling at prices ranging from $2 to $60 per unit.

Over the past two years, SERC has been involved in research related to the quality, performance, economics, and end-uses of LED lights. The effort, dubbed the Lumina Project, is a collaboration headed by Evan Mills of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) and Arne Jacobson of SERC. The work is funded by Richard C. Blum Center for Developing Economies through a donation from Art Rosenfeld. To date, the research has included laboratory testing of existing LED lighting products, as well as fieldwork in Kenya.

Results from our laboratory tests indicate that product quality varies widely from one off-grid lighting product line to another. The measurements show that some brands perform at or near their rated specifications, while others perform well below advertised levels. In some cases, we also found considerable variation from one unit to another within a given brand. See reports by Mills and Jacobson (2007) for additional information (available at http://light.lbl.gov and http://www.schatzlab.org/publications.html).

These results confirm that market spoiling and consumer protection are major concerns for emerging markets for off-grid lighting. That is, while LED lanterns have the potential to provide superior lighting services relative to kerosene lamps, there is a danger that some developing country markets for off-grid lighting products will be flooded with low quality goods. This would result in financial losses for those unfortunate enough to buy a poor performing light, and it could also reduce sales even of the best performing products. This is true because many disappointed customers may be hesitant to buy another LED lighting product.

In the context of the Lumina Project collaboration, we are working to address issues related to the quality and performance of off-grid lighting products through several avenues. First, we provide manufacturers with feedback about their products. The information that we have delivered to date has been based on a combination of laboratory measurements and focus-group oriented fieldwork conducted in Kenya. The response that we have received from manufacturers has been positive, and several have re-designed their products upon receiving the information.

Second, we are working to perfect a rigorous, yet low-cost, set of tests for measuring the quality of off-grid lighting products. Here, our goal is to create an open source quality screening method that can be used by government agencies (e.g. the Bureaus of Standards of countries in Sub Saharan Africa), consumer protection groups, and manufacturers alike.

Third, we are serving as advisers to the World Bank’s Lighting Africa project. This project aims to support the development of markets for off-grid lighting products in a number of African countries. Quality assurance and consumer protection is central to the overall mission of the effort. To this end, these issues will play a key role in the upcoming Lighting Africa 2008 Conference in Accra, Ghana (May 6-8, 2008). SERC Co-Director Arne Jacobson will lead a series of sessions at the conference on quality assurance for off-grid lighting products.