Off-Grid Lighting Research in Kenya

Kristen in Kenya with Hurricane Lamp

Kristen Radecsky measures a vendor’s hurricane lamp to calculate the lamp’s burn rate. (Photo credit SERC).

SERC co-director Dr. Arne Jacobson and graduate student research assistants Peter Johnstone and Kristen Radecsky traveled to Kenya this past summer to collect data for the off-grid lighting project. Lighting is often a large fraction of the operating costs for small, off-grid businesses in Kenya. Because they are not connected to the grid, they use a variety of off-grid lighting technologies to illuminate their shops– including candles, kerosene lamps, and battery powered LED lamps. Kerosene lamps are most popular, but can be expensive due to high kerosene prices. Kerosene lamps can also release tiny particulate matter that causes health problems. A number of manufacturers world-wide are designing off-grid lighting products with the goal of making them more affordable in locations like Kenya, often using LED technology.    SERC researchers will use the collected data to inform manufacturers of the costs for small businesses of using off-grid lighting products in actual field conditions and make recommendations for how lights can be better designed to make them more affordable.

To learn how lighting products are used in Kenya, the researchers teamed up with Kenyan electrician, Maina Mumbi, to collect data in two towns: Maai Mahui and Karagita. The team surveyed over 50 small businesses on their current lighting uses and spent five-to-seven nights carefully measuring the kerosene consumption for each vendor’s lamp. With the data, the team calculated vendor’s true operating costs for using kerosene lighting and estimated operating costs for other lighting alternatives such as LED-based off-grid lighting products.

In addition, the research team deployed 14 data-logging rechargeable LED lamps between the two investigated towns.    The lamps were assembled by SERC using LED lighting components from Barefoot Power. The data loggers are a novel device designed by SERC engineer Scott Rommel and electronics technician Kyle Palmer. The data loggers will record when the vendors use and charge the lamps over the next six months. Vendors will also log their charging costs. Mumbi is currently downloading and sending data logging records to the research team. The team will use the recorded data to estimate true operating costs for LED off-grid lighting products for the small businesses in the study.

Johnstone will return to Kenya for follow-up work this winter. He will bring research results to inform vendors of operating costs for several off-grid lighting options. He may also collect and redistribute data loggers in new SERC lamps for further data collection.

Research results and lamp design recommendations will also be delivered to off-grid lighting manufacturers. Improved lighting designs will ultimately lead to better off-grid lighting products for locations like Kenya.