Off-Grid Lighting Adventure Continues

Flashlights in Kenyan Market

Flashlights, along with other goods, available from hawkers on the street in central Kericho, Kenya. (Photo credit SERC).

This article was written by Jennifer Tracy.

Despite dust storms stirring up eye-stinging grits of dirt, downpours that filled 50 gallon barrels and donkeys that reverberated piercing 6 AM wake up calls, it was impossible for us not to smile with gratitude and joy. For the second summer running SERC personnel traveled to Kenya to continue our ongoing field research on off-grid, efficient lighting for low income rural people. With help from our Kenyan research colleague Maina Mumbi and the hospitality of his family, SERC Co-director Arne Jacobson, Research Engineer Peter Johnstone and myself, Graduate Student Research Assistant Jenny Tracy, had a successful trip that was never short of excitement–within 15 meters of two full-grown lions we got a flat tire!

Assistance to the World Bank Group’s Lighting Africa program and work on the Lumina Project, a collaborative effort between SERC and Evan Mills of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, were the foci of our trip. Upon our arrival into Nairobi, we participated in a Lighting Africa-sponsored workshop on the importance of product quality assurance. At the workshop we worked with Chinese manufacturers, European and American aid organizations, African government officials, and other stakeholders in the African off-grid lighting market. Beyond the workshop we pilot tested a baseline market presence study with an end goal of surveying approximately 25-30 towns of varying size throughout Kenya. The study will document the market presence of LED lighting products and will serve as a reference point for future analyses of the long-term changes taking place within the off-grid lighting market in Kenya.

Our task this year for the Lumina Project was to extend on our market testing of high-quality, low-cost LED lighting products. With a concerted team effort, on June 8, 2009 the doors opened to one of the first shops in Kenya selling affordable, high-quality LED lamps to off-grid users. The shop is located in Maai Mahiu, a small town of 10,000 people, and is currently being managed by Maina with assistance from Samuel Chege, a recent high school graduate who is now working as the shop’s sales person. The shop is offering five different LED lamp models made by two different manufacturers, D.Light and Barefoot Power, with prices ranging from 1000 to 3500 Kenya shillings (Ksh), approximately $13-46. Six of the lamps for sale are outfitted with data-logging devices designed by SERC engineer Scott Rommel and consultant Kyle Palmer. The data loggers will record when the lamp is turned on and when it is being charged, providing detailed data on consumer use patterns. To date 20 lamp products have been sold and hundreds of people have shown interest in the improved lighting products we’re offering. It has been interesting to observe how factors affecting people’s lives appear to be influencing sales. After a long-anticipated heavy rainfall in early July, maize production thrived and more money was seemingly available to make purchases beyond the basics, leading to increased lamp sales. However, in recent weeks sales have slowed, perhaps because families had to pay the annual fees for their children to attend school. All in all, through this study we have been learning a great deal about the market potential for LED lighting products in the range of 1000-3500 Ksh. Our past research has shown that these products have the potential to reduce the overall cost of lighting, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and improve indoor air quality.

In addition to the market trial, we designed and carried out a detailed study focusing on flashlight use to further understand and document the importance of such a basic lighting device and to document the poor quality of flashlight products that are currently available to low-income users. We also measured the air exchange rate in Kenyan off-grid homes to provide HSU professor Dustin Poppendieck with additional information he needed to assess indoor air quality and health risks associated with using kerosene for lighting.

On a return trip this winter, Jenny will conduct follow-up studies with the lamp owners who purchased products from the shop. She will also bring several improved quality low-cost flashlights to get feedback about the products from flashlight end-users with the goal of improving the quality of available flashlights in Kenya.