Op-Ed: The Dawn of a Sub-Saharan Solar Revolution

Will Africa's solar-powered lights come up—and stay up?

Then and now: A traditional African house gets a solar panel in the Sahara Desert, Algeria. (Photo: Michael Runkel/Getty Images)

On November 13, Dakar, Senegal, will be host to Lighting Africa, the third International Off-Grid Lighting Trade Fair.

With 600 million African households without access to electricity and the micro-solar industry set to grow from 0.5 percent in 2012 to 8 percent in 2015, many are talking of a Sub-Saharan solar revolution.

It is a transformation that cannot come too soon. Approximately $10 billion a year is spent on kerosene fuel—decimating household incomes and contributing to the deaths of two million people from indoor pollution. "[Seven hundred and eighty] million women and children breathing particular-laden kerosene fumes inhale the equivalent of smoke from two packets of cigarettes a day," according to the Economist.

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But even with the market for micro-solar skyrocketing and the need for clean-tech solutions so urgent, finance for the new industry is struggling to keep up. Lighting Africa cites a lack of financing as the biggest challenge to the solar industry, with high upfront production costs for importers and high upfront purchasing prices for customers.

At the consumer level, innovation in the finance of solar products has already begun. NGO Sunny Money and partner Eight19 piloted the IndiCo pay-as-you-go solar system in 2011, and M-Kopa Solar, established by the team behind M-Pesa, Kenya’s world-leading mobile-money transfer scheme, launched a pay-as-you-go system this summer.

Now, Lighting Africa hopes to engage banks and microfinance institutions with the sustainable off-grid lighting sector, and to work with governments to reduce barriers to growth. As the insurance giant, Munich Re, puts it "The future belongs to renewable energies."

Why invest in old, declining industries when you can invest in growing and sustainable markets? Investment in sustainable technology is not only investment in our future but investment in the technologies which will be a part of it.

So the scene is set, the stage is made, and the players have been called, but in the 2012 UN—ear of Sustainable Energy for all—will the solar lights finally come up?

Would you ever consider installing solar panels on the roof of your home? If not, why not?

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