From energypedia


Lighting is besides cooking one of the most primal energy needs. Humans have been trying to lengthen their day with artificial lighting for thousands of years. In comparison to industrialized countries where energy for lighting is basically provided by electricity, lighting in most parts of developing countries is still based on fossil fuels. Due to the low efficiency of fuel-based lighting, the quality of provided lighting services is generally very low. This can have negative implications for activities that rely on proper lighting conditions.

Lighting Needs in Developing Countries

In households, activities such as reading/studying, household work and productive processes (cottage industries) depend on good lighting conditions.

Social institutions are in need of high-quality illumination for a wide range of applications: rural schools use artificial light to provide classes during cloudy days or at night and for staff/student quarters. Rural hospitals and health centres need light for emergency treatments (e.g. childbirth) at night, illumination of surgeries with operating lamps and for staff/patient accommodation. To allow for social gatherings and events after sunset, artificial lighting is often used in town halls or religious buildings. Artificial street lighting is a very convenient way for rural communities to improve security and mobility.

Small businesses use lights when carrying out production in the evening; shops have to illuminate their goods to be able to sell them on evening markets and to attract their potential customers. In certain cases lighting is a crucial factor for reaching the maximum production potentials of livestock (e.g. chicken farming). Public lighting in trading centres is also an important contributor towards security - where there is light, shops can enjoy longer working hours and clientele is available even at night.

'Traditional' Fuel-based Lighting

Unlike heating or cooking, lighting is one of the energy end uses that is often associated exclusively with electricity. But the reality is different: In fact, about a third of the world’s population uses fuel-based lighting.[1][2]

Children reading with kerosene lamp.jpg
Children reading with kerosene lamp

Every year, African households and small businesses spend upwards of $17 billion on lighting, dominated by fuel-based sources such as kerosene, a costly an inefficient alternative. However, despite these huge expenditures – many households spend as much as 30% of their disposable income on fuel-based lighting – consumers receive little value in return. Fuel-based lighting is inefficient, provides limited and poor quality light, and exposes users to significant health and fire hazards (over 95% of fatal fire-related burns occur in low and middle-income countries). Exacerbating this problem, fuel-based lighting also produces Greenhouse Ga'ses (GHGs), leads to increased indoor air pollution and associated health risks, inhibits productivity and jeopardizes human safety. The total consumption of fuel for lighting, equivalent to 1.3 million barrels of oil per day, results in carbon dioxide emissions on the order of 190 million tons per year.[3][4]

The state of affairs concerning fuel-based lighting is worrisome. Oil import dependency is generally high in developing countries, and it drains valuable hard currency. Further complicating the picture, subsidized kerosene intended for domestic lighting sometimes finds its way into vehicles, which creates additional environmental consequences.

There are a wide variety of fuelbased light sources, including candles, oil lamps, ordinary kerosene lamps, pressurized kerosene lamps, biogas lamps, and propane lamps. According to most studies, ordinary kerosene lamps are the most common type of fuel-based lighting in developing countries. The more efficient kerosene lamps tend to increase both light output and fuel consumption, whereas an efficient electric compact fluorescent lamp provides an eight-fold reduction in primary energy consumption compared to standard incandescent light sources. Typical household kerosene lamp use is 3 to 4 hours per day, with weekly fuel consumption of about 0,5 - 1 litre depending on the brightness of the light. Typical light outputs are 10 to 15 lumens for locallymade lamps and 40 to 50 lumens for store-bought models. Candles have a light output of around 15 lumens. Placed in perspective, the lower end of this range corresponds to about 1% of the light produced by a typical 100-watt incandescent lamp.[5][6]

A study conducted by the joint UNDP/World Bank Energy Sector management Assistance Programme (ESMAP) found rural households spending as much as US$10 per month on lighting from candles, kerosene and dry cell batteries. This operating cost is similar to that paid by industrialized households with two dozen bright electric light sources throughout their home.

Between 15 and 88 billion litres of are consumed each year to provide residential fuel-based lighting in the developing world. The primary energy consumed for this fuel-based residential lighting is between 13% and 78% of that used to provide the approximately 400 TWh of electricity consumed for residential electric lighting globally. The cost of this energy ranges from $15 to $88 billion/year (assuming a kerosene price of $1/ litre), or $44 to $175 per household. The amount of light (measured in lumen hours) is approximately 1/1000th that enjoyed by households in the industrialized world (more sources; more efficient sources).[7][8]

Among the more startling implications of these findings is that users of fuel-based lighting in the developing world spend as much or more money on household lighting as do households in the industrialized world, but receive a vastly poorer level of service. On a percentage-of-income basis, households in developing countries spend many times more for lighting than their counterparts in the industrialized world.

Some argue that the problem of fuel-based lighting is not a priority, given the environmental impacts and costs of other end uses, such as cooking. However, few would dispute that improving the quality and quantity of light available to households in the developing world would yield dramatic social and health benefits.[9][10]

Meeting Energy Needs for Improved Lighting

Improved (safe, healthy, efficient) lighting is primarily based on electricity as an energy source, however basic lighting demands can also be met by biogas where available.

Provided a national power grid exists close to the place of lighting demand, grid extension or densification will most likely (depending on local connection costs and tariff structures) be the most cost-efficient way of providing electricity for lighting purposes. In more remote areas away from the grid with appropriate site conditions, micro hydro or pico hydro power installations are generally the best option to provide electricity to small communities (micro hydro) or individual consumers (pico hydro). Due to a generally larger amount of electricity supplied to the individual consumer, grid electricity and micro hydro in addition to lighting services can easily meet other energy demands such as information (TV, radio), refrigeration (e.g. in health centers), or motive power for productive purposes. This has to be taken into account before any cost benefit analysis of energy sources for lighting should be undertaken.

For remote locations away from central power grids and without any hydro power potentials three basic ways of electricity supply for lighting are thinkable: central charging stations, small village-level mini grids, or electricity generation on individual consumer (household, social institution, business) level.

Central charging stations can be powered by any electricity source (often PV) and either charge rechargeable lanterns (e.g. LED-based) or batteries (e.g. car batteries) that after charging will be attached to standard light bulbs in homes. In most cases a small fee applies for the user every time a lamp/battery is recharged. Central charging station can also be an option where grid extension is not a cost-efficient option, but the grid is close enough for regularly transporting the lamp/battery to a (mini)grid-powered charging station.

Mini grids can be powered by Solar PV, wind, biomass, diesel or any hybrid solution most appropriate to local availability of energy sources. Setting up a mini grid can be costly; ownership, management, billing, and maintenance have to be considered and organised within the community.

A lot of these issues can be avoided by utilizing individual power systems on consumer level, such as Solar Home Systems and Solar Lanterns on household/small business level and bigger sized PV systems for social institutions (e.g. health centers). Depending on the system size Solar Home Systems in households and small businesses of about 50-150 Wp can provide power for several lights and even a small TV or radio for 4 to 5 hours per day, bigger PV systems (> 500 Wp) for social institutions can apart from lighting several rooms power a solar fridge or other small appliances. Individual Solar Lanterns are much cheaper, but will provide only light (for more information on Pico PV please refer to the EnDev booklet on Pico PV). Compared to other electricity systems, electricity users are often the owners of their system, leading to significant individual investment needs that have to be approached by appropriate financing mechanisms (e.g. micro credit) or public funding (in case of social institutions). Maintenance and after-sales services are crucial for the long-term functioning of individual stand-alone systems.

Illumination costs

For the case of biogas digesters, lighting is in most cases not the primary energy end-use, as most of the gas is normally used for cooking. Investment in a biogas plant for lighting purposes only is a very rare occasion and most likely not cost-efficient. However, when being installed for meeting cooking energy needs, biogas plants can be a very convenient way of additionally providing lighting.

The diagramm on the right provides an exemplary overview on lighting costs by different off-grid energy technologies compared to traditional kerosene-based lighting in India.

Many suppliers of energy-efficient lighting equipment have not found the rural markets in developing countries worth exploring. However, the large amounts of money spent on lighting fuel indicates that there is a considerable potential for spending money on alternatives, for instance PV-based lighting solutions; this was verified in a field test by the World Bank.

For the use of provided electricity for lighting purposes, several types and sizes of lamps are available. The HERA Guide on Lighting Technologies and Van der Plas (1998) provide an overview and guidance on choosing the right lighting devices.

Impacts of Improved Lighting Services[11]

The Impacts of Improved lighting services will be analyzed following the OECD-DAC definition of poverty (lack of capabilities).

Economic Capabilities

Improved lighting has the potential to help reduce users’ energy expenditures and thus relieve tight household budgets which is particularly important for families in the lower income strata in the developing world. In most developing countries, kerosene lamps, candles and battery-run torches are the most common light sources used in non-electrified areas, even though they are relatively expensive and inefficient: The cost for running the typically used low-efficiency kerosene wick lamps and candles is up to 150 times higher than for premium efficient fluorescent lamps (Mills 2005). Thus, poor households currently pay relatively more per lumen and per month for qualitatively poor lighting services (as a fraction of their income). Improved lighting services therefore have a huge potential for reducing monthly energy expenditures for households, small enterprises and social institutions in the developing world.


  • Household energy expenditures for lighting in Honduras were reduced from 5 US$ for kerosene and candles to 1,3 US$ monthly instalments for the Solar Home System.
  • In Bangladesh only 4% of SHS households had an immediate reduction of energy expenditures as the monthly SHS instalments were mostly higher than the money saved for kerosene. Most users started reducing their energy expenditures only after having paid back their SHS (after about 3 years).[12]

Improved lighting can lead to economic benefits for small rural enterprises: those that sell energy/lighting systems and offer after-sales services and those that buy and use lighting services to improve their business. A growing ‘green energy’ sector can provide new jobs in areas such as project managements (NGOs), PV installations and after sale services. The commercial users of improved lighting benefit from extended working hours and increased customer attraction. However, there can be losers as well as winners. For example, one food stall having solar system may increase his sales. His neighboring competitor without electric light may become less attractive and lose clients.


  • In Bangladesh SHS are used for lighting of small shops. The electric light allows for longer opening hours in the evening and increased customer attraction. More than hald of the shop owners with SHS stated that their income has increased since the installation of the SHS.[12]

A systematic literature review of the impact on livelihoods of interventions providing access to renewable energy by IOB in 2013, revealed that for households, the shift from kerosene, paraffin and candles to PV electricity implies a reduction of 10-12% in expenditure for lighting. In practice, however, household energy expenditure increases by 20 to 50% (Benin, Rwanda, Kenya, Zambia and South Africa) since electricity enables households to use appliances they did not use before.[13]

Human Capabilities

Lighting with kerosene causes heavy indoor air pollution, resulting in a severe risk increase of respiratory diseases. Those who are most exposed to the kerosene vapours are typically women and children, as they are the ones who spend most time inside the house. Acute respiratory infections like influenza and pneumonia kill nearly two million children in developing nations each year. In addition, the use of kerosene lamps and candles inside houses involves high risks of fire accidents. Improved lighting is a valuable contribution to improved health and safety conditions amongst the most vulnerable groups in developing countries.


  • Asked about their perception of SHS-related changes in their health status, 55% of respondents in a Bangladesh SHS household sample found no change and 44% asserted an improvement of the family’s health condition since the acquisition of the SHS. Direct impacts were related to less smoke or cleaner living conditions.[12]

Traditional lighting devices in non-electrified areas of developing countries, like kerosene lamps and candles, do not provide sufficient lighting conditions for studying and reading. Literacy and school performance are often limited due to poor lighting conditions. Household access to electricity as well as to modern fuels has been found to be positively correlated with educational enrolment ratios in a global study based on country-level data[14]. In a comprehensive effort to measure the social benefits of improving educational opportunities and conditions in monetary terms, it has been estimated that there is a potential return of US$80–US$150 per month from provision of access to modern energy to one rural household (ESMAP 2002). Improved lighting offers opportunities to improve studying conditions in the evening to a large numbers of households. This can help enhance the overall educational performance in developing countries.


  • A great number of interviewees in Bangladesh stated the improvement of study conditions for their children in the evenings as a main reason to buy a SHS and as one of its major benefits. Statistical analysis reveals that on average, primary school boys read 1.7 and girls 1.9 hours per day with electric light, and boys/girls at secondary school age read 3 and 2.5 hours respectively with electric light. While electric light does enhance the reading comfort and the conditions for pupils to do their homework, it is difficult to judge the role this plays in achieving more highly aggregated impacts, e.g. an improvement in the educational status. In a group discussion in one of the research sites, teachers pointed out that the performance of pupils who could now study over electric light had not improved in comparison to former times. However, the improvement of study conditions through electric light is a significant impact on the human dimension of poverty.[12]
  • An impact study from Uganda concluded that the use of solar electricity, although not a factor for enrolment in school, increases the number of children studying in the evening and the hours of study by an extra half hour compared to the non users, as a result of better quality light.

Protective Capabilities

Lighting can contribute significantly to feeling more secure in the dark. Security can either be measured in terms of an objective dimension (robbery, theft, harrassment, stumbling outside, etc.) or in terms of a perceived dimension (feeling secure in the dark). 


  • Around 40% of the interviewees in Bangladesh that commented on their perception of safety find their safety improved since the acquisition of the SHS, while 60% do not. Different reasons were revealed why people feel safer due to electric light in and outside their house: they expect that thieves will refrain from breaking into a lit home, and they feel less insecure going out to the yard at night to receive a guest, or to use the bathroom, which is often located outside at some distance from the house.[12]

  • A study in Senegal measured how electric lighting affects security attitudes among Solar Home System-users and households without SHS. While on the objective dimension there was no difference between SHS-users and non-using households, there was a significant difference in the perceived dimension. Members from households with a SHS were leaving the house at night more frequently than those without SHS, especially children and women. Furthermore, a lower share of adults in SHS households (ca. 30%) was afraid when their children would play outside after nightfall.[15]

Lighting Initiatives and Organisations

  • Lighting Africa - a joint IFC and World Bank program that seeks to support the global lighting industry in developing affordable, clean, and efficient modern lighting solutions for Sub-Saharan African
  • Lighting a Billion Lives - a TERI campaign to bring modern lighting services to rural areas of India through central charging stations in combination with rechargable PV-lanterns
  • Energy For All: Solar Lantern Working Group - Working Group of the ADB/FDC initiative "Energy For All"
  • D-Light - private company selling small PV lighting products for the Bottom of the Pyramid (BOP) market in India; CDM project for LED-based lighting is in the pipeline.
  • Sunlabob – this private company offers a franchise rental system for Solar Home Systems and solar-rechargeable lamps in Laos

Further Information


  1. Mills, E. (2000): Fuel for Lighting - an Expensive Commodity. Boiling Point 45.
  2. Lighting Africa: About Us.
  3. Mills, E. (2000): Fuel for Lighting - an Expensive Commodity. Boiling Point 45.
  4. Lighting Africa: About Us.
  5. Mills, E. (2000): Fuel for Lighting - an Expensive Commodity. Boiling Point 45.
  6. Lighting Africa: About Us.
  7. Mills, E. (2000): Fuel for Lighting - an Expensive Commodity. Boiling Point 45.
  8. Lighting Africa: About Us.
  9. Mills, E. (2000): Fuel for Lighting - an Expensive Commodity. Boiling Point 45.
  10. Lighting Africa: About Us.
  11. Examples are taken from existing EnDev impact studies:
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 12.3 12.4 SLE (2009): Impacts of Basic Rural Energy Services in Bangladesh. Media:Sle_bangladesh_final_report.pdf Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "SLE" defined multiple times with different content Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "SLE" defined multiple times with different content Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "SLE" defined multiple times with different content Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "SLE" defined multiple times with different content
  13. Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands, Policy and Operations Evaluation Department (2013): Renewable Energy: Access and Impact. IOB Study no. 376.
  14. WHO/UNDP 2009
  15. Bensch, Peters, & Sievert (2012): Fear of the Dark? How Access to electric lighting affects fckLRsecurity attitudes and nighttime activities in rural Senegal. RWI. Essen: RWI