Solar Lights and the Extreme Poor in off-grid Uganda

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Energy poverty is highly correlated with extreme financial poverty and the lack of development opportunities in sub-Saharan Africa. Collaborative efforts funded by donations and powered by local human capital hold great promise when grounded in a contextualized assessment of basic lighting needs and resources.

With funding in chronic short-supply, prioritized distribution of safe and affordable renewable lights drive short-term improvements in well-being and build capacity for future energy poverty alleviation. While the international development community is beginning to highlight the importance of energy access alongside environmental responsibility as manifested in United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 7 (SDG 7),[1] ultimate success depend on local engagement, approaches that can grow to scale as well as access to capital to ensure that no one is left behind.

This paper describes a cooperative effort to implement a promising solar light distribution and awareness building project in a remote off-grid area. A small international aid agency teamed up with a Uganda-based NGO to assess local energy needs, build capacity and knowledge about renewable energy, and refine solar light program targeting the most vulnerable families left out of typical market-based solutions and key community institutions that serve them.

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Energy Poverty is an important cross-sectoral issue impacting all levels of global poverty including health, education, safety, jobs creation, human rights, and the environment. The overwhelming scale of global energy poverty ranks among the greatest obstacles for combating extreme poverty, both for its direct negative effects on health, safety and economic stability and the indirect effects undermining well-being and economic growth.

Approximately 1.2 billion people worldwide live in energy poverty without access to modern electricity and reliant on dangerous, dirty and expensive fossil fuels and biofuels such as kerosene and wood. The World Bank estimates that 4.3 million people a year die prematurely from illness attributable to household air pollution. [2]While inefficient cookstoves account for the majority of indoor air pollution, lighting with open-flamed kerosene and candles also significantly contributes to poor indoor air quality, rates of burns, and childhood poisoning.

While sustainable energy interventions may target a variety of home needs, renewable lighting represents a low-cost, high impact starting point for broader empowerment. On the regional and national levels, multi-sectoral impacts of global energy poverty and energy access are well-established and include healthcare delivery and access rates, educational outcomes, safety and wellness indicators, economic stressors, indoor air quality, and contributions to global climate change. Moreover, the introduction of solar lighting may have fewer cultural barriers to uptake and can demonstrate to end users the benefits of renewable energy. Pico or small-scale solar lighting technology is now reliable, relatively affordable, and available in capital cities of most sub-Saharan African cities. Replacing smokey, dangerous kerosene with pico solar lighting products is an inexpensive and immediately attainable first step toward sustainable energy for all.

Market based solutions to scale solar lighting show promise, but threaten to leave out the most vulnerable and impoverished. While market-based solutions are vital to the establishment and sustainability of mature and enduring solar markets and adaptation by end users, millions of the most vulnerable of those living in entrenched energy poverty, especially in remote off-grid areas with limited infrastructure, may not have the financial resources or market interactions available to participate in these programs.

No one wants to leave anyone out in the dark. Oftentimes, in these remote communities, there are local organizations and leadership with detailed information about their most vulnerable community members who can act as liaisons to commercial interests and NGOs with the capacity to address basic lighting needs among the extreme poor through targeted grant-based pico distributions.

Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) and the aid community can play a key role in grant-based funding of community and individual Tier 1 lighting efforts. These entry point projects can then serve as a gateway for broader market-based energy poverty initiatives, as international, national and regional bodies develop and roll out market-informed models of change and government sponsored centralized energy infrastructure projects. Grant-based pico programs do not need to be seen as a competitor to market-based solutions but should be rolled out in concert as a pro-poor development tool in off-grid communities. The grants made to embedded NGOs enable stakeholders to purchase available products locally, facilitating and stimulating local and regional marketplaces.

When national and local governments lack capacity to compensate for residents’ inability to meet their own energy needs through market solutions, community developers look to leverage foreign support.

Alignment on targeted planning and intervention can be crucial to accomplish goals through successful collaboration. Local surveys and subsequent pico product distributions to identified vulnerable community members, however, require upfront capital for implementation, and the international aid community in concert with local NGOs can lay the groundwork for effective programmatic rollouts. Understanding baseline conditions is a vital first step. While there is some aggregate data available on global and regional lighting practices, local surveys are a core component of effective energy poverty interventions.

Good quantitative data concerning degrees of need and complemented by qualitative input is critical for a variety of reasons. Assessing the extent of the problem informs prioritization among resource-poor development efforts, and can animate advocacy to attract additional resources. Information concerning baseline needs provides a valuable contrast for assessing impact of program efforts. Furthermore, from start to finish, qualitative insights from those most involved concerning what works, how to improve efforts, and what improvements mean in the lives of the community members keep the program grounded in local conditions, provide critical corrective feedback for program refinement and bolster related advocacy from start to finish. Geographical and cultural distances like those typically encountered by international NGOs only compound the problems stemming from of lack of data driven insight.

There are many NGOs operating in off-grid communities in sub-Saharan Africa working to positively impact the following entrenched issues: extreme poverty; maternal and child mortality; AIDS, Malaria and other vector-borne and/or communicable diseases; poor water conditions; underfunded educational systems; fledgling health facilities; and other issues impacting the extreme poor in the developing world. Lack of safe, clean, affordable lighting impedes the success of all of these important interventions. Inclusion of pro-poor lighting programming can create a multiplier effect on these other established interventions. Grant funding and ODA must be a part of the effort to identify opportunities to mitigate extreme energy poverty and to positively impact health, education, economic, safety, and wellbeing indicators.

While a macro perspective helps highlight global energy poverty as a central development issue, a micro perspective is critical to design effective programing. Yet, international funders often lack insight into local context and conditions that can make or break programs. Offsetting the cost of outreach and the purchase price of pico and SHS products can enable some populations in, for instance, urban and peri-urban areas of Uganda to afford sustainable lighting products. Those most suffering from the compounded ill effects of poverty and dirty, dangerous, expensive lighting (the extreme poor), however, are usually not a part of this business model. Marginalized populations left out of the market-based solutions include: AIDS widows, the homebound elderly, the handicapped, AIDS orphans, and the mentally ill. When looking at energy poverty interventions, therefore, it is not enough to determine baselines of aggregate need, but rather there must be sensitive understanding of the range of energy access need. In the Gomba District of Uganda, for instance, 95% of the people surveyed live in extreme energy poverty. It is unrealistic to create aid-based programming to alleviate 95% of the need of 133,000 people, but it may be realistic to develop a program to educate the population about existing products and stimulate existing marketplaces, identify the most vulnerable in the community to receive Tier 1 lighting through grant-based aid, and track usage and create effective local follow-up programs.

This paper describes how an international aid organization, Let There Be Light International (LTBLI) working with their Ugandan development partner, Kyosiga Community Christian Association for Development (KACCAD), assessed lighting need in the Gomba District of Uganda, supported community-based educational programming and outreach about solar lighting products, demonstrated available high quality solar lighting products, and began a targeted distribution of pico products to vulnerable community members identified by the lighting needs survey.

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Starting Local, Starting Light: The Promise of Solar Light

In 2014, access to safe, clean, renewable light in a Ugandan community became the focus of an international aid organization and a Ugandan NGO. United States-based Let There Be Light International (LTBLI) in concert with a local community development organization, Kyosiga Community Christian Association for Development (KACCAD), began to conduct pilot lighting interventions in the Wakiso District of Uganda (a peri-urban area to the West and North of Kampala) and to collect data about needs, usage, and long-term impacts of pico lighting products.

Let There Be Light International is a 501(c)(3) charity dedicated to raising awareness in the United States about Global Energy Poverty and to raising funds for the in-country purchase and distribution of solar lights to off-grid communities in sub-Saharan Africa.

Kyosiga Community Christian Association for Development (KACCAD) is a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) located in Uganda. For 20 years KACCAD has been widely recognized in Uganda and abroad for excellence in local programming. KACCAD is deeply committed to improving the standard of living of community members through careful needs assessments, efficient interventions including the provision of primary and secondary education for orphans and vulnerable children, HIV/AIDS health support and sensitization, reproductive health services, and the ongoing support of income generating activities and life skill development. The core strength of KACCAD is its excellent understanding of the communities it serves and its practical approach to finding solutions to problems with help from local, embedded volunteers.

Early collaboration between KACCAD and LTBLI have shown considerable promise. To-date, successes include: nearly 1,000 individual solar lights have been distributed to vulnerable families (with an average of 7 people per household); 3 rural health facilities have been solar electrified (with an average catchment area of 8,800 people); the completion and solar electrification of a Volunteer and Community Center; the successful development of a Family Planning and Reproductive Health program; the construction of 4 spring-fed wells; the construction of 3 elementary school classrooms; and the construction of a poultry project for local income producing activities.

During December 2014, LTBLI and KACCAD conducted a baseline lighting needs assessment survey in the Gomba District of Uganda in the Central Region of Uganda. Gomba is a newly created district with high rates of poverty. The district has an estimated total population of 133,264, and its population density is 230 persons per square kilometer with 4 rural sub counties and 1 urban council (Kanoni Town Council). It has 37 parishes and 289 villages. The total fertility rate is 7.05 children per woman, and the infant mortality rate is about 97 deaths per 1000 live births (country average is 60.02). The maternal mortality rate is about 506 deaths during labour per 100,000 live births (310 is the country average). Life expectancy is about 42 years for males and 46 years for females (country average is 59 years). Average distance to health unit is about 7km.

The purpose of this survey was to obtain baseline information about current lighting practices, lighting needs, knowledge of and interest in pico products, and poverty rates. The specific data points to be collected included: family sizes of households; family compositions of households; income and expenditure levels of households; lighting sources of households; challenges encountered from use of respective light energy sources; levels of community awareness of competitive advantage of solar light over other lighting types; levels of accessibility of households, schools, and health facilities to the national electric grid; health facility enrollments by patient category; and school enrollments by pupil category.

Current data on rates of electrification and energy poverty often reflect basic grid extension and potential connectivity only and focus on centralized and market-driven solutions to the issue. The study of rural electrification in the Gomba District of Uganda undertaken by LTBLI and KACCAD targeted those currently left out of market-driven solutions. LTBLI and KACCAD partnered with local stakeholders and leaders to assess current rates of electrification (<5%) and current lighting sources among widows, AIDS orphans, the handicapped and the homebound elderly. Using a door to door survey model, the Gomba Lighting Survey was administered over the course of two weeks by local volunteers and supported by KACCAD’s community development staff. Community “sensitization” or educational meetings were held to educate residents about pico products, and local leadership were engaged as outreach partners. 526 respondents completed the Lighting Needs Assessment Survey.

Findings were used to identify households in greatest immediate need, and 300 individual solar lights were distributed to those households. Follow-up visits were conducted, and usage and impact data will be collected in late 2015. In addition to the pico products, LTBLI and KACCAD solar electrified three valued, un-electrified community institutions (2 health clinics and a local police station). The combination between the intensity of labor required to conduct the rural assessments and the benefits of the contact with community development staff impressed program developers with the potential for two program innovations currently being explored.

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In conducting the baseline survey, the cross-sectional design was adopted to include respondents with varied demographics. The survey was conducted in a rural setting in two sub counties of the district, (Kabulassoke and Kyegonza).

The Baseline Lighting Needs Survey of the Gomba District in Uganda, where the electrification rate is under 5%, was completed in January 2015. The survey was conducted in a rural/bush setting characterized by peasant farming communities, semi-nucleated settlements including grass thatched housing, poor roads with no paved roads in the district, and a major electric line going to the Kilembe mines but lacking step-down transformers or a substation for enabling residents to access electricity from the national grid. The area was further characterized by schools (including boarding school) without reliable lighting sources and health facilities without light for attending to emergency cases at night.

Questionnaires and an interview guide were used in the survey. The data collection process involved introducing the survey and describing how energy poverty is assessed to the local authorities and then mobilizing respondents. A total of 526 respondents participated in the survey, of whom 16 were school administrators; 61 local leaders; 13 health facility administrators; 30 school children; 62 AIDs widows; 160 homebound elders; 90 families with physically handicapped children, and 94 new mothers. (See chart below).

To help ensure success in Gomba, programmers gathered information about current lighting practices, available products, knowledge about renewable lighting, and basic demographic information. They asked about the kinds of lighting used (modern electricity, battery powered lamps, kerosene lamps - also known locally as “tabooda,” or wax candles or other). Questions expected to inform program development included:

  • Q1 How many people are there in your household?
  • Q2 What is the source of your household income?
  • Q3 How much is your daily household income (UGX)?
  • Q4 Which source of light energy do you use in your household? (listed on survey)
  • Q5 What challenges, if any, do you face while depending on the above lighting source? (You may select more than one response).
  • Q6 How far is your house from the electric grid?

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A household survey used by KACCAD to assess baseline needs in their home district of Bulenga was modified for Gomba. Modifications include questions about grid connectivity, source of income, and knowledge about solar and other renewable technologies.

The household survey was administered as a door to door interview by local volunteers and temporary staff of KACCAD who traveled to the parishes with staff from KACCAD. The fieldwork was done by 5 people over the course of two weeks. The interview format enabled interviewers to follow up with additional open-ended questions.

The resulting quantitative data were analyzed to explore the overall level of urgency, trends that could be used to prioritize households, and comments that might reflect underlying obstacles to successful replication in Gomba.

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Key findings include: 80% of respondent households live on less than 2,000 Ugandan Shillings per day - the equivalent of just $.67 per household - far below the global threshold of extreme poverty.

Further demographic information collected showed that 394 households, or 74.9%, have 7 to 9 members, and 110 households, or 20.9%, contained 4 to 6 people. 299 households (56.8%) had between 1 and 3 disabled children, followed by 1 household which had 4 disabled children. 119 households (22.6%) had between 1 and 3 disabled adults. 330 households (62.7%) had over 10 persons with HIV/AIDS, followed by 180 households (34.2%) which had 7 to 9 persons with HIV/AIDS. These findings underscore the high vulnerability of many rural off-grid households in Ugandan.

The survey results also indicated that 421 households (80.0%) were spending between UGX 2,001 and 6,000 daily. The implication here is that many of the households have to obtain funds from sources other than their major economic activity in order to be able to meet the expenses. It is likely that they do this by borrowing or begging from colleagues and/or relatives, but more information is needed to accurately explore this situation. Most households surveyed, therefore, may be too poor to purchase a pico light even through generous loan or rent-to-own programs. Without grant-based funding, even the most basic Tier 1 energy access will remain out of reach to residents such as those surveyed in Gomba.

Regarding current lighting practices, results of the Gomba District survey indicate that 421 households (80.0%) are using kerosene as their sole light source, followed by 66 households (12.54%) which are using wax candles.

Respondents also reported a range of challenges faced by using kerosene or candles. 202 households (38.4%) experienced significant health problems. Bronchitis was the primary health problem identified by 196 households (37.3%), followed by 128 households (24.3%) which identified chronic respiratory diseases, and 106 households (20.15%) which identified burns.

When asked whether they were aware of the benefits of solar light, 433 respondents (82.3%) indicated that they were not aware. This indicates a knowledge gap regarding awareness of the comparative advantage of solar light over other lighting sources. To address this knowledge gap, 310 respondents (58.9%) preferred holding community sensitization meetings followed by 89 (16.9%) respondents who preferred demonstration centers.

In response to questions about potential grid access, it should be noted that 228 households (43.3%) are between 5 and 6 kilometers away from the national grid, followed by 178 households (33.8%) which are 7 or more kilometers from the grid. The survey established that 7 schools (63.6%) are between 5 and 6 kilometers away from the national grid, and 3 schools (27.3%) are 7 or more kilometers away from the grid. 5 of the 6 health facilities (83.3%) are located between 3 and 4 kilometers away from the national grid, and 1 facility (16.7%) is located approximately 5km away from the grid. 464 respondents (88.2%) indicated that they were not aware of any governmental program to increase energy access.

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In view of the survey findings the following action points are recommended:

1. Local NGOs supported by local volunteers and staff and funded in part by international grants should organize and hold community sensitization meetings in off-grid communities to highlight the competitive advantage of solar light over kerosene and other nonrenewable lights.

2. Demonstrations should be carried out to facilitate understanding, usage and availability of solar products.

3. Schools and health facilities in the district should be provided with complete solar lighting systems to enable them to have reliable, safe, clean light for the communities they serve.

4. Vulnerable households should be provided with pico lights to increase the household’s access to reliable, hazardous free light source in order to positively impact their economic stability, safety, health, educational outcomes, and sense of wellbeing.

The survey encountered the following limitations:

Data collection was more labor intensive than expected in underdeveloped off-grid areas and costs of administering the survey went over budget. The local leadership also requested money in order to facilitate the identification of eligible respondents. Furthermore, the survey was conducted during the rainy season and the weather disrupted data collection efforts.

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This paper illustrates how the micro perspective is a critical complement to macro analyses and can inform targeted grant-based giving in energy access programming. Taking a close look at local context and conditions is essential in promoting effective engagement of the local community, behavioral change, and buy-in among target populations. In Gomba, Uganda, the local partner’s mixed methods assessment highlighted a high level of energy poverty and the need for funding for assessment as well as program development. This led directly to several refinements to the pilot design that have both immediate and enduring impacts including a redirection of outreach from individual to group-based education and distribution models that leverage the local community’s leadership to support programming. Also, the survey informed the pilot design to target only rural homeowners, because the follow-up assessments of recipients who are renting is impractical at this stage of program development

While limits in the methodology, such as non-standardized measures and imperfect sampling, constrain the confident generalizability of the findings beyond the Gomba District, the approach to collecting these data offered additional advantages and implications that likely apply more broadly:

  • (mixed method approach helped quantify extent of local problem where national data are quite limited – helpful to gauging local need relative to other areas.
  • Rich local data to help understand local trends, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors that can handicap “effective” or evidence-based programs replicated from other places.
  • Using qualitative and group methodologies can be particularly helpful to surface unanticipated findings that can polish rough program edges or even point to critical adaptations essential to success.
  • Using local talent delivers additional benefits of building capacity that can be used for future efforts in ways that may be unanticipated.

Collaborative efforts to assess unmet priority needs, access resources, and distribute safe and affordable renewable light sources represent a means to influence improvements now and build capacity for future energy poverty alleviation.

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Conclusions and Recommendations

The overall conclusion drawn by the survey was that entrenched energy poverty in rural off-grid communities cannot be addressed solely through market-based approaches due to the extreme vulnerability of the populations, the high levels of disease burden, low income levels inconsistent with individual investment opportunities, and low levels of understanding of and access to renewable lighting products. Therefore, grant-based aid must be leveraged to help local NGOs address immediate energy needs.

Community awareness and sensitization meetings should be held in targeted areas so as to enable communities to understand the benefits of renewable lighting. Demonstrations of pico products and their appropriate care and usage can be conducted by local NGOs in cooperation with local leadership and are best held at local or regional health facilities, schools, and community spaces. Priority should be made to address the extreme energy poverty of off-grid schools, especially those housing orphans, and off-grid health facilities and their staff residences. Further priority should target highly vulnerable households with handicapped members, the homebound elderly, and school children for pico distributions in order to immediately increase the household member’s access to safe, clean, reliable light source. These families are best identified and their light usage tracked by local stakeholders currently working with these families. Additionally, vendors of pico products can be encouraged to travel to these remote and underserved areas with distributions in order to promote and sell (ideally at subsidized prices through international support via local NGOs) their solar products to local residents and businesses.

Due to significant and rapid improvements in pico lighting products, there are an increasing number of actors in the off-grid lighting space. In fact, in the past 3-5 years, the field has been recognized as a significant and promising area of potential market-based growth, and the business and social venture world has reacted accordingly. However, left out of the conversation thus far are the most vulnerable people in the off-grid communities who find themselves marginalized in this renewable energy revolution. Indeed, there are many valuable and necessary market-based and subsidized energy poverty alleviation programs, including those that utilize micro-loans and sell light on a pay-per-use basis, but the poorest of the poor are not able to capitalize on these innovations. Therefore, it is incumbent upon those in the aid community to recognize the entrenched energy need and lack of access of the extreme poor and to develop tools and programs to address their need now, as we strive to achieve sustainable energy for all. The grant-based aid program is not a panacea or an end in itself but is an immediate and necessary response to the serious and entrenched issue of extreme energy poverty among the very poor that continues to impede improvements in health, safety, educational, economic, and wellbeing outcomes.

To not use all of the tools at our disposal to address energy poverty, this author believes, is a bit like shutting down food pantries because they might impact the bottom line of a supermarket chain. We must make room at the table for all.

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Further Information


  1. (2016). Goal 7 .:. Sustainable Development Knowledge Platform. [online] Available at: [Accessed 11 Jul. 2016]
  2. World Health Organization, Household Air Pollution and Health, Factsheet #292,(2014). Available from