Powerful images bring home reality of life without light

Imagine wandering through the dark, the night time sounds of crickets and chattering in the background. With a single solar lamp to light your way, you begin to uncover the shapes and sights of night-time in remote Northern Ghana.  Images of teachers marking schoolwork by torchlight, doctors performing surgery under a single lamp and busy road intersections visible with just headlights all come to life by the moving light of your lantern. This has been the unique experience of over a hundred visitors who have already participated in the ‘Life without Lights’ exhibition this week.

But as well as hauntingly beautiful, the exhibition of photos by Peter DiCampo carries with it an important message. In the week that the UN International Year of Sustainable Energy for All is launched in Europe, ‘Life without Lights’ has hit home to visitors its message of energy poverty and the reality of living with no access to modern energy.

Across the world 1.6 billion people have no access to electricity. The poor pay significant proportions of their income on fuel costs (a so-called ‘poverty penalty’). For instance, kerosene eats up between 5% and 65% of a family’s monthly income in India. The health penalty of using dangerous kerosene also costs lives in fires and causes respiratory illnesses due to indoor air pollution.

Decision makers are  finally waking up to the urgent need to address energy poverty as a core dimension for progress across many other spheres. Speaking at the exhibition yesterday, Dominic Brain from Christian Aid emphasised the inextricable link between pulling people out of poverty and access to modern energy:

“It is crucial that we draw upon the support and strengths of the private sector for development to enable people to access modern energy with dignity.”

The impact of clean energy is evident in the recent work of Christian Aid. In Kenya, ToughStuff’s ‘business in a box’ scheme was set up with 200 entrepreneurs selling solar products in rural villages and towns. These products enabled users cut the cost of charging their mobile phones by 50%, saving households $75 a year. The entrepreneurs themselves increased their incomes by $200 dollars a year. In a study, 85% of the users said they felt an improvement in their living conditions with more disposable income for food, education, medication and clothing.

Scaling up is important, Dominic says. In Jarkhand State in India, Christian Aid worked with 4,000 families among the Abedasi people and provided them with solar lanterns which would be paid back monthly. In Malawi, Christian Aid is partnering with several international agencies to work with 80,000 families on a programme that includes access to sustainable energy. Dominic suggests that to achieve scale we must adopt new models:

“We must adopt a business-like approach when delivering sustainable energy.  Only then can we achieve scale. This is not  is not just about delivering energy this is about delivering energy services really well, about harnessing sustainable energy and getting the poorest to use strong social enterprises models.”

Sarah Butler-Sloss emphasises the value that the Ashden Award winners bring to policy makers:

“What is unique about Ashden is that we are building regional coalitions of practitioners that really understand the issues and the obstacles to scaling up clean energy. This is the compelling evidence that we then take to policy makers to bring about change." 

At a flick of a switch on Sunday afternoon the lights will go on in the exhibition room at the Strand Gallery as the prints get packed away; for one in five of the world’s people things aren’t so easy. But for many  there is now a glimmer of hope that modern, clean and local energy will improve their lives  thanks to  the work of pioneers such as Ashden Award winners.


(Images: top - visitors view the exhibition with solar lanterns; middle - ToughStuff's Business-in-a-Box entrepreneurs; Bottom - Sarah Butler-Sloss, Ashden Found Director)