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Smart Lighting in Zambia

Inspiring new distribution models for low-cost solar/LED lighting by Daniel Zussman

Bryan Pon and Edward Silva

In late summer of 2012, a two-person team from UC Davis consisting of Geography graduate student Bryan Pon and International Agricultural Development undergraduate student Edward Silva set out on a one-month venture to Lusaka, Zambia to develop and test a distribution model for the sale of solar/LED portable lights they hope can replace the widespread use of kerosene lamps in the African nation and elsewhere.

The solar portable innovation, known as the “SMART Light” was developed by the UC Davis Program for International Energy Technologies (PIET) with the help of a $200,000 award from the World Bank.

The technology was designed to bring safe, affordable light to the developing world, where an estimated 1.5 billion people lack basic access to electricity and must rely on fuel-based lighting such as kerosene, candles, and other biomass. Use of such fuels provides poor lighting and poses significant adverse economic, environmental, and personal health risks to users.

zambia 2The SMART Light carries a retail price in Zambia of $18 USD, and provides a full return on investment after several months’ usage through savings on electricity or biomass expenditures.

The Need for Solid Local Partnerships
Following development of the SMART Light, Lighting the Way Zambia (LTWZ) – a joint partnership between PIET and the local Zambian non-profit organization DISACARE – was created to market and distribute the product to communities in the developing world. Such an operation requires boots on the ground, and a level of effort and innovation equal to those of the engineers who built the technology.

Silva and Pon became interested in the business end of this effort, and applied for seed funding through the UC Davis Blum Center’s PASS (Poverty Alleviation through Sustainable Solutions) grant.

With basic lighting so critical for success in education, business, and other foundations of developed nations, the two sought to distribute the SMART Light widely and evaluate its potential to serve as a distribution model in Zambia and, potentially, elsewhere across the developing world.

Making the SMART Light Fly: Challenges in Marketing and Distribution
LTWZ developed a pilot micro consignment business model for distribution, enabling locals to participate in the sale of SMART Lights without needing to shell-out start-up capital or risk financial failure in the process.

Through its partnership with DISACARE, LTWZ received valuable knowledge of local market conditions, staffing assistance, and access to cultural insights.

Pon and Silva educated five local entrepreneurs about the adverse health effects of kerosene, and equipped them with the necessary technical, marketing, and accounting skills to begin selling the SMART Light.

“It was extremely rewarding to train local entrepreneurs in a classroom setting and watch them turn the project into reality” say Pon and Silva, “together we sold 100 SMART Lights within the first three weeks of implementation, reaching the milestone much fast than anticipated.”

Their early sales had an estimated financial and health impact on 550 people. But the pair also encountered significant challenges along the way, some more easily predictable than others.

For example, the SMART Light’s final retail price of $18 USD per unit was prohibitively expensive for many Zambians to pay in one lump sum, forcing LTWZ to find ways to incorporate subsequent payment installments into the micro consignment model.

Collecting these  installments required sales entrepreneurs to traverse large distances between communities -- a practice that significantly increases transportation costs and reduces the venture’s economic viability.

As in Zambia, a large number of impoverished villages across the developing world remain unconnected to the electrical grid, meaning those who stand to benefit  most from solar/LED lighting struggle to afford it.

Furthermore, LTWZ faced challenges in ensuring adequate incentives for all involved in the venture – a crucial aspect of the project’s long-term sustainability.

Their efforts relied heavily on DISACARE – an organization facing internal financial and operational struggles of its own. It therefore proved difficult for DISACARE to prioritize SMART Light sales at a time when the organization faced a critical juncture in its history.

Community and Personal Achievements
Challenges in the field, limited funding, and inadequate time for implementation notwithstanding, Pon and Silva have been encouraged by positive project results showing a strong demand for affordable solar-powered lighting in Zambia, and the SMART Light in particular. Their preliminary project data also suggest that SMART Lights sold thus far have already begun to reduce costs for off-grid households in peri-urban areas surrounding the Zambian capital.

The project could therefore serve as a sustainable model for the sale of solar/LED portable lights in Zambia and elsewhere across the developing world.

On a personal level, Pon and Silva’s venture in Zambia has proven a valuable learning experience and reinforced their desire to work in global poverty alleviation.

Pon continues to monitor SMART Light entrepreneurs’ progress through a weekly Skype call to DISACARE partners, and has recently partnered with another non-profit organization conducting work in Haiti and Tanzania.

Silva currently serves as an Environmental, Science, Technology, and Health intern with the U.S. State Department at the U.S. Embassy in Brasilia, Brazil, and plans to pursue an MBA or technical degree in Agronomy and Horticulture.

“My field experience in Zambia taught me the value of an interdisciplinary approach” says Silva, “there’s so much on the line for residents in impoverished communities. Academic teachings of project management prepared me only partially when compared to the full spectrum of social and technical issues and experiences I encountered in Zambia.”